I haven’t taken part in Women in Translation month (#WITmonth) before but decided to dip my toes in this year with a translated short story. I hoped to find one online and I did, “The Blue Cross” (or, in its original French, “La Croix bleue”) by New Caledonian writer Claudine Jacques. Coincidentally, I found it was translated by Patricia Worth who now, apparently, lives in Canberra. She translated it as part of her Master of Translation Studies. It was published in The AALITRA* Review, with the English presented alongside the French.
I didn’t know Claudine Jacques, but Worth provides some information on her website. Jacques was born in Belfort, France, moving to New Caledonia as a sixteen-year-old with her parents. She’s lived there ever since. She ran a vocational training centre, before establishing a publishing company, but she now, says Worth,”devotes herself almost exclusively to writing”. She and other authors founded the Association des Écrivains de la Nouvelle-Calédonie (New Caledonian Society of Authors) in 1997.
Literary Bureau Trames adds that Jacques lives “in the bush”, and has run the local village library for 20 years. She also runs the Boulouparis comic strip festival, is involved in writing workshops for schoolchildren and in an initiative of the Association Écrire en Océanie (Writing in Oceania) which has identified talent in young Caledonians.
Worth says she finds Jacques’ writing “compelling” and is particularly interested in “the social problems laid out in her stories”. She “was surprised to find numerous similarities between the histories of Australia and New Caledonia”. Her favourite Jacques novel is Cœurs barbelés, which is about the “painful experiences of white Caledonians and the indigenous Kanak people trying to live harmoniously on an island”.
Worth has translated several of Jacques’ short stories, with three available online. “The Blue Cross” is the first I found. It comes from a collection, Le cri de l’acacia. Google translate summarised the description I found: “The cry of the acacia or all those cries that you can’t hear! Because they would be too strong, too present, too throbbing … hear the life that endures in banal tragedies or squeaky comedies, universal deep down in the intimate and the tiny, the grandiose and the derisory. All these crumpled fates are those of everyday heroes” who are the “valiant men and intrepid women with extraordinary courage … in the face of violence, alcohol, pornography and the addiction of their own lives”.
“The Blue Cross”** certainly fits this description. Its story is one of those universal, banal, domestic tragedies, one with alcohol at its centre, and a courageous woman who does the right thing. Jéhovana, the woman and wife at the centre of the story, is married to an alcoholic who is no longer fully employed due to his drinking. She has tried to maintain appearances:
She wasn’t used to making certain judgements and, out of decency, put them off. What would the neighbours and the family say, seeing her speaking and acting for him? Yet at the last family meeting it was to her that they spoke; she had given her opinion while stating plainly that it was for both of them and that she was doing it under her husband’s control, but it seemed to her that no one had been fooled.
She’s behaving as a widow would and wonders if she’d be better off if it were true
freed from all these constraints, this waiting, this shouting, these beatings, this fetid washing stinking of vomit and alcohol, and especially from the shame that she and her children bore!
For his part, he is conflicted. She is no longer interested in him, “had banished him” from her bed.
Now and then he forced himself on her, he had the right, she was his wife, but he had less and less strength and his desire for her had softened with time. And then he didn’t like to see her sad preoccupied look; she was so happy at the beginning of their marriage but now would often cry. How could he continue to desire a woman who cries?
It all comes to a head at their son’s Communion celebration. She begged him to not drink, but, well, of course he’s an alcoholic and is unable to keep his promise. What happens next is not particularly surprising, but the resolution is, perhaps, though, then again, perhaps not. The story certainly conveys, without telling, the complexity of situations like this – particularly for women.
It’s hard to comment on the writing, given I’m reading a translation, but I enjoyed reading the story. It is told well, giving us just enough information for us to get a sense of the two main protagonists, and just enough description to set the scene for us. The most interesting thing about the choices the author has made is to name the woman, Jéhovana, but not the man. Does this suggest that he stands for all such men, while Jéhovana’s situation and decisions are individual? And Jéhovana’s name? I don’t know it, but it does bring to mind the God, Jehovah. Does this give us a hint regarding her character?
In all, an interesting story. I can see why Worth likes Jacques’ work.
Notes on the translation
Worth prefaces her transaction with some comments. She says that she left in the text “culture-specific expressions – from New Caledonian-French, Wallisian and Polynesian languages – whose meanings were clear, feeling this added “richness to the story in the way Jacques allowed them to enrich her French”. That makes sense. She includes a glossary, as Jacques did. In some cases, however, she expanded where a French expression has a specific cultural meaning in New Caledonia.
I can’t really comment on the quality of the translation, as my French isn’t up to that, but I did notice that Worth changed some of Jacques’ punctuation. For example, there’s one long sentence in French, with just commas separating the different parts, that Worth breaks into two sentences, and uses a semi-colon. It looks sensible to me, but I wonder if it says something about French style versus English style. Does anyone have any ideas on that?
* AALITRA: The Australian Association for Literary Translation.
** The Blue Cross: an international organisation “engaged in the prevention, treatment and after care of problems related to alcohol and other drugs”.
“The Blue Cross” (“La Croix blue”) from Le cri de l’acacia (2007)
(trans. Patricia Worth)
in The AALITRA Review Vol. 0 No. 2 (2010)
Avalailable online at LaTrobe University’s Open Journal Systems site.