Suspend Your Disbelief

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Bridges and Barriers: Polyphony and Its Translation in Nathacha Appanah’s The Last Brother

Jennifer Solheim examines the polyphony of both Natacha Appanah's The Last Brother and the translation process in general. In this essay, she reveals how language structure impacts emotional resonance in the narrative—and for the reader.


The French words we used were foreign to both of us, from now on it was a language we had to bend to what was in our own minds, to what we wanted to say, no longer, as at school, simply decoding and repeating. We were both making the same effort to communicate and we were doing it slowly, patiently, which may be why we were very quickly able to say important things to one another, such as I’m all alone. Me too.

The Last Brother

So begins the short friendship of Raj and David, two young boys in Nathacha Appanah’s novel The Last Brother, whose names both mean “the king.” Both boys are also malnourished and suffering from traumatic losses: Raj has recently lost two brothers in a catastrophic storm that devastated a large portion of the island of Mauritius, where he and his family live, and David, a ten-year-old Jewish Czech boy orphaned by the death of his parents in the concentration camps, has been sent into prison exile on the island with a small number of other European Jews. David also suffers from malaria, and then becomes sick with dysentery, which ultimately leads to his death.

I should say that it is giving nothing away to mention that David dies late in the novel; the reader learns this in the first chapter when Raj describes the sharpness and immediacy of his grief as he stands before his friend’s grave some sixty years later. In fact, this graveside remembrance is the narrative occasion for this novel. For it is the older Raj who relates the story of their friendship and who, to the day of the story’s telling, still does not know how David managed to escape the camps and be exiled to the Beau-Bassin prison camp in Mauritius, where Raj’s tyrannical father once worked as a guard.

As readers we are meant to presume that Raj, the narrator sixty years hence, is relating the story to us in French. What is shared and communicated to the reader has been, for the most part, related in one language: French in the original, and English in the translation. But The Last Brother is polyphonic in two senses of the term. First, a number of languages are spoken throughout the novel, even if they are rendered almost entirely in one language in both the translated and original text. Raj refers to the language he spoke with his family as his mother or native tongue without ever explicitly naming that other language. Second, the narration and dialogue suggest amongst the characters a range of voices and moods, which change depending on who they are speaking to, in what language, and why. The major example of this second point is the fact that French is the only common language between the boys, and they both learned the language in school rather than at home. So there is a hesitancy and deliberation to the boys’ conversations as a result: they are able to adequately articulate themselves in French, but neither is fluent. The deliberateness with which the boys communicate feeds the motif of linguistic difference in Appanah’s novel, and their deliberateness in speaking to one another propels the story emotionally as well.

Nathacha AppanahAppanah’s rendering of language issues and translation strategies in the original work also seems to have influenced award-winning translator Geoffrey Strachan’s translation of the novel. In translating Appanah’s words, Strachan had to do more than find a way of rendering the author’s lyrical prose in English. He also had to preserve the moments when the language the characters are using shifts from one to another. How to do this while preserving the lyrical, poetic, dreamlike quality of Raj’s recollections is the trick to a successful communication scheme.

As I read The Last Brother with an eye toward the polyphony of both the novel and the translation process, several questions and insights were sparked for me as a fiction writer, a translator, and a literary critic. Although I have yet to translate a work that requires translation communication schemes, in the novel I’m writing, which is set in the immigrant neighborhoods of contemporary Paris, several of the characters are fluent in English and French, and a few of them are fluent in Kabyle (the language of indigenous Algerian Berbers). Arabic peppers the linguistic landscape of the city as well. I write with the presumption that my readership will be primarily Anglophones with little to no background in French or Arabic, and no background in Kabyle. So, I face several tasks in constructing polyphonic dialogue for readers. For instance, if I include a line or two of dialogue in the “original” French, how can I seamlessly convey the meaning of these lines through the narrator’s or other characters’ reactions? If I include lines of dialogue in English that were spoken in French or Kabyle, what strategies can I use to make it clear that the conversation is either taking place in a language other than English? What does it mean to write “Sofiane replied in French,” rather than to include his words in French? In both the original and the translation, The Last Brother offers several strategies that respond to these sorts of questions.

Here is an early scene in The Last Brother featuring Raj, his mother, and his schoolteacher that sets the terms for the representations of power dynamics through language, and the emotional stakes of speaking French in the novel. This scene offers one example of how Appanah’s original work seems to have informed Strachan’s decisions about translation strategies for language shifts. Shortly after the deaths of his two older brothers, Raj moves across the island with his mother and father for his father’s new job as a guard at Beau-Bassin. There, Raj enrolls at the local school. His teacher, Mademoiselle School Room by Rob Shenk on FlickrElsa, approaches Raj’s mother soon after Raj’s arrival to emphasize the boy’s scholarly promise. She says that Raj is one of the best students in French and English in school, which is impressive, she asserts, given how much catch-up he had to do as a late arrival in the school year. She entices Raj’s mother to support and encourage Raj in his studies in a poignant way that introduces a motif that courses throughout the novel: the connection between language fluency and basic survival. Raj was talented and smart enough that he held great promise to receive a prestigious scholarship, she assures his mother. With this scholarship, Raj would have a place at “the best high school,” and the scholarship would also provide money for books. But more importantly, the teacher emphasizes, some of this money would be left over for food for the family. So Raj’s proficiency in languages offers potential financial remuneration, which could provide nourishment and sustenance for a family who would pick mangoes from trees and “crouch down, eating our mangoes with both hands, with the juice trickling down our forearms, quickly catching it with our tongues… we ate the whole mangos by windelbo on flickrmango, the skin, the little, rather hard tip that had held it to the branch and we sucked the stone for a long, long time until it was rough and insipid, good only to throw on the fire.”  So in this scene with the schoolteacher, language is transformed into manna.

In turn, the French language in particular is marked in The Last Brother, not only as a means to scholarly success and potential sustenance, but also as a language that can offer indicators of and subsequently level unfairly wielded power differentials. At rare but regular intervals, Raj’s father would drink and then return home to beat Raj and his mother so severely that both of them would be left exhausted and unable to function for days. An especially harsh beating lands Raj in the hospital with broken ribs and a fever, among other injuries, and it is in the prison hospital that Raj formally meets David, who has been admitted with malaria. (As the novel progresses it becomes clear that, similar to the potential for Raj’s language abilities to feed the family, the fact that David suffers from malaria and then develops a fatal case of dysentery underscores the silence and mystery surrounding his and the other Jewish prisoners’ experiences of exile and imprisonment on the island of Mauritius).

Raj explains that his father beat him particularly badly on December 26, 1944. In fact, Raj’s injuries from his father’s beating are so severe that he can neither move nor speak. When the father delivers Raj to the hospital for medical attention, the man speaks to one of the prison hospital nurses:

He stopped several times and each time in his womanish voice he said, in French, fell out of the tree. I did not know my father spoke French, enough, at least, to lie and cover up what he had inflicted on his own son. Indeed, maybe he spoke English or Spanish or Chinese as well, nothing would have surprised me, the truth was I did not know him at all.

In a different scene, the father’s boss comes to the house to speak to him. There, we see how his use of French reveals his own precarious position of power at the prison. And in both cases, Raj gleans new perspective on his father as he reflects upon the father’s use of French. The perspective offers Raj some emotional distance in the moment, and in retrospect, Raj can see how powerless his father was.

hospital bed

This passage about the father speaking French gives way to the scene in which Raj and David meet for the first time. This is the passage in which both boys are in the hospital. They are able to speak to one another as Raj recovers from his father’s beating and David nurses his malaria. Their initial communiqués are awkward for Raj, and seemingly for David as well:

I had the impression that he was waiting for me to speak and so I said, speaking in French, as I had learned to in school, separating out the syllables, with a picture in my head of the sentence being written out by an imaginary hand as I spoke it, ‘My name is Raj and I live in Beau-Bassin.’

David looked at me and said to me, just as slowly, ‘My name is David and I live here. But I used to live in Prague.’

As I read this scene the first time, I knew right away that I would use a later part of Raj’s description of their meeting as the epigraph for this essay. I worked through a close reading of the passage I quoted in the epigraph; I was curious to see whether or not I could determine how Strachan’s translation and Appanah’s original intersected and diverged.

I realized that this scene’s emotional impact in fact comes to fruition through the translation communication scheme that Strachan used. It might seem odd that such a strategic and practical concept within the rewriting of a passage from one language to another could lend a scene its emotional power and depth. But it might help to look first at a few examples of how communication schemes are used in other scenes of the novel before returning to the scene of the boys’ first meeting.

i by By chrisinplymouth from flickrTypography—and particularly italics—is a fairly standard way of offsetting the use of foreign words and phrases. In Strachan’s translation of The Last Brother, italics are used first to offset phrases in the original French, which establishes the expectation that when a word or phrase is set in italics, we can understand that it was originally in French. In speaking with Madame Ghislaine, a local aristocrat of sorts for whom Raj’s mother works and for whom Raj has begun working in late 1944, he recounts that “for several weeks I had only opened my mouth to say, as my mother had taught me, Bonjour, Madame. Merci, Madame. À demain, Madame.”  The shift between Raj’s native language and French as he speaks to Madame Ghislaine is represented through this common use of italics. In the English translation, Strachan further underscores this shift by preserving the original French, assuming the reader’s familiarity with basic French salutations.

It’s worth noting that this is a far cry from the use of modern European languages in English-language literary works such as Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1937). In flipping through the first few chapters of Barnes’ novel, the foreign phrases jump out from the page; they, too, are set in italics, for example, “Roba vecchia!”, “Wir seltzen an dieser Stelle über den Fluss—”, “Garde tout!Nightwood was written during a period when an educated, literary American readership could be assumed to have a more-than-basic handle upon reading several European languages. I bring this up because French serves as the unspoken, universal language in The Last Brother, and the fact that Strachan only left untranslated the most basic communication phrases not only underscores Raj’s hesitancy in the language, but also speaks to how expectations of American readers have changed over the past century, and how cultural context can inform the way in which a translator approaches a communication scheme.

The italics in this passage of The Last Brother, thus, offer a typographical example of how to denote linguistic difference within both the original literary text and its translation. It is a simple and effective means of communicating to the reader of the translation, in turn, that throughout the rest of the novel, when italics are employed, it can be assumed that the original language was French, as is the case later in the novel when Raj describes the blue and white sign that hangs over the prison gate, which reads Welcome to the State Prison of Beau-Bassin.

This is an issue I am considering but have not yet addressed as I work through revising the current draft of my own novel. In the earliest drafts, I tried to avoid italics in order to underscore the fact that the linguistic landscape in contemporary Paris is a polyphonic one, but I decided that making a critical point in such a subtle manner serves the novel neither emotionally nor aesthetically. Another possibility would be to use italics early on in order to suggest how disorienting the range of languages beyond French and English is to the American narrator. Again, this ultimately strikes me as too subtle. At this point, I’m considering italics for the foreign phrases and words that the American narrator does not understand, whether in French, Kabyle, or Arabic. It remains to be seen, but Strachan’s use of italics in his translation here offers another possibility: once it is established that italics connote, say, French, the words and phrases in italics will be understood by the reader to be in French from that point forward.

by emilybean for flickr

Another strategy for denoting linguistic difference while maintaining the same language within the text is to simply alert the reader that the dialogue they are about to read was spoken in a particular language. I had been trying to avoid this strategy in my own writing; it struck me as obvious and inelegant reportage. But the ways in which the phrase “in French” is used in The Last Brother serves as both a communication scheme and a means of establishing details about the setting. In the prison hospital, French is the lingua franca between staff and patients. We learn this when “[The nurse] placed her hand on my brow, took out a thermometer from one of her pockets, thrust it under my tongue for a moment, and said, in French, ‘Your fever’s gone. You’ll be able to go home soon.’” The use of this communication scheme at this moment in the story and its translation suggests several things. First, of course, Strachan assumes that his translation’s readership’s knowledge of French is limited to the most common phrases. So his approach in this case could not be to simply leave the French in the original, as he did with the initial italicized phrases spoken to Madame Ghislaine. It for this reason that he directly translated Appanah’s “en français” to indicate to the reader what language the nurse was speaking.

Even more interesting here, however, is the fact that the nurse’s voice is not described: she is quoted directly, where Raj’s father was not. Nor does Raj reflect retrospectively here on what it means for the nurse to speak to him in French. It is a means of offering further details about the atmosphere and culture in the prison hospital, one that sets us up the reason for why David and Raj speak French together without prompting on either of their parts. The “in French” strategy, thus, offers a means of relating to the reader which language will be privileged in a given setting without directly stating it as such.

With this example from The Last Brother in mind, I experimented with revising a scene in my novel in which the narrator, who speaks French quite well, listens to and becomes lost in a conversation that shifts between French and Kabyle. Since she understands and has the context for only snippets of what is being discussed, her reactions are limited to confusion and, in moments, tuning out the conversation in order to pay attention to what’s going on around her otherwise. To address directly the fact that other characters were moving back and forth between French and Kabyle offered me a moment where I could elaborate on the narrator’s fears of appearing to not understand, to be lost. So for my purposes, this strategy opened up the possibility for further character development.

So, then, here is how the translation communication scheme employed by Strachan in the hospital meeting scene between the boys resonated with me. In this scene, Raj’s use of the phrase “speaking in French” suggests a deliberateness, an attempt to make contact with someone unknown and clearly foreign (Raj notes in an early description of David how striking his pale hair and skin were to him). Raj’s deliberation is underscored by the intentionality of his own strategy for parsing through the French: the separation of syllables, the pictures of the sentence in his head, written by an imaginary hand. It is as if, in speaking to David in French, his deliberateness with the language is the medium through which their communication must pass. They cannot establish direct contact.

In this powerful moment in both the novel and the translation, the older narrator Raj explains that the boys “were very quickly able to say important things to one another, such as I’m all alone. Me too.” There is an urgency in their need to communicate the desperation of their respective situations. Raj has lost his older brothers, and is subject to his father’s violent whims, and his family survives on the edge of starvation. David, meanwhile, is sick, malnourished, in exile and imprisoned, and completely alone in the world. The desire to speak to one another becomes a basic need for both characters. The leveling of power dynamics and social and cultural difference is an intrinsic part of the polyphony of The Last Brother, and almost nowhere in the novel does this resonate as deeply as in the passage in which Raj and David first speak. When I arrived at the final lines of this passage, I heard the French in my head, like an echo of the English translation, as if I were there with Raj and David as they said to one another, “Je suis tout seul.” “Moi aussi.” The echo literally sent a shiver through me.

Voidomatis Old Bridge by John and Mel Kots on flickr

As the novel progresses beyond their early interactions, their common language continues to offer both bridges and barriers to their rapprochement and increasing dependence on one another. For Raj, David becomes a surrogate brother. Raj “others” David, in a sense, referring to him in near angelic terms as pale and ephemeral, and yet his grief over David’s death sixty years later seems to far outweigh any grief he feels—or allows himself to feel—over the death of his brothers. David, meanwhile, escapes from prison with Raj’s help, and so becomes completely dependent on Raj’s assistance to navigate and attempt to flee the island. In the latter third of the story, the boys seek a port in which there is, allegedly, a ship bound for Palestine, which David calls Eretz (presumably short for Eretz Yisrael, a common name for the Jewish promised land before the state of Israel was established). This port is never found. But in the meantime, the boys’ fascination and frustration with one another’s differences are palpable. As Raj recalls:

The words collided with one another in my throat, came tumbling out of my mouth in a chaotic fashion, just as in a dream, when one is desperately trying to speak. I longed for him to understand my mother tongue so that what I was saying might flow more freely, so that I might use just the right word, express my precise feelings to him.

This description of the limitations of Raj’s scholastic proficiency in the French language suggests, wrenchingly, the linguistic scrim that remains between the boys, which also limits their ability to relate to one another the things they have experienced and lived. Of the star of David that he wears around his neck, David explains to Raj that David was the king of his people. Raj is at first annoyed by and skeptical of this assertion, since David cannot conclusively prove it true. Raj is just as frustrated by the fact that his name also means “king,” and he has even less proof than David, since there is no river or symbol named Raj to parallel the star. This passage underscores the importance of objects and symbols in their conversations, and reminds the reader of the scrim of French.

The older Raj who relates the story of his friendship with and the death of David longs for the other boy to be able to tell his story “in his own words and with the things that he alone could see.” Part of what two ball by ross hong kong on flickrRaj imagines David might relate (the italics are original, and following the communication strategy established by Appanah and maintained in translation by Strachan, they suggest that the older Raj believes that David’s “own words” sixty years later would have been uttered in a language different from Raj’s): “On the other side of the barbed wire I saw a dark boy with black hair…his eyes as black as billiard balls…if he’d not been weeping he would have frightened me with his face like a savage’s.”

The linguistic difference between the two boys remains tangible and painful for the aged Raj who recounts the story, and the fact that he imagines David describing him as a savage underscores two things: first, that the narrator Raj (who lives in Europe and is widely traveled) is now well aware of the social perceptions of him as a man of color; and second, that French as a common language can only take them so far in Raj’s imagination. So painful is this barrier that later in his life, Raj orders a French-Yiddish dictionary, and can only go so far as to look up the words for “hunger,” “brother,” and “mother” before he begins to weep. One of the most intense images in the novel is the dictionary sitting on a kitchen counter, still wrapped in bubble wrap. Raj’s hands are shaking so badly that he asks his wife to open the package for him.

One curiosity remains for me about polyphony in The Last Brother: in the later chapters of the novel, Raj’s linguistic limitations seemingly fall away while David’s remain. When Raj describes the way in which he relates details of his life with his brothers, and his brothers’ subsequent deaths, he seems to leap ahead of David in his ability to communicate in French. Following a full page of specific details and emotional complexities that Raj relates to David about the lives and deaths of his brothers, he tells the reader, “And David’s eyes wet with tears and questions, David did not understand, he got everything mixed up, he said only one body, two brothers… maybe he’s still alive your elder brother.” The rush of emotions that the young Raj experiences upon hearing David’s hope that one of his brothers survived is represented by the subsequent run-on sentence of which his reaction to Raj’s story is a part. The rush of words and suggestions establish yet another facet of the novel’s polyphony. Here, perhaps, we can assume that the narrator Raj, in relating this moment, is overcome with emotion once more. The rushed tone that is suggested by the run-on is altogether distinct from the quiet, sparse, poetic quality of the narrative voice employed throughout much of the novel. Yet what purpose did it serve here for Raj to suddenly recall himself as speaking far more proficiently in French than he had previously been capable? Particularly since David’s response is fairly wooden in the translation, suggested by the construction of the italicized sentence, and possibly the use of the word “elder,” although I don’t claim to know if this word was less anachronistic in early 1945 than when Raj relates the story sixty years later.

In fiction, dialogue often acts as conduit and conductor between characters. But in the case of The Last Brother and its translation, the linguistic choices that characters make go beyond communication and character development. In a kind of narrative alchemy, both the direct and indirect dialogue seems to take on physical properties. Once manipulated in the mouths of the characters, language serves to transform and develop the setting, themes, motifs, and—perhaps most importantly—the act of speaking in and of itself. The Last Brother is as much about the power of language as the ineffability of historical trauma. Yet there were several moments later in the novel, such as the passage in which Raj seems to leap ahead of David linguistically in describing his brothers’ deaths, when I was pulled out of the narrative due to stylistic choices that seemed intended to underscore the balance between what is articulated and what goes unspoken. Was this a deliberate choice on the part of Appanah that was then faithfully conveyed in Strachan’s translation? As deliberate a choice, perhaps, as Raj’s and David’s early moments of French conversation were marked by deliberation out of necessity? Was this choice, then, a means of conveying to the reader how painful the linguistic scrim between the boys remains for Raj, sixty years hence? As a literary critic, I find myself posing these questions, recoiling from them, and then embracing them as unanswerable. The fact that I cannot answer these questions is likely part of the point. And as both critic and fiction writer, coming to this conclusion excites me. I wonder about how my own decisions about communication schemes will be received by my readers, and what they might see in my work that I might not. It also serves as a possible cautionary tale: ought I to be careful with how far I try to take critical points within my fiction writing? I would be interested to hear what other writers think.

radio tower

Perhaps the seemingly obtuse moments of more eloquent communication in The Last Brother are meant to throw into relief the experience of being unable to fully comprehend what it would be like to live through the experiences that David did. One of the most compelling things about The Last Brother as a novel is its basic premise: nine-year-old Raj has no idea that a war is raging on three continents. It is through knowing David (and David’s recollections of the ghettoization and imprisonment of his family, followed by the death of his parents) that Raj first learns of the Second World War and the Shoah, and he is still grappling with it sixty years later. The novel concludes on what could be dismissed as a contrived or cliché statement, given all that Raj has related to the reader: “I tell myself that in a minute I shall recount David’s story to my son, so that he, too, may remember.” But what can be intuited from this final statement, perhaps, is that such cataclysmic world events exceed language, and can never be fully explained or retold enough times. The words must pour from Raj’s mouth again. Perhaps his assertion that he will repeat his own version of the boys’ story then underscores David’s silence within the story, and the absence of the exiled prisoners at Beau-Bassin from history.

Further Links and Resources

  • Here on FWR, read “The Seamless Skin,” another of Jennifer Solheim’s lyrical essays on translation. We also recommend “In Other Words,” Giota Tachtara’s essay on living in two languages
  • Listen to a PBS Newshour discussion of The Last Brother with Nathacha Appanah
  • Check out the New York Times review of The Last Brother
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