Common Sense

Sally Mapstone

  • Translated Accounts by James Kelman
    Secker, 322 pp, £15.99, June 2001, ISBN 0 436 27464 7

James Kelman’s fifth novel, Translated Accounts, is also his first to be delivered entirely in English. In the three novels he published between 1984 and 1989, Kelman mixed Scots and English, with Scots used to convey characters’ speech and states of mind while English handled action and certain, often more formal, types of discourse. This approach reached its most radical realisation in How late it was, how late (1994), Kelman’s last novel before Translated Accounts, in which the dominant voice is the Glaswegian demotic of its blinded protagonist, the minor criminal and drunkard Sammy Samuels, but Sammy and his interlocutors and opponents can easily switch linguistic codes. In his grotesque interview at the Department of Social Security, Sammy is at risk of being cornered into making incriminating or contradictory statements on how he went blind – it happened after a fight with a group of policemen.

Look I’m saying I got the dysfunction cause of the physical restraints, it wasnay spontaneous I mean I didnay just lose it cause of nothing, it was something, whatever it was I don’t know but it was something. So I’ve got to register that. I mean that’s all I’m doing, registering it here like I’m supposed to; I’m no being cheeky, if I’m entitled to benefit then I’m entitled to benefit. If I’m no I’m no. Know what I mean, that’s all I’m saying.

Sammy knows the buzzwords – ‘dysfunction’, ‘physical restraints’, ‘register’, ‘benefit’ – and mingles colloquial Scots with straightforward English phrasing. His respondent, though also a Scot, gives him it back in the full bureaucratic English McCoy:

Yes well the police department is empowered to restrain the customer Mister Samuels and certainly if the customer is then in receipt of a dysfunction, and this dysfunction is shown to be an effect of the restraints applied then the customer is entitled to submit an application to this department in respect of Dysfunctional Benefit and if it is approved then the benefit is awarded.

The point is not whether anyone would actually speak like this, but that the response articulates the outlook of the state apparatus that Sammy is gamely struggling with. His reply translates that into his own strategic and linguistic terms: ‘Aye well that’s all I’m saying miss it was restraints, they were doing restraints and I wound up blind I mean I agree with that.’ Despite the collision of idioms and positions, and the dispute over meaning, what each side is getting at is clear. Kelman’s punctuation, or the absence of it, tracks the immediacy of speech patterns as well as forcing on the reader a sense of the way ideology prevails even when it is in part being resisted: ‘they were doing restraints and I wound up blind I mean I agree with that.’

Contrast that passage with this one: ‘I cannot say about a beginning, or beginnings, if there is to be the cause of all, I do not see this. There are events, I speak of them, if I am to speak then it is these, if I may speak.’ This is the characteristically opaque ‘English’ idiom of Translated Accounts. Although the novel is written in English, it is not the English of native speakers: the 54 ‘accounts’ that make up the book are presented in the preface as having been ‘transcribed and/or translated into English, not always by persons native to the tongue’. The conditions of their production are also varied: ‘Narrations of incidents and events are included; also reports, letter-fragments, states-of-mind and abstracts of interviews, some confessional.’ It is not clear how many different voices can be distinguished: ‘three, four or more anonymous individuals of a people whose identity is not available’. They live in ‘an occupied territory or land where a form of martial law appears in operation’.

What it is to speak, to say, to mean, is continually at issue in Translated Accounts. The accounts have an occluded, fragmentary aura, which can be haunting and suggestive, but also gives much of the writing the not-quite-there feel of a poor prose translation or of English as spoken by Sven-Goran Eriksson. Very occasionally, and, it seems, almost unwittingly, Scotticisms manifest themselves: ‘A situation may be looked upon as outwith control if outwith control by humans, by agency of humans.’ Far more commonly, sentences are ungrammatical, misleading, and feature strange pasted-in pieces of vocabulary, suggesting a misused dictionary or computing resource: ‘Our attention now may be drawn to situations inter as between owner of the vicious dog leaping the garden gate that has bitten the skinny little child.’ One account (number 5, ‘¿FODocument’), a frightening narrative of a raid during a curfew, is frequently broken into by computer code. It ends with a phrase which is recurrent in the book, ‘if wemaysppeakwemayspeak’, followed by 21½ lines of .

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in