Borges said his essay ‘The Homeric Versions’ represented his first appearance as a Hellenist. ‘I do not think I shall ascend to a second,’ he added. This modest forecast was based partly, as Borges recognised, on his ‘convenient ignorance of Greek’, but his tone allows all kinds of intriguing questions to creep in. What kind of Hellenist could one be without a knowledge of Greek? Could one be one at all? How deep was Borges’s ignorance of the language? Asked once whether he knew any Sanskrit, he said: ‘Only the Sanskrit everybody knows.’
The essay itself is full of wonderful throwaway remarks, all relevant to the ingenious book under review. Translation, Borges says, is open to aesthetic discussion, while what he calls ‘direct writing’ is hidden in a shadowy discretion built out of our fear of revealing the banality of much literary creation. He warns us against ‘the superstition of the inferiority of translations’, and even against the idea of an original text, or at least a definitive one: ‘The concept of the definitive text bears no relation to anything except religion or fatigue.’ We fall for this notion, in other (crasser) words, when we hanker for theological certainty in literature or are too tired to think any more about what’s going on.
But the tour de force of the essay is an extended comparison of six English versions of The Odyssey, full of subtle critical detail but resolutely in Spanish, without a single word of English or Greek. How can Borges do this? By referring to the content of the passage he is looking at, a city, ships sailing, the madness of a god; by comparing the grammar of the different versions; by noting that Pope has plural nouns where the others have singular ones; by comparing tones, especially those of the ‘spectacular’ Pope and the ‘ardent’ Chapman with that of the prosaic Butler, who is determined to convert a whole dramatic episode into ‘a series of calm reports’. Of course, Borges is doing all this through his own Spanish versions of the English texts, so in one sense there is only Borges here, no Homer and no English writer. And of course there is a great deal you can’t begin to touch by this method: rhythm, metre, idiom, peculiarities of individual languages. But in persuading us almost to forget the absence of English and Greek from his essay, Borges turns out to be some sort of Hellenist, and he has proved his main, simple point.
‘Which of these many translations is faithful?’ Borges asks, and answers: ‘None or all.’ This is (one of the reasons) why we should not persist in thinking that translation is all about loss – as so many people do, and as Julian Barnes did in these pages in 2010, with his fine phrase suggesting that the best translation can offer us only ‘a new way of necessarily falling short’.No fidelity at all wouldn’t fall short: the old text would just have vanished. And plural fidelities would mean that loss can’t be the main or most interesting story. I suggest that there is often (considerable) loss in translation, but it’s not automatic or universal, and we do grieve over losses that are trivial, or are not losses at all, just differences. Not every turn of phrase or implication is a treasure in itself. The trick would be to name the losses where they occur and to say why they matter.
There is a moving case of translation loss in the book Adam Thirlwell has edited, Multiples, but it involves history as much as literature, and the book is also full of gains, and even fuller of instances where we can’t draw up a balance sheet of any kind, and are driven to quite different modes of comparison. The book reproduces a game played in the pages of McSweeney’s in 2012. Twelve stories are on offer, first written in Danish, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, German, Arabic, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Italian, Hungarian, English, and Italian again. The authors are Kierkegaard, Vila-Matas, Snijders, Miyazawa, Kafka, El-Achkar, Kharms, Kiš, Pontiggia, Krasznahorkai, Middleton and Gadda. The ‘original’ is missing in each case. We start with a translation, into English in ten instances, into German and Spanish in the other two. The translation is then translated and so is the resulting translation. In the longest chains, therefore, the last item we read is a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation. The dust jacket mentions Chinese whispers, we might think of the Surrealist pastime Cadavre exquis, and within the book Jonathan and Mara Faye Lethem mention Telephone, which ‘dredges up memories of Brooklyn basements in the 1970s, clammy ears and unspoken crushes’. They also direct us to Wikipedia, which says that versions of the game are played around the world as Broken Telephone, Arab Phone, Silent Mail, Cordless Phone, Grapevine, Dead Phone, Whisper down the Lane.
Thirlwell invited sixty authors to take part in the project, and the list is a roll call of many of the most interesting writers of contemporary fiction. The translations veer from subtle fidelity of the kind Borges asks us not to believe in to forms of deviance that are goofy or inspired, and in one or two cases, goofy and inspired. I was particularly taken by Sheila Heti’s decision to turn the French word ‘thus’, ‘ainsi’, into a person, so that ‘Ainsi, si vous en êtes d’accord’ becomes ‘Nancy, could you do that?’
Thirlwell’s idea was to ‘frazzle’, as he says, the ‘whole category of the original’, and his thinking in one sense takes Borges beyond Borges: ‘Literature is one of those strange arts where the original is often experienced as multiple.’ For this reason he has chosen stories that are ‘as unknown as reasonably possible’. And yet the book is not finally frazzling; it is tamer than its prospectus promises. One of the reasons has to do with narrative, and we have already glimpsed it in the Borges essay. There is a lot of information in narrative, and information has all kinds of ways of surviving linguistic travel. You can bend it and even invert it, but it’s still information. And this is one of the things Thirlwell means when he says (with a note of disappointment?) that ‘the art of fiction … must be tougher than it looks.’ You can shift a story from Italy to China, and from Beirut to Hebden Bridge – both removals occur in this book – but it’s amazing how much psychic and social furniture you have to take.
Even violent switches have a way of remaining in touch with what they are switching from. A wonderful example is Frédéric Beigbeder’s version of Gary Shteyngart’s version of a Daniil Kharms story. ‘I’m pretty tall and I’m not dumb,’ Shteyngart’s text says, and Beigbeder echoes: ‘Je suis assez grand et pas trop con.’ Idiomatic and loyal. Then the English says: ‘I dress smartly and I don’t drink. I don’t play Xbox but I love the ladies.’ This becomes: ‘Je m’habille affreusement mal mais bois tout le temps, j’ai arrêté la coke mais j’aime les filles’ (‘I dress horribly badly but drink all the time, I’ve given up coke but I love girls’). At the end of the English paragraph the surprise is that Marina Petrova turns out to be bald. In French she’s called Josephine and turns out to be a boy. Can we call this a translation? Perhaps we can. In the same way that Borges is a Hellenist. Dress, drink, women, sex and surprise persist in both versions.
In a poem, persistence of this kind would be irrelevant, no sort of argument for anything. In fiction it suggests the art is not only tougher than it looks but more closely tied to a material or emotional world. Even what seem to be cases of extreme translation have a way of coming home, or not leaving home. Dave Eggers ends his version of Kafka’s story ‘The Animal in the Synagogue’ with the words: ‘Look away, look away, look away.’ John Wray and Nathan Englander in English and Alejandro Zambra in Spanish all have a phrase about the impossibility of getting rid of the creature – and I’m guessing that Etgar Keret has something similar in Hebrew. That’s certainly what Kafka says, to invoke the forbidden ‘original’. But one can translate moods as well as words, and the edgy recommendation of avoidance that Eggers gives us lies well within the range of meanings many of us will find in the ending of the story in almost any version. A simpler case of coming home or staying home in translation would be Danilo Kiš’s story of a man spooked by his own shoes as they sit on the floor of his darkened room. All versions end with a live rat arising from one of the shoes, thus justifying and rerouting the story’s weirdness, but doing it in unison.
One could invert this argument, though. If in grand cases exotic gestures in translation can be made to look like ways of staying at home, home itself can be seen as littered with eerie differences, or specificities that really can be lost. There are comic differences too, as when J.M. Coetzee, by the small shift from the word ‘private’ to the world ‘privy’, makes clear a lavatory joke that Kierkegaard was only distantly hinting at. But the kind of trail found in the following sequence is more common, and is very close to the effect of Telephone.
Vila-Matas, in Colm Tóibín’s translation, describes Kafka as ‘this non-breeder’. In Daniel Kehlmann’s German this is ‘nachwuchsloser Mann’, a man without descendants, literally without aftergrowth. In Julie Orringer’s English, based on Peter Esterházy’s Hungarian, Kafka becomes a ‘barren man’, which in Laurent Binet’s French becomes ‘cet homme desséché’, this dried-up man. This man finally, in Tom McCarthy’s version, has a ‘dried-out … life’. The Vila-Matas story comes from a book called Hijos sin Hijos, Sons without Sons, and that is the phrase he uses of Kafka. So the chain of shifting meaning goes from sons to breeding to descendants to barrenness to dryness. It abandons gender for procreation, and the very idea of children for a psychological characterisation, even a kind of judgment. It thereby performs what A.S. Byatt in this book astutely calls the blandness of translation. There is loss here, not because anything is untranslatable but because nothing concrete remains.
So the question is not liberty or fidelity in translation but what kind of liberty or fidelity. There is everything to be said for going out on a limb, but the risk is that we may think we are further out than we are, and sometimes the strangest place will not be the furthest out but the furthest in. This is the case with the extraordinary story by Kenji Miyazawa. It works wonderfully well in all three versions I can read (by David Mitchell, Valeria Luiselli and the Lethems –there is also an Urdu text by Nadeem Aslam), because in each rendering the curious mixture of fable and satire remains, and the tale of the Birch Tree (female, nervous, cultured, fond of reading and conversation), the Earth God (male, dishevelled, angry, vain, compulsive) and the Fox (sleek, well-dressed, articulate, inclined to talk too much, even to lie, about his study and his scientific equipment) plays itself out in its own world, without transposition. The Earth God’s anger gets out of hand, he can’t bear the Fox’s smooth ways, and he kills him, to his own almost immediate regret. Here is how the story ends:
Tears fell like rain on a dead fox with a broken neck and the faintest ghost of a smile. [David Mitchell]
Lágrimas – como gotas de lluvia – bañaron al Zorro muerto – la nuca torcida hacia atrás – el discreto esbozo de una sonrisa. [Valeria Luiselli]
Tears bathed the dead Fox like rain, and though his neck lay twisted backward, on his muzzle was seen the discreet trace of a smile. [Jonathan Lethem and Mara Faye Lethem]
Ghost, sketch, trace: all three words seem just right for the context.
And then there are travels that work and travels that don’t work – or don’t work well enough. There is a remarkable story here by Giuseppe Pontiggia, coolly and crisply translated by Zadie Smith, about an Italian boy who falls in love with practicality and his own sense of the way things really are: he can’t stand his father’s insistence on poetry and culture. He grows up, lives and dies according to his own plan, a model of willed ordinariness. Or only the imitation of such a model. How could he know? Ma Jian (as seen through Tash Aw’s translation) translates into Chinese not only Smith’s English but also Pontiggia’s Italy. He keeps Italian touches – the hero is half-Italian – but the politics and the wars belong to China, as do the ways one changes jobs. In China our hero is ‘assigned’ and ‘transferred’ rather than getting to do any choosing of his own. And yet the personality, the dream of no-nonsense regularity, remains curiously consistent across the shift.
It is in the other case of travel that I find the gravest sense of loss in Thirlwell’s book, although the deviations and changes are imaginative and the writing is good. This is because the loss is not linguistic. The writer is Youssef Habchi El-Achkar, a Lebanese writer deftly evoked for us in a note by the translator Rawi Hage. The story is set in 1975, in the early days of the civil war. The very desultoriness of the writer-narrator’s notes is part of the atmosphere: visibly failing to know what to think, how to think at all, defines the historical situation. In Tristan Garcia’s French translation the bombs and the fighting are still there, but the language has turned inward, the main character become someone out of Beckett who has strayed into Beirut. In Joe Dunthorne’s English version the setting is London and the time is 2010. Francesco Pacifico follows him there for the Italian text, and Vendela Vida, in English again, takes us to Stockholm.
None of this is bad in principle and Dunthorne is right to have trusted his ‘instincts as a writer’, as against ‘loyalty to the original text’: ‘The only things I kept were: a café with a girl, broken fingernails, civil war in the Middle East, and the structure.’ But there’s the rub: ‘civil war in the Middle East’. In 2010 it’s another civil war (which one exactly?), and seen in London on television. The story’s a good one in its way, lively and well paced, but it’s private, personal, subtracted from history. In El-Achkar’s narrative the bodies are on the streets outside the door, the mothers are crying for children who have died here and now, and the writer is trying to put these pictures and his mind together. We can’t all be in the middle of the fray, but we can, as I have suggested, name specific losses in translation, and remember the fray when it has gone missing.