Monday, 29 July 2013

Thirlwell's Multiples

I spent last week sharing the joy of literary translation at the BCLT Literary Translation Summer School in Norwich. I worked with the German writer Daniela Dröscher and a group of talented aspiring/emerging/butterfly-stage translators, who produced some excellent pieces of writing in English. Dröscher's work is extremely difficult to translate - her tone can be subtle or trowelled on and she uses historical research that the translator has to replicate, only in another language. So there was plenty to be done. The texts will be online soon and there will also be video evidence.

Aside from the translation workshops themselves, the BCLT lays on various plenary sessions during the week. This year the keynote lecture was a keynote Q&A involving Adam Thirlwell, Tash Aw and Daniel Hahn. Thirlwell and Aw were there to talk about the Multiples project. Originally published as issue 42 of McSweeney's magazine, put together by Thirlwell, it's now out in the UK as a thick hardback.

To get this out of the way: I admire Adam Thirlwell. Adam Thirlwell is a clever writer with a burning interest in translation. The word "fanboy" was used to describe his admiration for translators, although not in his presence. What Thirlwell did, he told us, was an experiment to do with literary style. I'm currently reading his book Miss Herbert, which looks at dead writers' international relations and how translation plays a role and perhaps what translation is and what it can be and what it ought to be. Maybe whether it's possible, although that's not something that interests me personally. It seems to be a book about writing and translation and style. Style, however, is a slippery word, almost a non-word. I'm not yet quite sure what it means, but I'm still thinking about it.

I don't know whether Adam Thirlwell is absolutely certain what style is either. I mean that in a good way. As I understand it, Multiples was conceived as a project to put literary style to the test. Encouraged by the McSweeney's people, Thirlwell found twelve stories and sixty novelists from various languages and countries. Each story was relayed through translation into and out of and back into English several times by those writers, so that Anglophone readers don't get too upset. What I think he wanted to do was to ascertain whether the stories' respective styles would withstand translation by writers who have their own personal styles, or whether their own ways of writing would impinge upon the originals.

Tash Aw translated a story by Italian writer Giuseppe Pontiggia - but not until it had been rendered into English by Zadie Smith and then Chinese by Ma Jian. Aw was given only Ma Jian's version and no further information or detailed instructions. He was rather puzzled by it all, he told us, because it was set in China but had some very Italian aspects to it. And delightfully, his opening quote is not only mauled in its meaning but also attributed to a non-existent writer, thanks to the perils of transliteration. Aw felt obliged to be fairly loyal to his text and yet not deliver a "prim", dull translation; that involved adapting it to English literary convention by changing tenses, for instance. But it's clear that each writer did whatever the hell they felt like. Zadie Smith provided something that reads like Italian in English, to my ears, consciously not intervening in the slightest, whereas Ma Jian felt the story's coordinates predestined it to be re-set in China, and wrote accordingly.

There were a few cases where writers "lied" to Thirlwell about their language skills, which have provided some odd results. Google Translate, partners, children, guesswork and pure fancy were used, and all of them make for quirky reading, especially for readers who can follow more than just the English versions. To be honest, though, the appeal wanes after eight or nine series and I switched to reading only the translators' notes. These were fascinating throughout. One thing that struck me was that those writers translating into German were very precise and strait-laced, perhaps reflecting Germanic cultures' admiration for that kind of translation. Whereas many of the translations into English were significantly freer, for whatever reason. Of the German-language writers involved (Julia Franck, Daniel Kehlmann and Peter Stamm), only the last wrote a note, in which he seems almost penitent for adding a paragraph break.

All of which raises the question - which was of course raised at the summer school - of why Thirlwell didn't just use professional translators. Certainly, they would have been more efficient. In fact, though, that's been done before. The Swiss writer Urs Widmer sent a story of his own through six languages and then back to German, and published the outcome with comments by the translators and himself. To tell the truth I'm not entirely sure whether he worked with professionals or not, but they weren't writers in the traditional sense. He called his experiment "Stille Post" - just as the McSweeney's cover features a telephone to denote what we call "Chinese whispers" in British English. I haven't read the piece, which is in Widmer's 2011 collection of the same title, but I gather he didn't recognise the end result as his own writing. So the distorting effect is not the new thing here. We know that translation changes things in subtle ways, which can be amplified in series.

What's new - and what I very much admire about the project - is the involvement of published novelists. I found the book was more about writing than translation. It was about whether a writer's ego would kick in and transform the material more than the mere act of translation does anyway. The answer is probably yes, I'd say. Especially where the writers "didn't like" their texts, we learned, they tended to re-write rather than re-render. And that's where the style issue comes in. I'm not sufficiently familiar with any of the English-language writers involved (aside from Smith, perhaps, who was proverbially invisible) to judge whether their versions could be read simply as, say, John Banville writing within stricter parameters than usual. I'm not sure what markers we could use to make that judgement. I'm not sure whether cultural issues were at play or personality clashes, or to what extent style equates with ego.

As Thirlwell wrote in his introduction, a distinction emerged between four categories of translation:
(...) of the celebrated dead, of the uncelebrated dead, of the celebrated living, and of the uncelebrated living. Each one can constrain or free the novelist-translator to various degrees of stylistic chutzpah.
I personally most enjoy translating the celebrated living, or at least living writers celebrated in my own head. There is an aspect of admiration involved, but not the level of reverence that becomes frightening and constricting. I hope I - and perhaps other translators - can follow some of the examples in Multiples to free our work from some of its constraints. A series of perfect translations - which can of course only exist in theory, in a Che Guevara world in which we not only demand but also realistically achieve the impossible - would make very dull reading. A book that makes novelists try their hands at translation just might make novelists appreciate translators' work more. Very few of the texts included here would be described as "good translations" by most definitions. Yet many of them are good texts in their own way and the project as a whole makes fascinating reading. I'm still considering style and whether translators can grant ourselves a style of our own.

To round off that particular day at summer school, then, I fangirled over translator-fanboy Thirlwell. This took place under the twin constraints of extreme exhaustion and rapid alcohol consumption. Among the thoughts swirling around my head, the most prominent were probably "Oh God, I just tripped over in front of Adam Thirlwell" and "Oh God, I just smashed a glass in front of Adam Thirlwell." He was, however, perfectly civil and friendly and refrained from laughing at my clumsiness and attempts at conversation. I can't quite bring myself to destroy the mystique by reading his own translations though. 

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