The potential of literature in translation


The Stinging Fly have posted my essay from their summer translation issue (June 2013). Using Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction series as a starting point, the essay takes in the recently translated Georges Perec‘s La boutique obscure as well as the 65th anniversary edition of Raymond Queneau‘s Exercises in Style, and also Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito’s excellent The End of Oulipo? (the title of my essay is a play on Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, workshop of potential literature). One of the most exciting translation projects this year had to be Adam Thirlwell‘s Multiples project:

According to Paul Klee genius is the error in the system, a sentiment Adam Thirlwell shares. ‘There are no perfect translations, just as there are no perfect styles,’ he says. ‘Something is still translatable, even if its translation is not perfect.’ The first imperfect French translation of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was made by Joseph Pierre Frénais in 1776. Imperfect, for not only did Frénais omit Sterne’s stylistic tricks (looped lines, diagrams, blank pages, and so on) he left out sentences that bored him, restructured paragraphs and tampered with Sterne’s ‘impolite’ jokes. The translation was not without its merit. In it, Frénais invented the word dada as an equivalent to Sterne’s word ‘hobby-horse’, later plucked from the dictionary by Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara in search of a name for their anti-art movement of assemblage and readymades.

André Breton, an associate of Tzara and inventor of Surrealism, liked to play the cadavre exquis game, a collective collage of words or images where several people would write a phrase on a sheet of paper, concertina the paper to conceal part of it and pass it on to the next player for their contribution. Thirlwell, whose recent project editing the McSweeney’s ‘Multiples’ issue, can but nod in agreement with those Surrealist experiments in language.

‘What would happen if a story were successively translated by a series of novelists, each one working from the version immediately prior to their own—the aim being to preserve that story’s style?’ Thirlwell’s experiment—to have twelve stories translated in and out of eighteen languages by sixty-one authors—is a bold one, especially considering he elects to use fiction writers not all fluent in the other language, rather than professional translators. (Let its translator be far from brilliant, Bolaño said.) His hypothesis, though, echoes that of Hemon’s: ‘the art of the novel is an international art. Its history is international, and the mechanics of this history is translation — which means that the art of fiction, having survived this history, must be tougher than it looks.’

Thirlwell’s exquisite corpse sees a newly translated story retranslated, the retranslations retranslated, re-re-re-translations, re-re-re-re-translations, and finally, re-re-re-re-re-translations. Appropriately enough Banville and Hemon contribute to the ‘crisscrossing puzzlement’ (both translate Danilo Kiš; Hemon from Serbo-Croat to English, Banville from French to English). Like Oulipo, ‘Multiples’ had constraints: each ‘translator’ was allowed to see only the text they were translating, rather than any earlier versions and only the first translator had access to the original text. Thus, the experiment is an experiment in multiplying translation.

Though Thirlwell doesn’t name names, some novelists only contributed on the condition they could do it as literally as possible, others if they could essentially write a new story. And by his own admission the experiment wasn’t a complete success, which proves, he says, it was a true experiment: ‘The degree to which each story emerges unscathed veers wildly in each case… a gracious sense of fidelity to the dead overlaps with an ungracious glee in infidelity.’

Thirlwell also happily admits that he appropriated David Bellos’s idea that we have to move away from thinking that translation is substitution. ‘A translation is more like a portrait in oils’, said Bellos, and Thirlwell sees translations as likenesses rather than exact reproductions. ‘Maybe in some hypothetical future,’ Thirlwell writes, ‘literature will become the pure international—oblivious to the problems of time and space—and somehow the language in which you write or read your literature will be less important than the singular multiple structures those languages happen to form.’

Until such times arrive, we are left with artists’ impressions of other artists’ work. But, as Walter Benjamin said, fidelity and freedom are often regarded as being in conflict. They may not be. As the artistic constraints of Oulipo liberated the artist and produced ‘potential literature’, so errors and shifts in translation become infinitely important. Translation is not a perfect reproduction of the original, it is combined with the original to approach something more: it has an ounce of value added to its original value.

And I’ve interviewed Adam for issue one of gorse.

You’ve translated before, Nabokov‘s ‘Mademoiselle O’ for your book Miss Herbert. As Nabokov advocated literal translation, did the practice of translating him influence your translation? Did it cast a shadow over Multiples?

Definitely when I was translating ‘Mademoiselle O’ I tried to make a translation that Nabokov would have approved of… I made it as sternly as I could. But I think Multiples was my anti-Nabokov project. And it was partly prompted by discovering something I hadn’t known before – when writing for the NYRB on Nabokov’s translations. It turned out that Nabokov himself had made a very different sketch for a translation of Eugene Onegin – three stanzas – which instead of the stern literalism he advocated later were written in a lovely imitation of Pushkin’s metre. I wish VN had continued with that translation! It would have been the perfect recreation of Pushkin in English. And it was the direct opposite of his later theories. And so it was thinking about the reasons for VN’s shift in ideas about translation that made me wonder if in fact there could be another kind of ideal translation, too. Multiples is my revolution. Or self-coup.

Oh, and Queneau also makes an appearance in Karl Whitney‘s gorse essay, ‘The Run of the Streets’. More on that soon.