Lost In Translations, In The Library Of Babel

As translation-focused publishers move out from the fringes and closer to the forefront of the industry (and our bookcases), Thomas Brewster considers the implications of our Anglo-Saxon obsession and the twisting of language

Much, inevitably, is lost in translation. Yet so much can be gained. Take Christa Wolf. Soon after the Berlin Wall came down, Wolf’s reputation, as one of the most astute fiction writers and critics of the East German state, came down along with it. She was revealed as an informer for the Stasi and had delayed a memoir detailing surveillance targeted at Wolf herself, much to the chagrin of those in the West. She was, according to her most vociferous opponents, an arm of the state itself.

But this year fresh translations emerged, of her first and last works: They Divided The Sky (originally Divided Heaven) and City of Angels: Or, the Overcoat of Dr Freud. They scale back the edits of the GDR’s censors from the original publications and give Wolf’s writings new life. These editions don’t just have the potential to paint Wolf in a more favourable light, they should alter our understanding of the epoch, of life under the repressive regime our heroine both struggled and thrived in (this, surely, is goddamn catnip for new historicists). That is the power of translations.

For readers, translations only make the Library of Babel somehow more infinite, compounding that compunction that comes with never having read enough. Yet rightly we feel compelled to divest ourselves of our Anglo-Saxon obsessions and dive into “world literature” (what a horrible, inadequate phrase that is…). For the anti-polyglot (AKA most English people… including this writer), translations let us read in the ideal way, hopping from one text to another as we please, regardless of borders, language, culture or canons. The Library is intimidating, but it is liberating, even more so as works are unceasingly added to it, year by year.

Whilst translations of major non-English novelists now sit on most readers’ bookcases (the French and the Russians often filling up the most space), post-millennial works are not often in the possession of the average reader. Bigger publishing houses operating in this country understandably tend to go with established names writing in English, rather than invest big portions of their hoards of capital and time uncovering and deciphering new international novelists. But a handful of peripatetic independent publishers are doing us all one colossal favour, risking their time and money to bring us fresh, lesser-known voices via translation.

Peirene is one of the most charming of this small bunch, its output consisting of novellas devourable in an hour or two. The size of the works might be consistent, but the style and range of the content is startling. This year’s latest release is a real curio – a loose modernist work, swirling around a bereaved central character, the eponymous Mr Darwin’s Gardener. Jumping from consciousness to consciousness of English villagers, it touches on the insular, xenophobic, god-fearing, downright bitchy aspects of bucolic life in this supposedly green and pleasant land, homing in on the violence brewing beneath it. Whilst much of it does brood on that eternal struggle between religion and science (‘I do not understand how Mr Darwin’s book, or indeed any novel, could agitate God, but that was what they were saying’, says one ignorant Downe denizen, sans irony, summing up much of the conflict in the narrative), it is more about grief, its centrifugal and centripetal forces acting upon the inhabitants of the (very Anglican) community. And it’s written by Finnish writer Kristina Karlson, translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah, from Herra Darwinin puutarhuri (why does our lingua franca sound so much more mundane than any of the Scandinavian languages?). The view from the outside, it seems, is considerably clearer.

Violence and grief do seem to be two threads that tie Peirene texts together. Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast simmers much like the molluscs being cooked throughout this menacing monologue on a destructive paternalistic household. The Murder of Halland, from Denmark’s Pia Juul, is a warped detective novel, full of uncanny moments and disparate characters, seemingly alien to each other and themselves. But at its heart is heartbreak, its processes, ones that inspire feelings not too dissimilar to those drawn out by the genre which Juul dissects: ‘I watched one thriller then another. But as soon as the penny dropped I lost interest. The puzzle attracted me, the solution left me cold’. With trauma, as with the thriller, the end is never satisfying. Peirene’s books don’t carry much physical weight, but they come with enough cerebral clout that you’ll be carrying them around in your little mind tank with you for some time.

And Other Stories, now one of the best known independent houses with a strong focus on translations, is pumping out plenty of worthy reads too, particularly from South America. Quesadillas, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ second novel with the house due out in September, loses none of its satirical bite in translation, following the central character on his via dolorosa around Mexico. It’s a cutting ‘state of the nation’ novel, delivered half in persiflage, half in dysphoria, climaxing with a surreal whirligig that befits the madness of Mexico Villalobos presents us with. There’s a slimy politician, an apoplectic father, an illogical Aristotle obsessed with extraterrestrials, yet it’s all surrounded by base human resignation – insanity has become normalcy. And even if you wanted to escape, there’s never enough money: ‘Of course, I still preferred quesadillas, because i couldn’t afford a psychoanalyst,’ our narrator tells us.

This month’s And Other Stories release is the part-memoir of Brazilian Rodrigo De Souza Leão All Dogs Are Blue. A wild novella centring on the narrator’s time in a Rio de Janeiro asylum, its protean prose and clinical setting are belied by bizarre, often incisive humour, leaving the reader with that syncopal feeling, that eviscerated sense that Vonnegut was so expert at drawing out of the reader. There is sanctuary from the chaos, the squalor, the “human debris”, Leão suggests, and it comes through art. His troupe includes hallucinations of Rimbaud and Baudelaire. They can provide respite (perhaps that is the justification for books of experience like ADAB, which have such instable style they feel like they could unravel at any instant, fade to zilch) : ‘It’s true that hallucinations are negative things. But they really could be trained in positive thinking.’ The main lure of the book, however, is mental disorder itself. We are asked, ‘is it not attractive?’ ‘Sometimes lunatics are very seductive,’ the narrator says disingenuously. Indeed.

Later this year, Paradises, by Argentinian Iosi Havilio, will arrive in all its morphine-injected anti-glory, the dehumanising, reptilian swamp of Buenos Aires. Captain of the Steppe from earlier this year is a marvellously droll take on the legends of Russian literature, written by Oleg Pavlov, winner of the Russian Booker Prize. Think One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but even more cartoonish. These latter two don’t quite match their South American counterparts for originality of style, but And Other Stories’ output this year is more than worth a gander.

That these organisations (Bitter Lemon Press, Dedalus Books and many others deserve much credit for their work on translations – and yes some of the bigger houses too) are doing wonderful things for English-speaking literary types is in little doubt. Whether they can survive is another question entirely. And Other Stories consisted only of passionate part-timers until Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and brought in much-needed revenue.

It now has 1000 active subscribers, 600 signing up to receive every book it puts out in a year, which lets it turn a profit. Yet still most workers are part-timers, all working remotely. ‘We have to be very careful,’ Stefan Tobler, founder of And Other Stories, tells me. Another Booker nomination would have helped move things along a little – Tobler is a little dismayed Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods didn’t make this year’s longlist.

Running an independent specialising in translations is a particularly dangerous enterprise, largely thanks to the extra cost of translators. And As Tobler found out with Levy, there is always the threat of big publishers thrusting their weight around when they spy hot talent. But in translations, indies also have more of an opportunity to thrive. By focusing on this niche so ardently, they go places where bigger publishers, pressured by boards to deliver sizeable revenue, cannot venture. ‘The bigger houses are, quite understandably, unable to do as much in translation because it has extra costs and you don’t have a local author who is going to be promoting the work,’ Tobler adds. ‘A lot of the larger houses have to be a bit safer. We do really make a point of just choosing books that we think are great books, which is sometimes probably a bit foolish from a commercial perspective. But in the end you hope that good books will win through, it might just take a bit longer.’

Their authors are certainly keen for them to keep going, despite the unavoidable altering of a text when filtered through a translator. To some the distortion matters. ‘Each treatment of a text, may it be translation, film or theatre adaptation does violence to the original. It has to. However, it can – in the worst case – distort the original beyond recognition,’ Vanderbeke tells me. And yet, she says, literature lets people ‘get to know the world beyond the desolation of the global propaganda machine’.

To others, if the core of the text is good enough, and a translation at least adequate, the author should not fret over the degradation of their text. ‘Bad translations are indeed an important barrier. But the ones that are more or less well translated can hardly be spoiled provided that the original score is good,’ says Havilio. ‘Aside from giving an opportunity to readers in other languages, it helps liberating the text. Although I greatly enjoy working on a word, I am in no way a purist of the language. I believe that texts are only an excuse for exploring certain worlds.’

For readers, however, this “violence”, this manipulation of language, produces a curate’s egg. The negative connotations are obvious; we are not reading the original manuscript, the authors’ intentions have to be distorted. Indeed, there are writers we will never read, those who disagree with translation and its concomitant ethical doubt. Tobler talks fondly of Raduan Nassar, a noted Brazilian writer who decided literature wasn’t for him in 1984. He chose to be a farmer instead. ‘In a way he was the reason I set up the publisher because I thought he was amazing. Why on earth weren’t the big publishers signing him up?

‘He is an amazing writer. He only wrote two short works of fiction and a bunch of stories… they are incredibly powerful.

‘They hadn’t been published in the UK and when I suggested him to some large publishers they said ‘the language isn’t that straightforward’ and came up with various reasons why he was a harder sell. So that was one of the reasons I started And Other Stories.

‘I showed Nassar the books and he liked them, but he has decided he doesn’t want to be translated anymore. He has sort of lost faith… he really is one of the few authors in the world who really doesn’t seem that bothered about being translated. He’s not too het up about the whole literature scene in general… although he does keep in touch.’

The ones that get away, huh? You have to respect the writer’s final decision of course. (And doesn’t it make you crave Nassar’s writing that little bit more?) For some, translators can do too much damage.


But, as deconstructionists delighted in, the translator can bring another textual layer for the reader to interrogate. Not for nothing is translation studies still a big part of literary criticism (for all its wonderment and silliness). The added dose of polysemy that comes with translation, the extra patterns of lingual systems and cultural signifiers a reader can find in a translated text makes the total interpretation surface that much wider. As Derrida, in a letter to his Japanese translator, said: ‘The question of deconstruction is also through and through the question of translation.’ (Although as with everything that cigar toting madcap intellectual said, this is no way near as simple as it sounds…)

And we are too quick to assume the source-language text is the superior one. Maurice Blanchot, whom Derrida admired, writes of the translator living by the “difference of languages”. Rather than effacing the original language or the secondary tongue, the translation ‘finds in this difference its august duty, and also its fascination as it proudly brings the two languages close by its own power of unification, a power similar to that of Hercules drawing together the banks of the sea’. (I have no fucking idea what “august duty” means, but look, it is written here. If you know, answers on a post-structural postcard please.)

But Blanchot, in his essay ‘Translations,’ a contemplation on Walter Benjamin’s own consideration of the subject, goes further to suggest the original work has to prove itself worthy of translation: ‘A work has acquired the age and dignity to be translated only if it contains this difference in such a way as to make it available, either because it originally makes a gesture toward another language or because it assembles, in a manner that is privileged, the possibilities of being different from itself and foreign to itself, which any spoken language has.’ Havilio is, it appears, on the same page as the late French critic.

Enough of all this highfalutin jibber-jabber. If you like this sort of neurotic nonsense (like your wannabe-savant writer here does), you can go as far back as Dryden for such lit crit, probably further. And there are enough magazines pushing out similar fare, alongside translations of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Online publication Asymptote is the classiest affair (just check this out from Fady Joudah, a terse but very serious exploration of translation – warning, it uses the word stereoisomerization, the guy is a freaking poetic polymath). A “scene” is certainly burgeoning, if not already entrenched, around new non-English literature.

And if you’ll forgive one last genuflection, it is before the translators. They are the almost invisible, largely forgotten writers who bring foreign works to us monolingual ignoramuses. All hail the polyglot! Or as Blanchot put it, they are ‘writers of the rarest sort and truly incomparable,’ secret masters of Babel.

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