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  • Written by David Treuer
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The Translation of Dr. Apelles

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Dr. Apelles, a translator of ancient texts, has made an unsettling discovery: a manuscript that has languished for years, written in a language that only he speaks. Moving back and forth between the scholar and his text, from a lone man in a labyrinthine archive to a pair of beautiful young Indian lovers in an unspoiled and snowy woodland, David Treuer weaves together two love stories. Enthralling and suspenseful, The Translation of Dr. Apelles dares to redefine the Native American novel.


1. From an early age, from the time Bimaadiz was fi ve or six, upon watching the men prepare to hunt, he would set up a piteous wail until Jiigibiig - not without some embarrassment - fi tted him with his own set of snowshoes made just for him and told him to follow along. Once in the bush he quieted down and never once scared the game by making noise and never once ruined the hunt by urinating when the wind might blow the scent toward the game. He was happy only when he was in the woods - and so, since Jiigibiig and Zhookaagiizhigookwe only wanted Bimaadiz to be happy, they let him go hunting at his pleasure. By the time he turned sixteen (and the time at which our story really begins), he was such an accomplished hunter he single - handedly supplied the village with most of the meat it needed. Such was his skill and care that Jiigibiig let the youngster use the Winchester repeating rifl e. Bimaadiz didn't need more than one shot, unless there was more than one deer or moose, but it was an honor to carry it. Jiigibiig and Zhookaagiizhigookwe, and those who remembered how he was found, suspected his power was the result of his contact with the cow moose during his infancy. Once, after hearing Bimaadiz shoot, Jiigibiig walked back into the woods with a sled to help him haul out his catch (for he was sure to have killed something, no doubt there was meat cooling on the ground), and he saw Bimaadiz kneeling over a dead moose, singing gently to the animal as he skinned it. It sounded like a lullaby, not a victory song, and the way Bimaadiz skinned the animal made the scene seem more like a birth than butchery. Because of the nimbus of affection surrounding him and because of the gifts given to him by his fi rst mother and the milk he received from his second mother, the moose, Bimaadiz grew into a singular young man. He was tall and strong but not thick; his body was supple and slender, with wide shoulders and very long fi ngers. His waist was narrow, but like a coiled spring - full of potential strength. His black hair was thick and smooth and he kept it cut short and parted in the middle, slicked down with hair oil. All the girls, even the older women, gasped when he walked by. It was a good life at Agencytown in those years; meat was never so plentiful and everyone loved the quiet hunter who provided for them so well.

2. Eta had grown up, too. She alone, perhaps, possessed more beauty than Bimaadiz did. She was tall for her age, and though not fi ne boned, she was lean and strong. Yet she had delicate fi ngers, and straight black hair that was always in two braids that hung down to her lower back. Her waist was narrow and her breasts, in advance of her years, were round and fi rm. All the boys and all the men sighed when she walked past. Her skin was smooth, clear, coppery, and healthy year round, except on her left cheek there was a dark round mark, very faint, that looked as though it had been left there when the wolf who had suckled her had kissed her cheek with her nose. It was really only a birthmark, it had been there before the she - wolf nosed the infant, but Aantti and Mary liked to think the wolf had left its mark. It seemed to the villagers that Eta had acquired some of the wolf's characteristics: she was incredibly intelligent, patient, concerned for others, and serious when anyone was looking, but silly and girl - like when she thought she was unobserved. Aantti and Mary were overjoyed at the unexpected gift of a daughter, especially since they thought they would never have one of their own. And so, being the object of so much happiness, Eta grew up receiving happiness. Her parents doted on her and gave her whatever it was that she wanted. They didn't have much to give - a poor sawyer and his Indian wife. Buttons, a bit of cloth, these were her toys. But all the same, the girl didn't want much. And she worked hard. Once her mother saw her hanging off the pump handle, her feet off the ground, as she tried to fi ll the water bucket. She helped her mother in all things - fetching water, wrapping big blue stem with wiigoob to make brooms and whisks. The thing she really wanted was to accompany her mother on the trapline, and this from even before she could walk properly. Mary bundled her in furs and placed her in the toboggan along with the snares and mink bait and set off for the string of lean - tos and temporary shelters along their trapping grounds. Mary never had to worry that Eta would struggle out of her wrappings or cry with impatience or trample the clean trails where she set the snares for rabbit and fox. Eta stayed in the toboggan, and as long as she could see above the tumble of tools and furs and watch Mary's hands at work, she was happy. Even when she was teething, all her mother had to do, upon fi nding a rabbit in a snare, was cut off the lower leg and hand it to Eta for her to chew on - the fl esh was so tough and cold, so laced with tendons that the rubbery texture soothed Eta's gums and she did not cry and sat quietly and observed Mary's broad back in front of the heavily loaded toboggan. As soon as she could walk, Eta followed behind the toboggan. Sometimes Mary pulled out of sight because Eta was still a small child and could not keep up, but all she had to do was follow the marks left by the toboggan and she would catch up eventually. By the time she was six years old she was setting all the rabbit snares herself. They never ate so many rabbits as when Eta set her snares. She secured them at just the right height and was so adept at matching the color of the snare to its surroundings that even a creature as suspicious as a rabbit could not see it. Mary said nothing about why she thought Eta was such a good trapper, but she suspected it was a result of her contact with the she - wolf, a benefi t of the wolf's milk. By the time Eta was twelve years old (and the point at which our story starts), she had taken over all the trapping. Mary could stay in the village and found much relief in her daughter's abilities; Mary was getting old and trapping had become diffi cult. For Eta trapping was as easy as breathing. She loaded the sled herself and, sometimes with a team of dogs pulling the sled, sometimes pulling it herself, set off for weeks at a time. When she came back the sled would always be full of fur - beaver, mink, martin, fi sher, weasel, bobcat, lynx - and loaded with meat too because sometimes she did some hunting on the side. Aantti was so pleased he gave her his puukko, the only possession that remained with him that he had taken from Finland. It had been his father's and the curved steel blade was perfect for skinning. Eta kept it sharp and made sure it never rusted. Who could hope for a better child? Skilled, earnest, respectful, concerned only for her parents and the animals she trapped. Her parents' only worry was about her beauty. She was so beautiful she caused everyone near her to shudder with longing, to stand up straight, to talk loudly in voices meant for her to hear. Some of them bragged about what they'd caught in their traps. But this only made her ignore them all the more. Eta loved the animals she trapped and took care to put their carcasses where the dogs would not ravage them. She brushed their fur before she sold them, conscious always of the life the animals were bestowing on her family. To brag about killing them was beneath her contempt. So, for the time being, Aantti and Mary put their worries aside. Eta seemed to be safe from the dangers of desire.

3. Bimaadiz had one other interest other than hunting and that was Eta. As for the beautiful girl, Bimaadiz was as precious to her as the animals she trapped. From an early age Bimaadiz's hunting and Eta's trapping had brought them together since his hunting grounds and her trapline overlapped. Bimaadiz, drawing out the fi rst syllable of her name, would say “Eh - taa” - and shyly, in response, she would elongate the second syllable of his name, saying Bi - maaa - diz” - and so they had a special of addressing each other and took the greatest pleasure in each other's company. Bimaadiz would tell Eta where he had seen some rich fox runs and so, on his advice, Eta would hang her snares there to catch them. For her part, upon seeing moose tracks around an isolated slough, she would inform Bimaadiz and, sure enough, a few days later he would have killed a fat cow and a tender calf, enough to feed to the whole village for a week. They were such good friends that he would save the tongue for her and her parents. And having caught a fawn in one her snares, she tanned the hide and sewed it into a bandolier bag for Bimaadiz to keep his shells and food in. When she was sick, he would check her traps for her, and she would kill some game for him when he had other chores to do around Agencytown and could not get out into the woods. But they were children after all, and so their activities weren't always so serious. As a joke she made a doll out of marsh grass (having no cornhusks at that season to make a proper doll). She used the guard hairs from a fi sher for the doll's braids, and the broken trigger from a steel trap was used to represent his gun. All in all it was a good likeness of Bimaadiz. Seeing some deer tracks she set the doll on the trail where she knew Bimaadiz would fi nd it. Bimaadiz also made trinkets for his friend - toy snares only big enough for mice and hoops made from willow twigs for stretching them. This continued - their ideal friendship, their ideal life, until the spirits conspired to make things more diffi cult for the two. Dr Apelles looks back down at the manuscript. The bell will sound at any moment now. His translation has lodged itself deep in his consciousness. It, and another signifi cant question, continue to plague him. But now, it is no accident, his thoughts turn to the library - not this one, not the archive - in which he works. It is universally acknowledged that - in addition to the history of Charlemagne and of the printing press and also in addition to narratives told to us by a friend detailing the dreams of other friends of his whom we do not know - the description of a person's typical day at work is among the most boring kind of story in existence. However, since Dr Apelles' vacation in the country of his imagination, governed in part by the itinerary of the manuscript, which, it must be said, is also impossibly linked to his daily work, we must follow him to work and hear out the story of his days. The bell will ring soon. It should be said that the archive to which he goes every other Friday is, strictly speaking, not a library, and neither is the building in which he works the other nine days out of the fortnight. Those days, the nine days (not counting holidays and weekends) out of fourteen that form the architecture of his life if not the action (though this will change), are spent at RECAP, which, as we have said, is a library but also is not a library. Since, if it isn't apparent yet, RECAP is a place where books are captured, tagged, and then withheld from - not released into - the general population of other books; where, to put it another way, books are forced into a system designed to keep track of how they are forgotten; that is, designed to give structure and meaning to ignorance and anonymity; to create a special place for books that haven't been read or if they have, not often enough; all of this is to say that, contrary to what we have come to expect from stories such as this - the forgotten or unknown or undervalued or obsolete signifi cance of Dr Apelles' works and days - the dusty corners of his life, if his life were a house (and if it were we would expect to fi nd it represented by, signifi ed by, a single dusty houseplant, an umbrella, or a shoe tree at best, and an empty fl ower pot, a persistent water ring on the fl oor, and a broken bit of string, at worst), is where we should begin looking at the no longer dreary dream of Dr Apelles' days. He had long been settled in apartment 33 J. Long enough to have begun to feel as though he owned the place. He was well thought of in the neighborhood of the other apartments. Having lived there for so long, he possessed a remarkable amount of information about his neighbors: their ages and ailments, the progressive ages of their children, their various and varied occupations and so on. Most of all, he was quite good at remembering names. And so, when in conversation with his neighbors they always felt, given Dr Apelles' polite and thoroughly informed interest, that his portraits of them, of their public and semi - public virtues, were such accurate and pleasing likenesses that he was, as far as they were concerned, the perfect neighbor. In short, he flattered them, but not intentionally.
David Treuer|Author Q&A

About David Treuer

David Treuer - The Translation of Dr. Apelles

Photo © Vincent Bourdon

David Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Canada, a Pushcart Prize, the 1996 Minnesota Book Award and was a finalist for the Penn West prize in 1999. The Translation of Dr Apelles is his third novel. He divides his time between his home on the Leech Lake Reservation and Minneapolis.

The son of Robert Treuer, an Austrian Jew and holocaust survivor and Margaret Seelye Treuer, a tribal court judge, David Treuer grew up on Leech Lake Reservation. After graduating from high school he attended Princeton University where he wrote two senior theses—one in anthropology and one in creative writing—and where he worked with Toni Morrison, Paul Muldoon, and Joanna Scott. Treuer graduated in 1992 and published his first novel, Little, in 1995. He received his PhD in anthropology and published his second novel, The Hiawatha, in 1999.

His novels have been translated into Norwegian, Finnish, French, and Greek.

David Treuer is represented by the Knopf Speakers Bureau (http://www.knopfspeakersbureau.com).

Author Q&A

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book? What attracted you to the idea of a document only one man can read?

A: The story (and the characters cursed/blessed to live it out) always comes first. In this case, Dr. Apelles-a special, unique, singular, rather quietly beautiful human being; terrified of the world, terrified of being “mis-known” and misunderstood-appeared as a person with a dilemma. Namely, how to let himself be known (as an individual and as a Native person) without sacrificing any part of his sovereign self and while dodging and ducking the stories that many (most?) people tell themselves about Indians. It seemed to him (and to me, his kindly father) that the best way to “become himself” was to dive into the very source of his problem: the romantic, lace-edged, valentine-hued, comforting, and often maudlin stories about his (and my) people. But in a way his problem is the problem that we all face. How do we let others know us? How do we tell our own stories that preserves our integrity and singularity to the people we want to love and who we want to love us? How do we all end up translating ourselves and with what languages?

Q: As a follow-up, do similar documents-ones written in languages dangerously close to being forgotten-exist in the real world? Why does language preservation matter?

A: The sad fact is: we will lose up to 90 percent of the linguistic diversity in the world over the next 100 years. We will all witness the extinction of nine out of ten languages in our lifetime. So if such documents don't exist now, just wait a few election cycles.

Q: People have called Translation an “edgy” love story, a postmodern, “Escher-esque” tale, a literary satire, and a cultural statement. How would you categorize the book, if you had to?

A: I would call it: “the book everyone told me I shouldn't write but I simply had to even though it doesn't try to fit any category as much as it tries to transcend them all.” I would call it: “a metaphysical valentine written by a book and dedicated to another, sitting like an old couple that can't stop touching one another on a bookshelf in a forgotten corner of the reader's own heart.”

Q: Do you identify particularly strongly with any of the characters in the book?

A: No. I am much more personable and social than Apelles, not as beautiful as Campaspe, not as handsome as Bimaadiz, and not as self-reliant as Eta. And they all have a lot more sex than I do in many more pastoral and public places.

Q: Why did you decide to tell two intertwined love stories? How do they relate to one another? What is to be gained from their coexistence and relationship? How do they inform each other?

A: They help each other out. Apelles manages to spring clear of the valentine that seeks to trap him (springing like a heart from a pop-up book), while, at the same time, his life is informed by that valentine. Bimaadiz and Eta's story is like a valentine: silly, ideal, a little purple around the edges, dented by the thumb in the supermarket of erotic romance, ready for picking. But, ultimately, Apelles and Compaspe have a more mature, “real world,” compelling, intricate, and soaring relationship than their bookish counterparts. But they all feed one another.

Q: You've drawn some fairly critical attention for your nonfiction book, Native American Fiction: A User's Manual. To what extent do you think Native American identity shapes your-or anyone else's-literary endeavors?

A: Well, charting the exact ratio of “identity” to “influence”-that is, the degree to which the author's identity matters and the degree to which the books we've read, the people we know, the schools we've attended, the jobs we've had, the TV shows we like, the tragedies (communal and individual) we've endured, the hearts we've broken, the times our own hearts have been bruised matters-seems kind of pointless after a certain point. Obviously one's personal identity (largely a fiction of our own making “drawn from life”) is hugely important . . . to the person. As for books, as for literary endeavors, well that's the strange magic of books, isn't it? They somehow exist inside us and outside us at the same time. They are of us, but they are always “of” other books, too. I think it would be tragic to only or even mostly interpret Hamlet as an expression of “English-ness” or of Shakespeare's identity as an “English man.” It would rob Hamlet of its magic and wouldn't help explain in any lasting way why the play is important and moving to many people. The same goes for Beloved. And The Magic Mountain. And A Boy's Own Story. And The English Patient. But this is exactly what happens more often than not to Native American stories. The result: “red-faced minstrelsy.” Speaking of the book I am working on now: it is as much a mixture of my self, my love, my ambition, my people, my tastes-running from Thomas Mann to Christina Aguilera and back again-and my devotion to my craft as anything I've ever written.

Q: Who are some of your greatest literary influences?

A: Svevo, Calvino, Borges, Nabokov, Saramago, Antunes, Queroz, Ondaatje, Morrison, Mann, Proust, Nabokov, Woolf, Swift, Longus, Voltaire, Poe, Marvell, Yeats, Muldoon, Pamuk, Mary McCarthy, Edmund White, Peter Carey, any writer who writes as all writers should: that is, ecstatically, all-encompassingly, completely, bravely, going for the whole thing, and not playing it safe

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was it a specific moment, or a gradual process?

A: Right now I can't remember wanting to be a writer. Right now I'd much rather be inside one of my books rather than at my desk writing one! I think I'll just slip between the covers . . .



"Stunning. . . . Treuer's edgy romance celebrates our love for each other, love for the earth and love of story, the way we make sense of life in all its wildness." —Los Angeles Times

"Deeply crafty, shape-shifting. . . . [Treuer] seems to want to do for Native American culture and literature what James Joyce did for the Irish: haul it into the mainstream of Western culture through sheer nerve and verve." —The Washington Post

"The Translation of Dr Apelles . . . provides new layers of information and meaning with every pass. This Escher-esque craftsmanship dazzles." —The Seattle Times

“David Treuer is mounting a challenge to the whole idea of Indian identity as depicted by both Native and white writers."
The New York Times

“Smart, sweet . . . well-crafted, clever. . . . Treuer juggles multiple elements with skill and confidence: literary satire, metafictional gamesmanship and cultural truth-telling.” —Star Tribune
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Stunning. . . . Treuer's edgy romance celebrates our love for each other, love for the earth and love of story, the way we make sense of life in all its wildness.” —Los Angeles Times

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to stimulate your group's discussion of The Translation of Dr. Apelles, the extraordinary new novel by David Treuer, author of Little and The Hiawatha.

About the Guide

Spanning the boundaries between past and present, Native American and Urban American culture, and inner and outer meaning, David Treuer's powerful new novel tells a love story that is ultimately about the act of reading itself.

As the novel begins, the life and fated love stories of a young boy and girl, Bimaadiz and Eta, introduce the rituals and meanings of tribal life. Both are foundlings. Without family, village, or any well-marked trail. Left by ancestors, each is nurtured by the natural world, then found and raised by loving families-strangers who become temporary guides on their journeys. But even within these kind, substitute families, Bimaadiz and Eta remain set apart, unique, selected for a special journey and path of learning.

At the same time as their story unfolds, the reader is also given glimpses of a very different life. A lonely translator of Algonquin languages, working in an archive of unwanted and unread books (the perfect setting for his own unread life), experiences a moment of epiphany in which he recognizes the meaning of a text that only he can read. He understands for the first time, now at the age of forty-three, that he has never before been in love. His regular and orderly life is disrupted by the knowledge, breaking into his long-held reserve and innocence, that he must learn to “read” and translate the world and himself in a completely new way. He must leave his safe, mundane home and go on an adventure full of excitement, uncertainty, and risk. It is as if, holding this unsuspected new text and opening the first page of a new kind of knowledge, he takes his own life in his hands.

Treuer spins two love stories at the same time, each enhancing and mirroring the other, and bound together in a kind of rapture over the power of reading and being read in ordinary human lives. The common thread that runs through all of the interlocking themes in The Translation of Dr. Apelles is a profound insistence on the necessity of beauty. And as Treuer says in the “Translator's Introduction” which opens the novel, “It is sometimes surprising where you find it.” This is a timeless, human lesson, but Treuer's gift is to bring such beauty into the contemporary world in a way that offers a rare mixture of imaginative complexity, emotional depth, and a self-reflexive awareness of the power of telling stories.

About the Author

David Treuer is the Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Canada, a Pushcart Prize, the 1996 Minnesota Book Award and was a finalist for the Penn West Prize in 1999. The Translation of Dr. Apelles is his third novel. He divides his time between his home on the Leech Lake Reservation and Minneapolis.


Discussion Guides

1. Why does Treuer interrupt the last sentence of the “Translator's Introduction,” carrying it over onto the first page of the novel itself? What does this suggest about the kind of narrative that will follow? In what ways does the novel violate the conventions of realistic fiction?

2. After Dr. Apelles finds the manuscript, he feels “he has found a document for which he himself is the only remaining key, and because of it he knows that he has never been in love. The reasons for this strange predicament are nowise clear to him, but he can sense there is a connection between the translation and love” [p. 24]. What is the connection between the translation and love? Why is he suddenly aware, after finding the document, that he has never been in love?

3. Why does Treuer choose not to name the city where Dr. Apelles lives? How does this lack of a recognizable setting affect the way readers relate to the story?

4. In what ways does Apelles' translation attempt to bridge the gap between traditional Native American tribal culture and the more isolating lifestyle of contemporary urban America? Does it succeed in doing so?

5. Who is the narrator of the novel? Are there any clues that might indicate where the narrator is placed, or with whom he/she is allied? Which character's point of view is most trustworthy?

6. In what ways is The Translation of Dr. Apelles about the act of telling stories? Why are stories so important in the novel? Why does Apelles think that if he tells his story “in the wrong way, it would cease to be real, it would no longer be his life because it would become a story like all the other stories about his people . . .” [p. 203]?

7. Both Bimaadiz and Eta are foundlings—children born without a context to guide them in learning who they are and where they belong. Part of their progress toward becoming their genuine selves comes from the need to trace their own histories. Is this also true for Dr. Apelles and Campaspe?

8. There are many parallels between Eta and Bimaadiz. When either of them is confronted by a life-altering event, that event is mirrored in the life of the other. What purpose does this serve? What other kinds of mirroring occur in the novel?

9. Discuss the representation of gender roles in the novel. Are they stable or inflexible? How does the novel represent differences in gender roles between the different cultures? Native American and white? Past and present? Private and public? Solitary and community-based? Nurtured by the organic world or inserted in the corporate workplace?

10. In what ways is Eta different from Bimaadiz? Do these differences arise because she is female, or because she has a different relationship with her origins and natural world, or both? How do the differences between the translator and Campaspe echo Bimaadiz and Eta's relationship?

11. As each love story develops, Treuer vividly describes the power of falling in love. But just as each corresponding story reaches the heights of happiness and satisfaction, the narrative repeats in each instance that something terrible happens. Why does Treuer find it important to stress that happiness doesn't last?

12. What are some of the ways in which Treuer reveals the consequences of the act of reading? What does the novel as a whole suggest about the role that language plays in communicating love? What does it suggest about the ways in which words, images, and metaphors embody human emotion and experience?

13. The Translation of Dr. Apelles has been described as a postmodernist novel, a meta-fiction, a work of highly sophisticated literary game-playing. What aspects of the novel and of Treuer's narrative technique support such descriptions? How does the novel's high level of artifice affect the way readers relate to the love stories that it tells?

14. What effect does the final sentence of the novel—“Satisfied with the first sentence, he turns away” [p. 315]—have on the trail that the reader has followed throughout the novel? How does the ending, in general, affect or alter everything that has come before? What is the significance of Apelles' turning away?

Suggested Readings

Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven; Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions; Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler; Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch; Louise Erdrich, Tracks; Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire.
David Treuer

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David Treuer - The Translation of Dr. Apelles

Photo © Vincent Bourdon



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  • The Translation of Dr. Apelles by David Treuer
  • February 12, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9780307386625

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