In Praise of the Near Impossible-to-Translate Novel
From Döblin to Tokarczuk, Spare a Thought for the Hardworking Translators
The other day I was talking with the translator Christina MacSweeney, who has built herself an enviable reputation among those in her line of work. (How many translators get adoring profiles in the Los Angeles Review of Books?)
We were on the topic of her rather auspicious debut, which was Valeria Luiselli’s novel Faces in the Crowd, a book that arrived with more buzz than a hornet’s nest, launched a brilliant career, won prizes, and even sold quite well. It was as much a launch pad for its translator as its author. How in the world did MacSweeney get the plum assignment of translating this as her very first project?
As we discussed it over beers, MacSweeney seemed just as dumbfounded as anyone at her great fortune, though I did have one thought. “You clearly were passionate for the work,” I told her, “and that counts for a lot. You always want a translator who has an obvious affinity for an author.”
I stand by those words. In the translation world, where the money is small, the fame and glamour almost nonexistent, and the work breathtakingly difficult, it’s the love for the projects that makes everything work. If you’re going to stick with a challenging translation for dozens of hours a week for months on end, you absolutely have to be inspired by it.
Some days, when I think about just how difficult literary translation is, I get the feeling that inspiration, plus metric tons of persistence, are all that stand between us and a hazy gray landscape of mediocre translations and English-only literature. With that in mind, here are some recent translations where the love and inspiration are clearly present…
We can start with Alfred Döblin’s modernist masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz, which has just appeared in Michael Hofmann’s translation. Hoffman was not the first to try this book. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books last month, Sophie Duvernoy did a marvelous job of explaining why Eugene Jolas’s original translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz was such a dud (even though Jolas, a friend of James Joyce, seemed the right man for the job), and why Hofmann’s is a success.
“It takes courage bordering on foolhardiness to translate Döblin’s novel,” Duvernoy writes, “which is heavy on period slang and local dialect. Hofmann’s accomplishment is to reimagine in English how the novel talks, squawks, screeches, and curses in Döblin’s German. The original is a gabby thing, and Hofmann too makes his translation talk in many voices.”
One of the great things about translation is that age-old classics like Berlin Alexanderplatz can be entirely new to readers here in English. Such is the case of Leg Over Leg, originally published in 1855 and considered the “first great Arabic novel.” Sometimes compared to Tristram Shandy, its length and complexity would make it formidable enough, but then there’s the fact that author Ahmad Faris Shidyaq has a penchant for rhymes and humor. As its translator, Humphrey Davies, remarked in an interview, “Arabic is a language that lends itself, thanks to its morphology, to rhyming; English doesn’t. The time and effort taken to rhyme the rhymed prose was considerable.” In another he said, “there is a whole chapter in Leg Over Leg devoted to what appear to be well-known jokes of his day, most of which are to me incomprehensible, or at least quite unfunny.”
Rhymes and jokes are one thing, but then there is “the sentence that continues over 40 pages and never loses syntactical integrity despite being stuffed with a 1,000-word list and 77 asides.” I’m astonished. Davies perhaps put it best when he said, “I regard my translation of Leg Over Leg as an exploration and a mapping expedition across a very wide continent.” Future Arabic translators: challenge issued.
Davies said that his translation of Leg Over Leg took him over two years—a significant chunk of time for a literary translation. When I saw conceptual poet David Larsen read from his translation of Names of the Lion by Ibn Khālawayh last year, he explained that he had been working on it for not two years but several. Considering that Names is 72 pages in length, that’s quite in-depth work.
Names of the Lion is just that—a list of names for lions kept by a 10th-century Persian grammarian (lion sightings in urban areas were much more common back then). It helped develop the then-new form of the thesaurus, and it is something taught in elementary schools of the region today. It features names like, “The Big Food-Basket,” “Whose Eyes Burn,” “The Show-Off,” “The Elder,” and “Whose Sides Are Well Filled Out.”
As Thom Donovan puts it at the Poetry Foundation, “As one soon finds, reading the names of the lion along with its many footnotes (the footnotes take up more than half of each page generally) to arrive at the names of the lion, Larsen makes many leaps of graphological association—’lightning flashes’ according to Walter Benjamin. . . . Through Names of the Lion, we begin to see a picture of the imagination, the imagination given shape and visibility through the power of naming.”
How about something completely different? Something like a postmodern, book-length poem that tries to play a universe-wide game of “six degrees of separation” by connecting everything to everything in one gigantic euphoric flow of verbiage? Welcome to the world of Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen. As Jensen writes in her translator’s note, “when offered to translate this 214-page collection . . . I was both excited and terrified.” Among the challenges here are the many neologisms that Jensen had to recreate, such as “namedrunk” (my favorite). There’s also charmingly glib one-liners like, “I’m driving by in my fuck-you wagon.”
From Denmark to Poland, Flights is a new (to English) novel by Olga Tokarczuk, often considered one of Poland’s greatest living authors. It has been longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, and in an interview at the Prize’s website, the book’s translator Jennifer Croft explains some of what makes this such a challenge.
For this novel, Olga uses a strategy she calls “constellation,” which partly means bringing lots of different ideas and stories and voices into relationships with one another via the lines the reader draws between them. I love translating all of Olga’s writing because of her surgical precision in dealing with the psychologies of her characters and her nuanced and lyrical prose, and the fact that without ever being heavy-handed, she always manages to be crystal clear and profoundly effective. . . . I could go on and on. I love translating Olga.
Then from Poland we continue eastward to Korea. With international successes such as the Man Booker-wining Han Kang, the 25-title strong Library of Korea series from Dalkey Archive Press, and indie press darlings like Bae Suah and Han Yujoo, Korean literature is hot right now. But all of this strong prose should not detract from the nation’s poetry scene, which is among the best in the world.
Here, it is the women who are leading, and one of the best of them is Kim Hyseoon. Possibly the most acclaimed and prestigious poet in Korea (among other honors, she read alongside titans Seamus Heaney and Wole Soyinka in celebrations preceding the 2012 London Olympics), her work has been marvelously brought into English by Don Mee Choi, a talented poet herself, as well as a force for literary translation from Korea. Merely the title of Kim’s latest collection in translation, Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, gives some indication of the dexterity needed to work with this poet. We might also look to the words of Choi’s editor at Action Books, Joyelle McSweeney, who writes of Choi’s translations:
In many ways, Kim Hyesoon’s body of work in English is actually a kind of double, a non-identical twin volatilely and unstably conjoined with her Korean body of work, constantly morphing in shape and tone, uncannily vivified by the double supply of artistry that runs between Kim Hyesoon and Don Mee Choi.
If that’s not hard, I don’t know what is. And, Insofar as I’m aware, this is accurate: I had the pleasure of once discussing Choi’s translations of Kim with her, and she told me about how Kim’s poems literally “possessed” her in the act of translating them (she also described to me a grotesque dream involving an out-of-body experience that translating Kim’s poems gave her). Kim’s poetry is extraordinarily playful (Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream features a series based around pigs massacred because of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease), and her wordplay is intense and in-your-face. This is very rewarding poetry for those who aren’t afraid to get loud and sit around all night thinking about what they’ve read. Try some for yourself.
From the cutting edge of world poetry today to the cutting edge 4,000 years ago, I will close out with Inanna, the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, sex, war, justice, and political power. Inanna may be ancient, but the translations of her are quite new, as it wasn’t too long ago that archaeologists unearthed her tales, and we’ve only been able to read about her exploits for a short time. We are very fortunate that Canadian novelist Kim Echlin made the effort to commune with this goddess, getting inside her head enough to give us the startling renditions of her lore collected in the book Inanna.
Beyond the inherent difficulty of reading texts that were inscribed into clay thousands of years ago with a nail-shaped stylus, there are also the difficulties of finding modern equivalents for ancient ideas, images, sayings, and forms of logic, not to mention the ancient Sumerian words that are to this day still undefined. There is also the challenge of maintaining the effect of writing that was embedded in an oral tradition and meant to only be experienced out loud. Echlin writes of her “years of contemplation of these stories and poems,” saying that “their first powerful spell has never left me.” We are quite fortunate.
I’ve said so much, and yet there is still so much more to say. For instance, the Chinese Nobel favorite Can Xue, an author regularly compared to the likes of Borges and Calvino, and about whom people like to say she is “freed from narrative conventions.” (Good job to her many translators, the three most recent of whom are Karen Gernant, Chen Zeping, and Annelise Finegan Wasmoen.) Or then there are the page-long sentences of László Krasznahorkai. (Thanks to Ottilie Mulzet, Georges Szirtes, and John Batki for their extraordinary knowledge of Hungarian.) Or the maximalist experiments of Argentine Rodrigo Fresán (thank you Will Vanderhyden).
Seek out one of these translations, and while you’re reading take a little time to think over just how much sweat and inspiration went into the amazing language you’re reading. And then, perhaps, take a minute to honor this work, with a tweet, a recommendation, or just a quiet thank you to the gods. This is not easy stuff, and we only have it by virtue of passionate people who work incredibly hard to give it to us.