Indie Translation of a Lesser-Known Author

On the third collaboration to the WHAT'S NEW section, I'm here to publish today an article written by José Geraldo Gouvêa on his independent translation of "The House on the Borderland" by William Hope Hodson.

Exploring "The House on the Borderland"

In 2011, while I was recovering from a cholecystectomy (aka "gallbladder surgery"), I started working on an ambitious project to distract me from the pain caused by the stitches: The translation of a novel called "The House on the Borderland" by William Hope Hodgson, which had never been translated into Portuguese before. The chosen title was A casa no fim do mundo (meaning "The house at the end of the world,") even though I think A casa no limiar ("The house on the borderline") is more beautiful and literal―and I like more literal translations.

That wasn't my first literary translation experience, though. I had also posted on my blog some versions of short stories by Clark Ashton Smith (A Night in Malnéant as Uma noite em Malnéant) and by Hodgson himself ("The Voice in the Night" as Uma voz na noite), as well as the lyrics of a song ("My Soul" by Peter Mayer). Additionally, around the same time I translated some stories by Howard Phillips Lovecraft for an independent collective publishing effort in Portuguese that included some of his most well-known work. My contributions were "The Statement of Randolph Carter" as O depoimento de Randolph Carter, "The Haunter of the Dark" as O habitante das trevas, "A Whisperer in Darkness" as Um sussurro na escuridão, "The Quest of Iranon" as A busca de Iranon, and "The Nameless City" as O inominável. Besides, I have translated technical texts for money before without getting any credit for it.

The reasons why I selected this novel in particular are very trivial: The original is available in the public domain, I was reading it again back then, and had a lot of time in my hands. I thought the project deserved some attention and I am certainly always looking for ways to advertise the very existence of my blog and its contents, even though I don't dream of a day I can make a living off AdSense checks.

I started posting the translation as weekly chapters on my blog and some people wrote me or left a comment. Some of the feedback was positive; others were critical of my work. There were people who were surprised by the literary quality of an almost unknown book; others asked me why I should make a "literary irrelevant" work available to readers of Portuguese. 

Some of these comments upset me, because I noticed that a lot of people associate popularity with quality or, worse, they don't see the relevance of literature in and of itself if it isn't labeled as "important" (as dictated by the media.) I bet there are those who would think it would be unimportant to translate Plato into Portuguese if his work had never been published in that language before...

INSPIRATION ― This lack of awareness regarding Hodgson's work is kind of unfair if we think about the influence he has had on several authors who came after him. Besides Lovecraft, we have Stephen King (especially with his "The Dark Tower" series), Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan), and Clive Barker (author and director of "Hellraiser,") among others. 

Consequently, translating Hodgson is relevant, but I wasn't thinking about that, nor did I wish to change the course of Brazilian Literature. I only translated it because I liked it―it was a pleasure and I learned a lot during the process. I shared it online because I believe in sharing knowledge and I thought many people would enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed translating it. Fortunately, time has proved me right. My translation is gradually being quoted by other bloggers, visitors are coming to my site, people praise my work, and readers who had discovered it are enjoying it.

I believe there are two types of translators: those who are paid to translate something of interest to the respective payers, and those who translate whatever they want. The former are forced to work on items they don't enjoy or with which they don't identify themselves. The latter enjoy their work, but then they have to convince others that it's worth talking about it, editing it, or merely reading it.

I've been on both sides of the fence. There was a time when I used to make money writing papers and translating technical texts. I'm still horrified by this long article on oncology that I had to translate for a medical student. Some of those sentences still haunt me to this day, more vividly than the most cruel scenes of the nastiest horror movies you can think of.

DISCOVERING HODGSON ― Translating Hodgson certainly was a pleasure. Because this is a lesser-known author, translators enjoy more freedom than they would otherwise have while translating well-known writers. The occasional correction won't be seen as "violations" to the purity of the original. The process becomes creative and interactive, instead of a mechanic transcription of what the author has said into another language. And there are many people out there translating literary texts while using machines, just as much as there are writers who write mechanically and try to sell it as literature.

Hodgson is also an unknown author that deserves to be translated. If it weren't for the inherent quality―which can be sampled with concise and interesting short stories, such as "The Voice in the Night" mentioned above―, it would certainly be for his influence on other authors. Actually, that was how I came upon him.

It all started when I first heard about a novel called "The Night Land." There was this site dedicated to promoting fanfic inspired by it. That was where I found some articles about the book, as well as maps, illustrations and faxed covers. I liked the short stories I found there and soon imagined that if fans were writing so many interesting things based on his original idea, it sure was a good one. Then I remembered that the author and his work had already been profusely praised by Lovecraft in "Supernatural Horror in Literature," so I decided to read him. 

Despite developed in the first decade of the 20th century, his concepts remain original compared to what fantasy literature has to offer today in Brazil―which is so dependent on U.S. novels that are en vogue. I won't go as far as saying that Hodgson is a forgotten classic or a misunderstood literary genius, but it is clear to me that he is worth reading, even though nobody in Brazil has ever read him. That was why I got his ebook on Project Gutenberg and took a plunge into the darkness of a distant future. And that was way back in 2002.

While reading "The Night Land"― which apparently has never been published in Portuguese either―, I understood the relevance of Hodgson to "fantasy literature" (I use the term here in a wide scope to include sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mythology, historical fiction, and other subjects that easily cross paths in the works of the most prominent writers of the genre.) Hodgson was a pioneer on what today we call "the new weird," which consists of freely exploring the themes I just mentioned, as well as others, on a piece of literature that shouldn't be labeled as belonging to any literary niche. One hundred years ago, this Englishman mixed reincarnation, Caribbean pirates, cosmology, sailors tales, platonic relationships, Gothic literature, Celtic legends, mythological archetypes, Psychology theories, and Christian devotion, among other things, creating a richly chaotic universe.

In the specific case of "The Night Land," what impressed me the most was the author's imagination and how he conceived an entire universe with its own physical laws, resorting to Theology, Cosmogony, Mythology and a wide range of physical and metaphysical concepts just to tell... a love story. It wasn't like any love story: It happened at the end of the world in a dying planet surrounded by nameless threats that may destroy a person's very soul.

SUPPLEMENTING UNIVERSES ― After "The Night Land" I spent quite some time without reading another Hodgson book, until the day I stumbled upon a review on one of his short stories that explored an interesting thesis on how the correct pronunciation of the last words uttered by Jesus on the cross were, in fact, a powerful weapon of mass destruction, capable of moving mountains, tearing the veil covering the temple and opening tombs―which is a metaphor for an intense earthquake. A cat burglar was trying to get his hands on a scroll that explained the whole thing and the protagonist was the one trying to prevent it from happening. I started to look for the story and came upon "The House on the Borderland," because it was quoted as a supplementing work to the universe explored in "The Night Land." That was when I stopped looking for the short story on Jesus' words and started reading "The House on the Borderland."

There are similarities between both books indeed, mainly in the imagination realm―as far as style is concerned, they are very different, even though both resort to an intermediate narrator between the protagonist and the reader. I am talking about this pessimistic cosmology that seems to reflect the mood of Belle Époque individuals. "The House on the Borderland" narrates the story of a noble Irishman (whose name is never disclosed) who isolates himself in an old weird mansion on the west part of the country, in a region known as Gaeltacht where everybody spoke only Gaelic―at least at the time the story was written. He had acquired the house for such a low price because of the reputation of the place as being haunted, which had left it vacant for almost a century.

It is within this house that we meet the narrator, whose story comes to us through a "manuscript" found by Mr. Tonnison and Mr. Berreggnog, an odd pair of Englishmen who, God knows why, decided to camp in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by people who didn't even speak English. The narrator was faced with a mystery: Mysterious boar-like creatures had started to attack him after he got into a trance and caught a glimpse of the universe.

We follow this nameless Irishman, who lives at the house with his older sister (known to us only as "Mary") while fighting those boars. After exploring the land with him, readers find more about his house until being submerged in this gigantic cosmic nightmare that goes beyond anything we could ever imagine, and whose consequences not only defy the basic laws of science, but completely break away with the most common principles of narrative logic.

This narrative is so powerful and weird on the second part of the novel, which takes on an almost psychedelic tone and often makes readers fell lost. Many people reject it and most say that the novel "would have been better" had only the first part of the book been published. Let's not argue about preferences―what a tautological, useless statement―, but truth be told: The book would be far less interesting that way, just another horror story about a secluded weirdo fighting smart boars. Yes, that would be far less interesting than the whirlpool of ideas that the second half of the book presents to us.

Most of the background is based on "The Night Land," but the scope of this story is wider and more universal, literally. Among their similarities we can mention being faced with a mysterious structure in a hostile environment―"The Last Redoubt" in "The Night Land" and the mysterious mansion in "The House on the Borderland." This type of structure became a recurrent theme on fantasy literature and is now known as "arcology," referred to by fans as B.D.O. ("big dumb object."). Famous stories that have this concept include "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Ringworld" a novel by Larry Niven and the opening of "Alien".

Despite the stylistic limitations of the author―who didn't have an easy hand for prose like Edgar Allan Poe or the calculated erudition of Lovecraft―, this novel has a deep impact thanks to the originality of the argument, the audacity in the way the story is structured, and the absolutely decimating background in which characters interact with the developments of the story. The sinister air, combined with the palpable fatalism and apathy of the protagonist, make us anticipate a twist and turn at every corner. Some scenes, such as the visit to the cave on the edge of the lake, are really breathtaking.

If "The Night Land" had a hero that moved about a world full of threats while seeking his almost impossible love, this novel has a hero who stands still and whose world revolves around him! On the one book, a love from the past awaits the future through the miracle of reincarnation; on the other book, the love from the past only exists as a vague memory, a prophetic voice in the subconscious mind that tries to awake the main character from his stupor so that he can at least make an attempt to save himself from the inevitable. In both stories, the beginning and the end are linked together like the mythological snake that bites its own tail: The pleasure you get from reading either story doesn't come from the surprising end, which is non-existent, but from the force of the complete unit. These are books readers enjoy due to the reading experience, not because of the thrill of anticipating what will happen next.

Since I read "The Night Land" and, especially since I read "The House on the Borderland," my writing has been contaminated a little by Hodgson's heavy style because I fell in love with his pessimistic cosmogonic perspective. With him I learned that the world has no salvation, even if damnation is millions of years away.

JOSÉ GERALDO GOUVÊA was born in Brazil and graduated in History and post-graduated in Sustainable Regional Development. His background is in teaching, he's an amateur writer, and a bank professional by occupation. Fate has made him a supporter of soccer club Atlético Mineiro and his heart has made him a romantic. One of his short stories has been translated into English for Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories Vol. 1 (2011-2012).