Multiples (Edited by Adam Thirlwell)

378 pp., London: Portobello, 2013.

The list of contributors to Multiples reads like a veritable who’s who of contemporary literary superstars (well, as close to superstars as literature ever gets, anyway): Colm Tóibín, Nathan Englander, David Mitchell, Cees Nooteboom, J.M. Coetzee, Aleksander Hemon, Sjón, A.S. Byatt (one of the few women involved), and Jeffrey Eugenides, among around fifty others. Important note, though: they’re all writers and, except for Lydia Davis, few are translators, or appear to have even thought much about translation. Some scarcely know more than their native language.

And yet Multiples is a collection of translations. Odd, isn’t it? So what’s the story?

Editor Adam Thirlwell speaks (as at the recent British Centre for Literary Translation summer school, where I heard him) and writes (as in the introduction to this book) engagingly about why he chose to edit a book of translations by non-translators and what he was hoping to achieve. His hypothesis, he writes, is: ‘The art of the novel is an international art. Its history is international, and the mechanics of this history is translation—which means that the art of fiction, having survived this history must be tougher than it looks.’ He then turned this rather obvious idea into an experiment: ‘What would happen if a story were successively translated by a series of novelists, each one working only from the version immediately prior to their own—the aim being to preserve that story’s style?’

Already the experiment seems rather strange – why would novelists be better able to preserve style than practising, experienced translators? At least that seems to be Thirlwell’s implication, as though translators couldn’t possibly preserve or comment on style.

So how does it all work in Multiples? As an example, Clancy Martin translated Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard’s story ‘Skrift-Prøver’ to English. This is then translated to Dutch by Cees Nooteboom, and that is translated back to English by J.M. Coetzee. Jean-Christophe Valtat translated Coetzee’s work to French, Sheila Heti (who mentions that she barely knows French though her skills are good enough to ‘arrange a threesome’) translated his to English, and finally Jonas Hassen Khemiri translated Heti’s text to Swedish. And what did we learn from it? Well, the final product ended up rather different from the original and yet had some things in common with it. Hmm.

Many of the writers add a few notes about their experience of translation. Some are more interesting than others, while many comment on their desperate need to ‘customize’, as Jean-Christophe Valtat put it, the text they were working on. Jonas Hassen Khemiri too describes the text as a ‘straitjacket’ and indeed, this is a common feeling. In other words, writers want to make stuff up and change things around, not translate the texts they are given. Okay. Let the translators at the texts then.

So what is actually to be gained from this intricate game of ‘Operator’ (or ‘Chinese Whispers’, as the less politically correct call it)?

It seems to be, in part, to suggest that style crosses linguistic and cultural boundaries, and also that there is no one style, so writers should feel free to use whatever suits their topics, needs, and abilities. Again, this isn’t news. Thirlwell also adds that ‘Maybe in some hypothetical future, literature will become the pure international—oblivious to the problems of time and space—and somehow the language in which you write or read your literature will be less important than the singular, multiple structures those languages happen to form…’ One might ask how trapped readers and writers actually are by time and space anyway. Readers are arguably more trapped, by not knowing all the languages of the world, but that’s what translators are for, of course.

Yes, well, I suppose this is all interesting enough. For me, it sounds and reads like postmodern shtick:clever writers trying to show off their cleverness. I’m not sure if they’ve proven anything with this book other than that good translators are great craftspeople and should be valued higher. Writers might want to stick to their writing, while translators can stick to theirs.