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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

What It Means to Be a Writer Today, Part 7: Who Wrote the Book You Loved?

Who Wrote the Book You Loved?

By Don Wallace

Who are the greatest writers of the 20th century? I nominate the following:

Constance Garnett, C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Francis Steegmuller, Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman, Edwin and Willa Muir (with Eithne Wilkins and Ernest Kaiser), Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Robert Bly and, I don’t know, maybe the three score guys from the Hampton Court Conference convened in 1604 by King James.

So, yes, I asked a trick question. But if you read in English, like me, then much of the literary greatness you drank so deeply from in youth was a potion filtered through the copper-coiled consciousness of a translator. And if you accept the greatness of the authors above—Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Turgenev and all the other Russians, Proust and Flaubert, Marquez and Fuentes and Llosa and the other Latin Americans, Kafka, Borges, Hamsun, and God—why not give credit to their translators? Because those are their words you’re reading.

As someone with more skin in the writing game than is wise or healthy, I’ve always found this disconcerting.

I remember first getting this sinking feeling when in college, reading Flaubert and Stendahl. Not having had a lick of French at that point, beyond pronouncing “escargot” once or twice (and “condom” a bit more often), I struggled with the archaic Victorian English until the thought hit me: what if these translations were like those 1950s movies with Maurice Chevalier, whose heavily accented English would be parodied in the later Pink Panther movies with Peter Sellers? Once I had the thought, the giggle would just not go away.

With my fragile literary consciousness at risk, I shelved the idea. But it has resurfaced over the years, particularly when I catch myself aiming for “the literary.” I get this fear that I’m simply writing in a style like those dubbed foreign movies where everyone, no matter what nationality, speaks in a tony BBC accent. Has the fear killed off a couple of stories? Yes, and good riddance to bad rubbish, as someone might say on Masterpiece Theatre.

Now, I love translators, generally. I wouldn’t be here without them—on the page, I mean. But leaving aside their indispensability and noble sacrifice on behalf of art, their ubiquity and their concealment in plain sight does bring up an inconvenient question:

Who wrote that book you loved?

The author, you say. Really? How can you tell? Do you read (French, Russian, Hebrew, etc.)? Okay, then. The translator. All foreign literature in translation is like these movies with which Hollywood is currently infatuated, the ones where James Franco or Matt Damon or Leo DiCaprio get themselves inserted into someone else’s body in another time zone. To save the world or get the girl, which amounts to the same thing.

Only, how do you know that when you’re reading Borges you’re not really kissing Matt Damon? Now there’s a thought. Hope you enjoyed it.

Anyway . . . just once I’d like us to admit that we’ve always accepted the greatness of these “great” books on faith. I understand the reasons. I mean, nobody goes to the rack and looks for books with a “Fair-to-Middling Foreign Classic” sticker on the cover. And yet, that’s what you could be getting, if the translator is a dodo or the editor ran out of money for adjectives. Or, as happened to most of the books in translation that I grew up on, the moral code of the times insisted on bowdlerizing all the good parts.

My beef here is that “greatness” which is actually mediocrity (in any case, but here specifically in translation) lures us away from finding our own soul’s path, our craft’s best practices and our own extra-authentic style. And, dude, falling in love with the “wrong” “great” literature can so spoil your groove. As Glen Beck might say, and hopefully will soon: reading foreign novels in English brings your babies ever closer to the clutches of that secret international puppet-master class.

Okay, so I sound paranoid. I hope it comes off in a fun way. And maybe this sounds a little hectoring, as if I’m now going to sniff and say that if you can’t read Nabokov in Russian then you really can’t claim to have read him at all. Well, nope, I’m not going there. Let me repeat: I love books in translation. It’s just that . . .

Come a little closer. Tell me something. Hmm? We’ve established that you wouldn’t have gone near these books unless they’d been certified “great” beforehand. In other words, it’s indisputable that you accepted a definition of “great” before you ever read a single transmuted sentence. Now, this surely influenced your reception of the work, did it not?

In science, that’s called a failure to control for bias. In literature, it’s called Norton Classics.

But we’re not here to deny the judgment of the jurists; our beef is with prose that takes the easy way out, by adopting the mannerisms, style and subject matter of the consensus great and famous. I’m not indicting the prose of the “greats” in translation, but of those writers who fall under their sway and never, ever emerge . . .

Hey, relax. I’m not prosecuting you—I’m interrogating my younger self.

I guess, more and more, the way imitation turns into something original fascinates me. When you’re young this is experimentation, right? Experimentation: the word that exonerates pot-smoking Presidential candidates and promiscuous young writers. I remember reading Joyce’s Dubliners and Borges’ Ficciones one rainy weekend and the next thing I knew, my characters spoke in Irish accents while dipping in and out of alternative universes—all in suburban Long Beach, California, ca. 1970.

After awhile, though, I was bothered by how easily my sincere flattery became impersonation. The infatuated writer turns creepy, like the stalker in “Single White Female” or Bergman’s “Persona.” The theme from “The Twilight Zone” begins to play in the background . . .

Time here to pause. Reflect. Become afraid. Very afraid. But don’t worry, I’ll be back. We’re not done here. Not by a long shot.

Because the question will not die: Who really wrote the book you loved? Raymond Carver—or Gordon Lish? Thomas Wolfe—or Maxwell Perkins? James Patterson—or a string of J. Walter Thompson vice-presidents?

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