"I like what Walter Benjamin said," Howard Norman once told an interviewer from the literary journal Ploughshares. "A real translation is transparent, it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully."
Although best known for his exquisite 1994 novel The Bird Artist, Norman knows a thing or two about the delicate process of translation. Since 1976, he has smuggled into English everything from the narrative poems of Swampy Cree Indians to Caribbean folktales. It might seem an odd passion for a high school dropout from Toledo, but, then again, one does not always choose one's calling.
Now, after publishing short stories, five novels and a handful of children's books, the part-time Vermonter has released his most poignant translation. In Fond Remembrance of Me describes Norman's experiences in the fall of 1977, when he moved to Churchill, Manitoba, to record and translate the "Noah Stories" of a local Inuit storyteller named Marc Nuqat. Holed up in a hotel in the far north, Norman befriended Helen Tanizaki, an Anglo-Japanese translator who was working on the same tales and turning them into Japanese. Over the fall they became close friends, sharing stories of Nuqat and his mood swings. At night they listened to Canadian radio plays together.
Later the following year Tanizaki died of stomach cancer. She was barely 40 years old.
In Fond Remembrance of Me includes a dozen or so of Nuqat's "Noah Stories," but the real translation is Norman's attempt to bring into sharper perspective his youthful experience with loss. As he says at the beginning of this memoir, "I was twenty-eight, born in Toledo, Ohio, with a makeshift education and not very self-reflective, to put it bluntly; Helen...[was] perhaps the most introspective person I've known."
Resurrected from journals and notes, Norman's memoir does not suffer from the genre's occasionally hollow echo. He may not paint the landscape in his usual atmospheric prose, but Tanizaki comes to life vividly enough here to annoy and bemuse. She is funny, learned and possessed by quirky enthusiasms. One of her projects is to collect and translate Inuit folk tales that feature choking. Another is to compile American slang. The word "nowheresville" thrills her to no end.
If this were a movie, one might say Norman and Tanizaki have good chemistry. He plays the straight man to her slapstick, feverishly drinking his coffee and earnestly talking to Nuqat, while Tanizaki gets to be colorful, creative and funny, her attention always slightly elsewhere. When her gaze does finally land on Howard Norman - she always calls him by his entire name - Tanizaki is slightly dismissive, as if the word he brings to her mind is "twerp." When Norman asks her to interpret Nuqat's opinion of him, at first she resists. After some prying, Tanizaki relays this anecdote: "He said you try very hard. He added that a baby fox tries very hard when it's learning to piss in the snow. But that it often pisses on its own leg."
Not surprisingly, Nuqat is an equally large personality in Norman's memory, so much so that one is halfway through the book before it becomes clear that the title is somewhat misleading. It's as if Norman has decided to follow Benjamin's bromide to the letter, erasing himself from the tale except for the instances in which he affects Tanizaki or Nuqat.
By all accounts, Norman came to translating by the most circuitous route. After he dropped out of high school, he spent a summer as a fire lookout in Manitoba with mostly Cree Indians. He once told the Los Angeles Times the journey was provoked by the death of a close friend. But none of this finds its way into this memoir.
This uncluttered surface makes it feel a little less jarring when Norman splices the first of 11 different "Noah stories" into the memoir. They are all variations on the same plot: Noah sails up to Hudson Bay in his ark; he encounters Inuit hunters who ask him for food and lumber; he refuses; then bad things happen to him.
Though this juxtaposition is at first somewhat confusing, the stories begin to resonate with Norman's remembrances, affecting how they change and warp over time. The Noah Stories help explain Norman's self-consciousness back then, and now in remembering his time there: He was a white man and he had come to take an Inuit man's stories - all of which were basically parables about an encounter with a white settler who refuses to share, and wants to take.
In Fond Remembrance of Me raises these paradoxes, but Norman does not draw attention to them. Instead, he seems intent on acting as memory's faithful scribe, carefully recalling Helen's last autumn, her final wishes, her ultimate grace note. This is an act of earnest literary chivalry, and it's hard not to be touched by the sincerity of Norman's instincts. In the end, though, the reader is left feeling slightly let down, hoping that, perhaps next time, Howard Norman will give us a little more to remember him by.