Infinite Jest Around the World
Translating David Foster Wallace's 1,000 Page Mega-Novel
Capitalism has made it so there’s a perpetual tidal wave of American culture crashing down around the globe. When The Force Awakens was released last December, it didn’t just open coast to coast across North America—it appeared in over 30 countries across five continents within its first week. When Dan Brown’s novel Inferno was released in 2013, it didn’t just sell out in every Costco in these 50 states: a team of 11 translators were locked away in a garret somewhere so that the book could have a simultaneous worldwide release. By early 2014 it was available in over 20 different languages.
But not all things emanating from this country move quite so quickly. Take, for instance, David Foster Wallace’s near-canonical mega-novel Infinite Jest: released in the States in 1996, it has in 20 years been translated into just five languages. (A sixth translation into Greek is currently in the works.) At this rate, it is moving only slightly faster than the massive Quixote, which had appeared in England, France, the Germanic territories, and Venice 20 years after its complete Castilian publication in 1615. However, Jest is massively behind the 3,600-page über-novel My Struggle, which—just 5 years after its complete Norwegian release—is available or forthcoming in over 20 languages.
To determine precisely what forces have determined the globalization of David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, I spoke to writers, translators, and publishers in eight countries familiar with the work and its multiple manifestations. This is what they told me.
Italy translates more than any other European nation, and the bulk of these books come from America and England, so perhaps it should not be a surprise that the first translation of Infinite Jest was into Italian. This happened in 2000, only four years after Wallace’s hyper-opus hit the U.S. What also helps is that Italy is saturated with American pop culture, so Wallace’s incessant cultural references transport well there.
Giovanna Granato, who has translated Wallace’s The Pale King and Oblivion, (among others, as well as the likes of Michael Ondaatje, Richard Powers, and Geoff Dyer) guided me through the ins and outs of Jest in Italy. To her, Wallace fits right in because “philosophical,” “specious,” and “convoluted” books are in the Italian cultural DNA: “There has always been a cult for difficult writers such as Joyce or Pound, Heidegger, or Wittgenstein,” she told me. Their “whole work has been translated and studied and commented and even imitated since the beginning.” She also added that in the years following the so-called Ventennio—the 20 years of Fascism—there was a flood of translations of canonical authors like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. This sudden discovery of American literary culture may have predisposed Italian readers to love our writers.
Perhaps owing to being from one of the most beautiful, classic, and wine-soaked nations on the planet, Granato also frequently referenced another quality in her responses: love. “I do believe that the Italians who decide to undergo the reading of Wallace’s books have the same attitude of someone falling in love,” she said. “They accept everything that comes from him, even if it’s alien to them, and find it beautiful.” Later, when commenting on Wallace’s impact, she told me, “why a country or a generation happens to fall in love with an artist from another place and culture remains a mystery. And that’s the case with Italy, where we had indeed a generation of writers inspired by Wallace’s way of writing who still claim Wallace was their master.” She added that to this day, 16 years after its release, the translation still sells well, something rather uncommon among books on the Italian market.
Granato has read Infinite Jest twice: once 15 years ago when she was in the full throes of her first discovery of Wallace, and a second time when recently translating The Pale King. “During the day I translated the book and at night, before going to sleep, I read Infinite Jest to keep hearing Wallace’s voice in my mind,” she said. The result was that her “dreams where full of words, of English words, of rare, strange English words.”
The next translation of Infinite Jest came in 2002, under the steady hand of the Spanish postmodern novelist Javier Calvo and translator Marcelo Covián. The groundwork had been laid, as since the mid-90s Wallace had been a definite cult phenomenon among the Iberians. This is largely thanks to Spaniards who had read him in English, among them the postmodern novelist Germán Sierra, who read him in the early 90s while at UCLA. Over email, Sierra told me that it was Calvo, the Barcelona-based novelist and essayist Eloy Fernández Porta, and the Argentine novelist Rodrigo Fresán who began to push hard for Wallace in Spain. “The feeling about discussing DFW then was kind of ‘culty’—very few knew his work here, but the ones who did knew it very well.” To date Wallace has had his strongest impact on the so-called Nocilla Generation, a group of aggressively postmodern authors whose work is beginning to emerge in English translation. I myself published an excerpt of Sierra’s novel Standards at The Quarterly Conversation, while Fitzcarraldo Editions recently released Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream.
Despite those inroads, however, Sierra says that Spanish literature remains conservative, and so Wallace it still a cult taste in Spain, even after his 2009 death. For Sierra, however, he has been important: “I remember Blake Butler saying that reading Infinite Jest changed completely his idea of what could be done in writing and how he decided to start writing fiction after that. I was not so young when Infinite Jest came out, so for me it wasn’t quite that influential, but I still think it’s one of the great masterpieces of the late 20th century and that Wallace, together with Vollmann, are the most representative American writers of their generation.”
Of course, the Spanish translation also put the bulk of Latin America into play for Wallace (we will get to the most prominent exception, Brazil, in a moment). There is, of course, Argentina, the land of postmodernists like Borges and Cortázar, and also a nation that has had its own roller coaster ride with capitalism since the 1990s. “Argentina has always been, is and will be, in a way, postmodernist,” says Argentine novelist Rodrigo Fresán, who owes debts to Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, and his friend Roberto Bolaño. An English translation of his novel The Invented Part will be published next year. Despite Argentina’s postmodern bent, Fresán finds that Jest is far more talked about than read, a thing that has increased since the novelist’s suicide and sanctification: “Now there’s the legend, the suicide, the movie . . . all the things that help you to fluently ‘talk Wallace’ without the obligation of reading him.” He thinks the Argentines do better with Wallace’s essays, which, coming from the land of Borges, perhaps makes sense.
And then there is Mexico: with over 100 million citizens, it’s one of the most populous countries in the hemisphere and a literary powerhouse: living authors alone include Álvaro Enrigue, Valeria Luiselli, Yuri Herrera, Jorge Volpi, Juan Villoro, Guadalupe Nettel, Carmen Boullosa, and Sergio Pitol. Guillermo Nuñez, an editor at the cultural and literary magazine Tempestad, told me that Infinite Jest “is a well known book in Mexico, among the few readers we have left (last year, according to Conaculta, Mexicans read less than three books per capita), but even among them I’m not sure it has been read in full, in spite of its fame.” Nuñez was quick to add that “Wallace’s books are influential (especially his essays and short stories) among our literati: sometimes I fear that most of our writers do not read anything but Anglo-Saxon writers.” He added that American culture transmits well (all those sitcoms and movies that proliferate south of the border), making Wallace et al. easier to enjoy. Jest’s great themes transmit well too: Nuñez said that it appeals to Mexican readers because it “talks very clearly (with its complexity) about the ethos of our time and our downward spiral into a tyranny of Entertainment and Spectacle.”
Next up is the German language, which got Jest in 2009. I was able to exchange emails with German translator Ulrich Blumenbach, who was as delightfully German a person as I could imagine. His fastidiousness and modesty were impressive, and he was the most punctual and precise of my correspondents. At the end of the interview he confided his suspicions that entire essays would not be enough to plumb the depths of my queries about Wallace and his novel. Still, had Blumenbach written these essays,I no doubt would have read every word with fascination.
So how did Jest reach Deutschland? It was the mammoth, 100,000-copies-sold success of a stand-alone edition of “Shipping Out”—Wallace’s essay on taking a cruise, and probably the funniest thing I’ve ever read by him or maybe anyone—that occasioned the decision to translate it. This turned out to be a good idea, as Blumenbach told me that “Unendlicher Spaß has by now sold 70,000 copies, which in Germany is an absolutely fantastic success for a book of this complexity.” The book was covered by all the major German newspapers, and Blumenbach guessed that no book had seen a reception like this since Hans Wollschläger’s translation of Ulysses arrived in Germany in 1975.
Once again, the preponderance of American culture in Germany makes Infinite Jest a book that is readily understood. (And at this point I can’t help but take glee in the inherently Wallacian irony that American capitalism’s blob-like smearing of the globalized world has prepared the way for a scathing critique of this very same capitalism contained, Trojan Horse-style, inside a recondite mega-novel.) Still, things get lost: Blumenbach said that he “annotated the text as far as I could, and the publishers put those sixty pages of annotations on their website for a while.”
To bring this book into German he relied on the OED, as well as “the German dictionary of the Brothers Grimm,” which helped him replace Wallace’s purposefully obsolete words with equally archaic German. He also relied on friends and family for art history, medical jargon, pop culture television, and trigonometry.
Blumenbach has kept busy with Wallace: he’s been working on the author’s first essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which, along with Consider the Lobster and Both Flesh and Not, will eventually be published as a mega-volume of Wallace’s complete essays. It’s a good match—much like Wallace’s other translators, Blumenbach venerates the American: “I love him. He is (okay: up there with Joyce) THE author of my life. I love his precision, his vocabulary, his polyphony, his humor, his erudition, his empathy, his characters, his flow . . .”
In Brazil, Wallace has yet to make the impact that he has elsewhere, perhaps due in part to the fact that Infinite Jest only got there in 2014. Caetano Galindo, who made the book’s translation, told me that Brief Interviews and some of the essays had previously been released to little acclaim. “I don’t think his reception has reached critics and academia as it most certainly should,” he said, adding that “there is a considerable number of younger writers who have felt his influence in a very marked way . . . the more important of these ‘young turks’ would be Daniel Galera, who is the most respected author under 40 in Brazil.”
It must be said that, even though I only know him via email, Galindo’s extraordinary quirkiness and absolutely laid-back-demeanor cannot be doubted. As I asked him about Jest, emoticons and all-caps proliferated in his responses in the most charming ways, alongside theft-worthy coinages like “DFW-ese,” ” vice-verser,” and “vice-versemost.” One can hardly imagine a more apt personality or linguistic intelligence to bring Jest to Brazil.
As elsewhere, Wallace’s American references and wit travels well because Brazil too is saturated with American culture. Galindo tells me that Wallace’s heavy sense of irony and self-deprecation fits in rather well with contemporary Brazil: “What resonates well, though (and now I speak not only as a translator, but as a guy who has taught three courses on Wallace, for undergrads and graduate students . . .), is much more HUMAN. [Which] is not AMERICAN (though, I repeat, he may have thought it was). People vibrate in sync with him as ‘people.’ I have seen Brazilian girls who were two years old when the book came out dissolve in tears (together with me) IN the classroom . . .”
In order to unwind Wallace’s complex syntax Galindo made good use of The David Foster Wallace Wiki, as well as the legendary DFW online discussion group, wallace-l. These are clearly the right places for him, as Galindo is a confirmed Wallacian. To him, Wallace is “a freaking genius. Probably the most ‘honest’ writer since Tolstoi. A troubled man, who saw no way out but used his dance around the vortex as a form of manifesting the beauty (and the despair) of his search.” Galindo adds that this book is the second-most-difficult translation he’s ever made; number one is “that Irish ‘thingy,'” aka Ulysses.
Surprisingly, France only got Jest in August 2015, despite a general love of cerebral, philosophical novels, and not to mention a pretty good representation of American postmodernists in translation. It launched with a boom, selling 20,000 copies in its first four months. Olivier Cohen, publisher at Editions de l’Olivier, which published L’Infinie comédie, attributed the book’s great success to the French love of the “écrivain maudit” archetype, Wallace’s acerbic critique of America, and the myth that has grown up around the author: “A writer who seems to have been sacrificing his life on the altar of literature is seen as a hero.”
There is also the fact that the considerable work of preparing the way had already been done: by the time Infinite Jest reached the French tongue, the great majority of Wallace’s writing had already been translated into their language. Cohen said it was “as if all of Joyce’s work had been published, except Ulysses.” Also, the book’s release was promoted as a major event: there was “a huge publicity campaign, which began about one year before publication, a booksellers’ party with a reading by a well-known actor, and a special talk show on the public radio,” among other things.
And now, at last, we arrive at the bleeding edge of Infinite Jest translation. The book’s Greek translator, Kostas Kaltsas, who is currently in a creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Southampton and Bath Spa University, estimates he’s 20 percent of the way through. His translation should be hitting shelves in a few more years.
Those will be years of great toil for Kaltsas. When I asked him about the challenges of moving Wallace’s English into Greek, his initial response was some mordant DFW-ese: “Dont [sic] even ask.” Perhaps the biggest challenge has to do with Wallace’s love of 500+ word sentences stuffed with subordinate clauses, a thing Greek handles much differently than English: maintaining Wallace’s rhythms, to say nothing of his logic, may prove impossible. In addition, it seems that Greek doesn’t do very well with multiple registers—few writers in recent memory used more than Wallace—and as to moving between registers quickly and seamlessly, forget about it: “the mixing of registers in some passages is despair-inducing,” says Kaltsas. Also, bringing Wallace’s many acronyms into Greek is a nightmare: “the ‘N.C.A.A.’ in ‘O.N.A.N.C.A.A.’ sticks out in the original, so the reader is at least partially oriented the first time she comes across it, but in Greek you end up with something like ‘A.B.N.A.N.K.A.Σ.’ which is just hopeless.” And were all that not enough, there’s also the fact that Greek doesn’t form possessives with an “’s,” so Wallace’s many chained possessives come out looking like “the pulleys of the rope of the flag of the flagpole of the station.” As to resources, Kaltsas is also a fan of the OED and Wallace-l; he’s found a dictionary of Ancient Greek handy for Wallace’s many archaic words, and he uses specialized dictionaries for the jargon.
Despite the Everest-level challenges, Wallace’s Greek publishers have not flinched at undertaking a risky and expensive novel at a time of unprecedented economic turmoil: “they’re interested in great literature,” Kaltsas told me. “While the crisis has seriously affected the Greek publishing trade, their take on things (with which I completely agree) is that this only makes it even more important that readers are given an opportunity to read good books from around the world.” And as to Jest’s über-critique of über-capitalistic fuckups, while Kaltsas finds it relevant to Greece’s current situation, he says it’s probably impossible not to relate to this book, no matter what’s going on in your life: “It’s not difficult to find IJ relevant to practically anything one might be going through at any given time—it’s too rich a novel not to.”
While Wallace is still something of a niche taste in Greece, Kaltsas seems to think that Jest has some potential. Many of Wallace’s works have been translated into Greek at this point, and though the sales haven’t been huge, there are some signs of life, especially from the younger generations. Part of the problem, as Kaltsas sees it, is that Greece has never really embraced postmodernism (or even, to some extent, modernism). If Infinite Jest makes postmodernism big in Greece, perhaps Wallace will become known as the man who brought Western Civilization full circle by introducing its latest (and perhaps final) innovation back to where it all began.