The Joys of Multiplicity

Susan Bernofsky

Translation contains multitudes. Since there is no one right way to translate most things worth translating—though there are many wrong ways—translation opens up a sphere of multiplicity in which you can elect to enjoy your Bovary à la Lydia Davis or in the style of Steegmuller. Whose Crime and Punishment was Edward Snowden reading in the Moscow airport: David McDuff’s? Pevear and Volokhonsky’s? Oliver Ready’s? Constance Garnett’s? World Classics shelves often resemble a quadruplets conference, with the greatest hits of international literature represented in multiple versions that resemble one another but nonetheless remain distinct. Which is just to say that different translations of a work do not cancel each other out. Each presents its own stylistic, interpretative reading, and if the translator is brilliant, the translation will have every bit as much verve and wit as the original—it’s just that it will be a somewhat different verve and wit.

Many interesting projects over the years have juxtaposed “competing” translations of particular works to foreground the art of translation. I am particularly taken with the journal Telephone, edited by Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault, which published three issues in 2010 and 2011 before metamorphosing into a small press. Telephone commissioned multiple translations of a small number of poems and published them side by side. Some of the translators knew the foreign language in question, others were writers with little or no translation experience who were given rough cribs to work from and encouraged to approach the originals as loosely as they pleased, often with gorgeous and/or hilarious results.

Now McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern has gone the “telephone” principle one better, by organizing multiple translations in a serial rather than parallel arrangement. For the issue entitled “Multiples,” editor Adam Thirlwell engaged 61 writers, many of them quite well known, to translate a dozen stories back and forth between 18 different languages, producing up to 6 different versions of each. The results are illuminating, revealing a great deal about the writers’ sensibilities; their patience; their ability to stare down insoluble difficulties (knotty syntax in a language they don’t speak a word of); and their greater or lesser sense of what might be called, depending on where you stand, either “responsibility” or “obedience.” Some of these stories appear to have had such prodigious quantities of TLC (a.k.a. editing) lavished on them during the translation process that I immediately thought: I want my students to read this. Particularly as the list of those laboring so assiduously contains many of their literary heroes: A. S. Byatt, J. M. Coetzee, Lydia Davis, Jeffrey Eugenides, Aleksander Hemon, Gary Shteyngart, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, and more.

Flickr / StartTheDay

And in fact this grand translation experiment somewhat resembles a project entitled “Word for Word” that’s been going on for two years now in the MFA Writing Program at Columbia University where I teach: students are paired with young writers from other countries and charged with collaboratively translating each other’s work, a task complicated in some cases by the participants’ limited knowledge of each other’s language. The results have nonetheless been consistently strong, a tribute to what can be achieved by dint of serious dialogue, persistence, and ingenuity. With enough careful reading and discussion, students become able to intuit what the stories, essays, and poems are up to, permitting these fledgling translators to make much better choices in their renderings of individual sentences than you would think possible if you quizzed them, say, on their foreign-language grammar and vocabulary skills.

It would appear that the writers included in the McSweeney’s project had a similar experience. According to the “Notes on the Translations” many of them chose to write, they were often surprised by the various ways in which approaching a story as a translator challenged and engaged them. Some participants knuckled down to do the sort of translating in which one strives to recreate a writer’s style, tone, and diction, the texture of the prose. Others took the assignment as an invitation to experiment with literary transformation. “I took some liberties,” Dave Eggers comments laconically on his translation of a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation of Kafka’s story “Das Tier in der Synagoge,” which ends not, like Kafka’s, with a remark on how it is impossible to separate the eponymous animal from its synagogue (or casa, or בית כנסת, or shul, depending on which of the five translations you consult), but with a warning: “That message, delivered by an animal like this, carried a musty scent but was nonetheless clear. It said, Look away, look away, look away.” The line is an ingenious spin on Kafka, sort-of but not really Kafka-esque, yet displaying the same sort of deflection or turn Kafka uses to end so many of his stories.

Even some of the most formally daring approaches to Thirlwell’s assignment tend to show considerable respect for the concerns of their originals.

Eggers’s insertion of his own “take” on Kafka into a Kafka story is typical of the sorts of “strong” translation represented here. Vendela Vida’s note on her contribution to the volume reports that Thirlwell had asked her to make her translation “sound like something [she] could have written.” Which explains why Gary Shteyngart’s rendering of Daniil Kharms’s famous Russian prose poem “Symphony No. 2,” written in the 1930s, reports, “I don’t play Xbox but I love the ladies.” Frédéric Beigbeder translates this as “j’ai arrêté la coke mais j’aime les filles,” and two versions later, the sentence has been ditched altogether, though Ivan Vladislavić’s translation does offer an excellent “Bargain Center” by way of compensation. The five layers of translation of Youssef Habchi El-Achkar’s story “The Four Seasons, Without a Summer” transport the tale from Lebanon to London to Stockholm. Joe Dunthorne’s translator’s note explains that he decided his attempts to produce an “authentic translation” (of Tristan Garcia’s French translation of Rawi Hage’s English translation of El-Achkar’s Arabic) with the help of Google Translate were doomed; he winds up transforming “Dans le café, des chaises confortables et des tables en noisetier” into “I bought a device that can switch off over seven hundred models of television.” Say what you will about the accuracy of the rendering, but Dunthorne’s amusing story does pick up many elements of the original tale: the café setting, the woman the narrator meets there, bad news on the television (from Tunisia in this case, being watched by a Turkish barkeep), broken fingernails suggestive of violence. Even some of the most formally daring approaches to Thirlwell’s assignment tend to show considerable respect for the concerns of their originals, as when Lawrence Norfolk translates László Krasznahorkai’s German translation of his own Hungarian story into what Norfolk identifies as a series of villanelles (though they lack the repeating lines characteristic of that form). But now he’s got me wondering if it would be possible to translate some repetitive piece of prose (Thomas Bernhard?) in villanelle form. I hope someone tries this. (If you do, let me know.)

In cases where all the translators involved are at pains to produce honest, straight-up translations, it is fascinating to see the variations produced as each sentence bounces back and forth between languages (a phenomenon that can be observed even in many of the stories whose translators make quite free with their originals). I am reminded of the theme-and-variations approach in Raymond Queneau’s classic Exercices de style, with its one simple story told 99 different ways. Watch the spider’s thread flutter in this series of sentences based on one written originally in Spanish, in the story “Los de abajo” by Enrique Vila-Matas:

 

For most of them, History with a capital H, with its great characters and its solemn events, has only a very tangential influence on their difficult and chancy lives, since, as well as being very busy with their own problems, they have invented a kind of shrugging indifference that allows them to be tied to reality only by an invisible thread, like the spider’s. (English by Colm Tóibín)

 

Nicht nur sind sie sehr beschäftigt mit ihren eigenen Problemen, sie haben sich eine Art achselzuckende Gleichgültigkeit zugelegt, durch die sie an die Realität nur durch dünne, unsichtbare Fäden gebunden sind, wie eine Spinne an ihr Netz. (German by Daniel Kehlmann)

 

A nagy jellemekkel és eseményekkel teli történelem—ama nagybetűs—legtöbbjük nehéz és ingatag életének csupán a felületét karcolta meg. Nemcsak hogy önmaguk problémáival vannak elborítva, hanem szert tettek egy vállvonogató közönyre, így a valósághoz csupán vékony, láthatatlan szál köti őket, akár a pókot a hálójához. (Hungarian by Péter Esterházy)

 

The history of big personalities and events—History with a capital H—barely touches the surface of their difficult, unstable lives. They’re shrouded in their own problems; they’ve acquired a shrugging insensibility, and there’s only a weak line connecting them to the real, as a spider to its web. (English by Julie Orringer)

 

L’histoire des grandes personnalités et des événements—l’Histoire avec un grand H—effleure à peine la surface de leurs vies instables et difficiles. Ils sont perdus dans leurs propres problèmes; ils ont acquis une indifférence inconsciente et le lien qui les relie à la réalité est aussi mince qu’un fil d’araignée. (French by Laurent Binet)

 

The history of great personages and events—big H history—hardly grazes the surface of their unstable, difficult lives. They’re lost in their own problems; indifference has worked its way into their bones; and the thread that binds them to reality is as thin as a spider’s. (English by Tom McCarthy)

 

Note how in the process of translation the spider acquires a web and then loses it again as the final image gets complicated and then pared back down, with Binet and McCarthy both agreeing with Tóibín that the best word to end this paragraph on is “spider.” In general it’s fair to say that the stories tend to become more syntactically straightforward the more generations of translation they pass through.

This might be an opportune moment to point out that our notion of what constitutes a faithful translation isn’t much more than two hundred years old. Back in the 18th century, writers regularly produced quite approximate versions of each other’s work, and it went without saying that, say, Christoph Martin Wieland’s German translations of Shakespeare’s plays published in the 1760s read more like flowery Wieland than like gnarly Shakespeare. Bible translation was another story—these translations were supposed to be “accurate” (a term whose meaning has fluctuated substantially), and wars were fought over perceived inaccuracies. Catholicism might still be the only available flavor of Christianity if it hadn’t been for Martin Luther’s translation of the Old and New Testaments published in 1522 and 1534, which contained significant doctrinal tweaks. In fact, the entire history of Christianity is unthinkable without huge quantities of translation and retranslation. And while we now tend to look down on translations of translations (texts tend to get watery in retranslation, to lose elasticity and detail), the history of world literature contains quite a lot of them. Think, for example, of the book variously known as the One Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights. The Arabic “original” contained quite a lot of material that came straight from Persian, and many modern Western translations included a number of tales (such as “Aladdin’s Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”) that were added by the collection’s early 18th-century French translator Antoine Galland, whose version served as the basis for a number of retranslations.

Retranslation used to be the stuff of scholarship as well. In mid-18th-century Germany, for example, when ever fewer Germans were learning Greek, many great classics being translated into German passed through intermediary French versions. This is one of the reasons the great turn-of-the-19th-century theologian, philosopher, scholar, translator, and translation theorist Friedrich Schleiermacher criticized the sorts of translation being practiced by his French contemporaries: he felt they were robbing his beloved Greeks of their power, turning them into well-coiffed courtiers with polite manners. The rebellion in German letters against Gallicized classical culture helped motivate a return to studying Greek and Latin by the turn of the 19th century. And despite all the criticism French translators received both then and in later centuries, retranslations via French were still being done well into the second half of the 20th century: see, for instance, the first translation of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris from 1970, translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox from Jean-Michel Jasiensko’s 1964 French translation. Lem complained bitterly about that one, but despite the popularity of the film Tarkovsky made of the novel (retranslated for the screen in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh), it was not translated directly from Polish into English until 2011, and this new translation by Bill Johnston is allowed to appear only in audio- and e-book formats because the exclusive right to distribute the book in English in printed form is still held by the publisher of the earlier translation, Harcourt.

But there’s something quite different that intentionally loose retranslations by writers who do not specialize in literary translation can show us: an entire realm of playful collaboration that produces interesting writing of a sort that these writers may never have thought of, left to their own devices—as playful as the multiple illustrations of single motifs that were commissioned to accompany each story. And I think that is why this collection of serious and tongue-in-cheek translations feels so joyful: by the time these writers have left the dictionary (or Google Translate) phase behind them, they have found themselves having fun with the story on their laptops, and the sense of communal play that results is infectious.

Most of the translator’s work is a matter of rewriting, of transforming English into English.

No, you probably can’t produce an accurate translation of a story written in Hungarian if you don’t know any Hungarian, but under the right circumstances you can be inspired by the sentences of the great László Krasznahorkai to produce sentences of your own that aren’t half bad. In her translator’s note, Julie Orringer quotes from the literal-translation crib she found herself working with in translating Esterházy’s translation of Tóibín’s translation of Vila-Matas: “In my book I found the right position of some historical events (myself kicked [or hit] the importance of one historical event to the right place), and I let everybody, if he wants, to measure the personality.” So when you set to wrestling something like this into actual English, does this still count as translating? Sure, depending on how you define the process. Certainly what you’re doing is as much a translation as the charming English-to-English translations in Paul Legault’s Emily Dickinson Reader (published by McSweeney’s Books). In fact, most of the translator’s work is a matter of rewriting, of transforming English into English.

Thirlwell’s introduction contains a lot of big claims about style, and I’m not convinced that everything he says holds up. In his description of the experiment that produced this volume, he asks: “What would happen if a story were successively translated by a series of novelists, each one working only from the version immediately prior to their own—the aim being to preserve that story’s style?” But then he turns around and says that he decided to use writers for the project rather than professional translators, because he wanted to pursue “an aesthetic aim: to subject each story to as much stylistic multiplicity as possible.” By the end of the introduction, he is calling his own use of the term into question and wondering “if the future for style should be multiplicity” (à la Picasso, master of so many styles), as opposed to a notion of style as “the basic unit of literature” corresponding “to a unique vision” that is “the goal of every writer.”

In fact, Thirwell is trying to have his cake and eat it too by suggesting in the end that “multiplicity” might be a style (it is not). The idea that—as I see it—his introduction muddies in its presentation is that we can and should marvel at how much of a literary work does survive translation, even when subjected to the sort of strong translation that few of the authors doing the translations here might wish to see from translators of their own books. The difference between the stylistic multiplicity represented in this volume and that seen in multiple professional translations of a single work is largely one of degree: most of the translator-authors at work here have intentionally imposed stylistic diversity on the stories presented to them, celebrating the various; whereas professionals generally use all the skills at their disposal to minimize stylistic variation as much as possible, striving to achieve something approaching stylistic sameness across two different languages.

Speaking of variation, I wonder why—if the point of this project really is to celebrate literary diversity, international and otherwise—the table of contents of “Multiples” is so heavily weighted toward white male authors. Of the 61 writers enlisted here as translators, only 13 are women (including one co-translator), and of the stories selected for translation, 12 out of 12 are by men. Seriously? Do we still live in a world in which at least part of the male literary establishment doesn’t even notice how exclusively it is framing its notion of what great writing is?

By having writers translate each other’s translations rather than just produce different versions of a single original text, Thirlwell brilliantly gives them permission (or an excuse) to give up trying to be dutiful in their translations.

Not until the end of the volume does it become clear what Thirlwell was really attempting to get at with his “style of multiplicity”: he concludes this lively jumble of translations with his own co-translation (with Francesco Pacifico) of Carlo Emilio Gadda’s story “L’incendio di via Keplero.” Gadda is famous for a kitchen-sink sort of prose that juxtaposes many different Italian dialects and registers, lending itself perfectly to a translation experiment designed to highlight and celebrate chaos. And indeed the translation offered by Thirlwell and Pacifico is a stunning collage of anachronisms and mixed metaphors. I’ll almost certainly assign this to my students—along with Thirlwell’s translator’s note, which addresses tone and register more than style and is a thoughtful take on avoiding both cultural falsification and “translationese.” And then I’ll pass around William Weaver’s essay “The Process of Translation,” which takes the reader step-by-step through three drafts of a masterful translation of a paragraph of Gadda’s dense-packed prose.

The main insight that emerges from Thirlwell’s project is that translation is a form of writing, and there are many valid ways to practice it. Multiplicity is all around us, and that’s a good thing. By having writers translate each other’s translations rather than just produce different versions of a single original text, Thirlwell brilliantly gives them permission (or an excuse) to give up trying to be dutiful in their translations. And this is exactly what I’m always trying to get the students in my workshops to do.

Dutiful, by-the-dictionary translation is what most people who aren’t themselves practicing translators tend to think translation is. And it takes a certain amount of experience and/or coaching to discover how much freedom is actually necessary to produce a successful translation, by which I mean a piece of writing that lives and breathes and delights as well as offers a not-bad approximation of what made the original story or poem great in the first place. In “Multiples” it is quite apparent how well these writers have mastered their craft: well enough to write not just their own work, but the work of others, too. A. S. Byatt’s translation of Julia Franck’s translation of Andrew Sean Greer’s translation of Javier Marías’s translation of a story by Richard Middleton, “The Making of a Man,” is a concatenation of exceptionally elegant sentences that also happen to tell a good story, and there are many more such gems within these pages.

So by all means learn a foreign language and learn it well—learn its grammar and its culture, its cadences and its puns—and then bring all this knowledge with you when you sit down to translate something written in your newly acquired tongue. But also bring with you all your own writerly capabilities, your sense of style, of rhythm, of humor. Translation without artistic play means the death of stories. Translations filled with the pleasure of creation will make their stories speak a new language, and these are the stories I want to read.