I first heard about today’s book a good while back when McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern devoted a whole edition to its game of literary Chinese Whispers. Having been tempted to give it a go back then, I was very pleased to hear that it would be appearing elsewhere in book form – and it’s now even reached Australia…
Multiples, edited by Adam Thirlwell (review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Allen & Unwin), is a book centred on a simple, yet potentially dangerous, idea. An original text is taken, translated into a second language, then translated into another language, then… you get the idea. There are eleven strands to the book, and most of the original stories eventually end up in six different, mutated versions. As you can imagine, the end product rarely bears much of a resemblance to the original…
The cover proclaims that the book consists of “12 stories in 18 languages by 61 authors”, and if you think I’m going to review all of them, you’ve got another think coming. While not all of the efforts were stellar, there were several which had me noting the writer’s name down for future reference (and a couple which had me adding names to my Sheldon-Cooperesque list of mortal enemies). The best way to look at this though is probably to take a couple of examples from the strands.
One of the shorter pieces was ‘Geluk’, originally written by Dutch author A.L. Snijders, and Lydia Davis‘ (presumably) faithful translation (‘Luck’) was followed by Yannick Haenel’s French version, ‘Chance’ – one which was a lot smoother and may have betrayed the style of the original a little. Of course, as Haenel says in his endnotes:
“And no doubt I wanted, when translating this heartbreaking text in which a young man and a young woman do not manage to fall in love, to re-establish the love that – I’m sure of it – exists between them. I make them live together when, it seems, everything keeps them apart. I swear that I didn’t do this deliberately. I really believed what I wrote, while I was writing it. You see, I’m not an anarchist, a little antichrist, and above all, whether I like it or not, I am French.”
p.94 (Portobello Books, 2013)
You see, it’s not his fault he changed the story – his blood made him do it 😉
I was quite happy to accept Haenel’s tongue-in-cheek excuses, but the next step wasn’t quite as palatable. Heidi Julavits (‘Chance’) back-translated Haenel’s version into English, but as her French wasn’t amazing she decided to
use a dictionary guess the words she didn’t know… Which meant that Peter Stamm’s typically elegant version (‘Zufall’) used, and built upon, some of the ludicrous errors Julavits incorporated (including moving the music lessons detailed in the story from the attic to the garden!).
Once Jeffrey Eugenides had given the story its third lease of life in English (‘Happenstance’), it was over to Sjón to tie things up in Icelandic (‘Atvik’). Sadly, I wasn’t able to make much of this one, except to note that it was about a third of the length of the original. Happily, the great man cleared this up for us in the notes – you see, he allowed his son to memorise Eugenides’ version and then had him recite it back three weeks later. And into the book it went…
Hopefully, the above description gives you the idea. Each time the stories go through another pair of hands, something happens to them. Sometimes the changes are minimal, occasionally the style changes radically, and in some versions the story is radically altered. Danilo Kiš’ story ‘Cipele’ (‘Shoes’) survives several interpretations virtually unscathed, but when Camille de Toledo gets hold of it, it is transformed into a tale of a writer’s struggle to the death with Google Translate (and a most interesting one it is too!). While John Banville’s subsequent rendering is a beautifully elegant piece of writing, I’m not quite sure how he managed to return to something close to the original after de Toledo’s effort…
Of course, these digressions are what makes Multiples worth reading; if the job had been carried out by professional translators, with larger foreign-language vocabularies and smaller egos, the end result would probably have been more accurate, but not half as entertaining. I’m not sure many readers would have stuck around for six fairly similar renderings of a short story, especially when half of them are in a foreign language…
Having said that though, Thirlwell cleverly acknowledges that many readers will not be that proficient in foreign languages themselves, and every second story in each strand is in English. I suppose that’s just the way the world is… English is also privileged in another way – the stories written in foreign languages actually use a slightly smaller font (possibly as the publisher isn’t expecting those stories to be read as much…).
As you would expect, I gave it my best shot, and while the Icelandic, Urdu, Hebrew and Chinese stories were beyond my reach, I did attempt to read as many of the versions as I could (or thought I could, which is by no means the same thing!). Luckily, thanks mainly to the predominance of Romance and Germanic languages, I was able to at least struggle through all but seven of the interpretations. I’m not saying it was easy though 😉
There’s one more point to be made about Multiples though, and it’s one which may surprise you. The original stories come from a variety of languages and include some by very well-known writers (e.g. Enrique Vila-Matas, László Krasznahorkai, Franz Kafka, Kenji Miyazawa), but… they don’t actually appear in the book in the original form. When I first realised this, I was a little confused (not to mention disappointed), but the further I got into the book, the more I thought that this was a shrewd decision. You see, it seems rather apt that the reader gets to see copies of copies of an original whose existence we have to take on trust, which all makes for an elaborate construction based on a hollow centre – very deconstructionist 😉
I’m not sure this will be everyone’s cup of tea (and you’ll certainly enjoy it more if you have at least some background in languages), but Multiples is a fascinating look at what happens when writers are let loose on a task which really belongs in the hands of trained professionals. While some of the authors do their best to stay on task, often doing a respectable job, many are unable to resist the temptation to adorn the texts with their own style. Perhaps the final word, addressing this point, should go to Dave Eggers, in what is the whole of his comments on translating his Kafka piece:
“I took some liberties.” (p.159)