Lost in Translation:
New Zealand Stories
Edited by Marco  Sonzogni

Random House NZ

"He saw himself put an ear to the rock’s lizard skin surface. Inside he could hear a soft drumming sound. The drumming belonged to the footsteps of the people who had stood on the rock before him, dreaming up places they’d never been to and the faces of the sisters they missed."

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

The stories in this collection are all built on the theme of "a piece of text or image that is read differently by different people", a potent subject for New Zealand writers, where the Treaty of Waitangi – a deal signed in 1840 by the British crown and around 500 Maori chiefs – is still a source of controversy today due to crucial differences between the English and Maori versions. The collection has a good representation from Maori writers, and many of the stories are preoccupied by life in post-Waitangi New Zealand, some literally, some more allusively

There are a fair proportion of historical stories: Pigeon Post by Peter Hawes is a savage and funny take on the formulation of Waitangi, while Fragrance Rising by Fiona Kidman imagines the secret history of Gordon Coates, prime minister from 1925 to 1928, and the private events that might have contributed to his unusual knowledge of and sympathy towards Maori issues.

Others move nearer to the present. Everything You Hear by Alice Tawhai recounts a small community riven with suspicion and distrust one long, hot, forgotten summer. Likewise Thank You Very Much by Tim Jones is rich in nostalgia for a dead friend and lost youth. Graffiti by Ben Brown takes us firmly into the present day. A bleakly lyrical account of the short life of Sonny Te Manu – who’s "got something to say and The City to say it in" – it examines wider issues of social exclusion and deprivation with a light poetic touch, yet never descends to preachiness.

A Rock in Bondi by Briar Grace-Smith is a tale of heavily textured sadness, of agrophobic photographer Miles, who sees "life through Maori eyes", and his yearning for his vanished sister Rihi. The strange, unsettling narrative touches on issues of freedom and ownership and the true face of things, until Miles finally manages to achieve a melancholy triumph:
He felt his legs stretch and push against the boundaries that had locked him in for so long. He felt the lines that had held him snap and fly away and he finally understood that they’d never been there at all.
As in any collection, not every story worked. Daddy Drops a Line by Vincent O’Sullivan never came alive for me, while A Question of Aroha by Apiranha Taylor felt stagey and obvious – relying on its historical Maori backdrop and a linguistic trick that telegraphed itself too obviously from the beginning.

I was impressed that the theme of mistranslations was broad enough to encompass stories that moved away from New Zealand altogether, making the collection altogether richer for it. Premises by Paula Morris is a fizzing tale of an increasingly frustrated wannabe screenwriter distilling each of Jane Austen’s novels into schlock film treatment form. The Master Plan by Charlotte Grimshaw is a surreal and very funny London story that includes a reviewer’s email spat with a reviewee and a glamourous divorcee rushing to Paris to steal a painting from her ex. In between these strange, almost random connections and fractured relationships, was humanity and the beginnings of a way forward.

For me, many of the strongest stories articulated immigrant voices – and New Zealand is a country of immigrants, even the Maori are not indiginous. No Shadow Kick by Tze Ming Mok recounts an awkward encounter between a Maori boy and a newly arrived Hong Kong Chinese girl undone by a lack of common language and understanding. Ancestryby Albert Wendt rounds off the collection in a richly fitting way with a frank look at lines of ancestry in a Samoan family. The main character ponders his relationship with his beloved grandson, part of "the caramel generation": "They are the colour of caramel, a mix of brown Polynesian and white Pakeha." It is a touching portrait of an immigrant family looking for balance between past and present, where the main character’s daughter insists that her mixed race son to be fluent in the Samoan she was never taught as a child. I particularly enjoyed that Wendt felt comfortable leaving a significant amount of dialogue in Samoan, untranslated. The different language stood proud and emblematic – no barrier to understanding the love of a grandfather for his grandson, stretching ahead to an unknown future.

Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson’s short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and pulp.net, among others. She has, finally, completed her novel, The Examined Life and is changing forms to work on a radio play about Polish history, absent fathers and drinking coffee with the devil.
Elizabeth's other Short Reviews: Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

"Best American Short Stories 2007"

Tom Bissell "God Lives in St Petersburg"

Nora Nadjarian "Ledra Street"

Andrew McNabb "The Body of This"

Willa Cather "The Bohemian Girl"

Deborah Sheldon "All the Little Things That We Lose"

Alta Ifland "Elegy for a Fabulous World"

Paul Magrs "Twelve Stories"

Jay Merill "God of the Pigeons"
find something to read: reviews
find something to read: interviews
find something to read: categories
find something to read: back issues
competitions & giveaways

Authors: Michelle Arathimos, Ben Brown, Ellie Catton, David Eggleton, Travis Gasper, Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Briar Grace-Smith, Charlotte Grimshaw, Peter Hawes, Tim Jones, Fiona Kidman, Tze Ming Mok, Kelly Ana Morey, Paula Morris, Sue Orr, Vincent O'Sullivan, Alice Tawhai, Apirana Taylor, Albert Wendt.

Editor Marco Sonzogni is Senior Lecturer in Italian in the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and an Executive Member of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation. He is also editor of Second Violins: New Zealand Stories (2008).