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“An Uncharacteristically Altruistic Monument”



In my previous post, I discuss Adam Thirlwell‘s new book, The Delighted States: A book of novels, romances, & their unknown translators, containing ten languages, set on four continents, & accompanied by maps, portraits, squiggles, illustrations, & a variety of helpful indexes (FSG). Today, Thirlwell talks about his experiences with translation that both led to the book and fed its form.

Had you translated much before?

When I was younger, under the influence of Ezra Pound and wanting to prove my technique as a Great Poet, I set myself to translating obscure French poetry from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: André du Bouchet, Edmond Jabès, Jacques Dupin, and Victor Segalen. That kind of thing. And my first ever publication was, in fact, a translation, done when I was about sixteen: a poem by Propertius for a magazine bought only by earnest students of the classics—an audience of about 7.

While I was writing The Delighted States, I translated, from Russian: Gogol’s “Coat,” Chekhov’s “On the Cart” and Tolstoy’s “Sebastopol in May”; from French: Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple,” Kundera’s “The Hitchhiking Game,” Diderot’s “Les Deux Amis de Bourbonne”; as well as a story by Hrabal, “The Driving Lesson,” from French, and two stories by Bruno Schulz from a mixture of French and English translations; and the first part of Italo Svevo’s “Short Sentimental Journey,” from an English version with the Italian beside me. And also Nabokov’s French text of “Mademoiselle O.”

The reason for this orgy was that originally I’d planned a book in two halves: a literary essay in one, and a book of stories in the other. The stories would be a small anthology to accompany the essay, as well as a way of bearing out the various miniature theories of style and translation proposed in the essay. One final act of chutzpah was therefore that—except for Kundera and Nabokov, whose strictures on translation froze me—I transposed each story to a new setting: Svevo in Iceland, Flaubert in Syria, Gogol in Cairo, and so on. This act of chutzpah was so unsettling that in the end I abandoned the stories part of the project—or at least put it aside for the time being: also, because combined, the essay and stories would have made a gargantuan book. But I still wanted to preserve my translation of “Mademoiselle O” with the essay.

Thus The Delighted States concludes with what you call “an appendix in the form of a translation of ‘Mademoiselle O.'” Such an appendix makes great sense coming at the end of a book that explores the slippery nature of literary style: it offers an object lesson in how style survives—by showing how Nabokov’s style survived you. Although The Delighted States _effectively answers why you would choose that story to translate, I wonder nonetheless how you came to that decision.

The reasons for choosing “Mademoiselle O” were multiple. The story focuses various themes which ran throughout the book: the theme of nostalgia and loss; the theme of exile; the comparison between Mademoiselle O and Madame Bovary as romantic readers (and thus the contrast with Miss Herbert, Flaubert’s governess); Nabokov’s refusal of political interpretations; and the invention of a twin version of reality through fiction. There was also its thematic relevance to the arguments about style in the book: the genesis of Nabokov’s text as he himself rewrote it through more than one language; and the idea of a form which isn’t linguistic. V.N. talks about this in the story when he describes the “exhausting labour simply to seize hold of the moderately precise words which clamour to clothe my thought”—an eighteenth-century linguistics of the thought preceding the word.

There was also the fact that that “Mademoiselle O” hovered, in V.N.’s mind and in mine, between fiction and fact—a generic confusion, which I was trying to explore in my own way in the form of my essay, between fictional techniques and factual content. Along with its novelistic irony poised between pathos and practical joke. And then, V.N. was in some ways the book’s presiding spirit—whom I was both defending against continuing clichés opposed to the art of the novel, and arguing with, in turn. And finally, as French wasn’t V.N.’s first language, choosing “Mademoiselle O” fit my ideas about triangulation in the novel: that style survives its multiple, not just double, transmigrations.

Can you say a little bit about how you went about your first draft of “Mademoiselle O”? Did you set yourself any rules or guidelines?

Nabokov’s French in “Mademoiselle O” is an unusual French, less mellifluous than his Russian or his English. One couldn’t produce as Nabokovian a translation as one would have liked. It had to be less Nabokovian than Nabokov. So I did set myself rules—partly consonant with some of the ideas I was developing in the book, and partly consonant with what I thought Nabokov might have set for himself—to the end of rendering his mythical literal translation and of preserving as much of the form as the content.

The main rules were simple. If there were a phonetic effect, to try to reproduce it; to mimic the syntax wherever possible, rather than anglicizing or modernizing it too heavily; to be happy with creative translation where necessary; and to keep the same word where V.N. used the same word—especially when that had thematic point. Finally: never to consult V.N.’s English versions of the text in his various permutations, especially the earlier ones in The Atlantic Monthly and Nabokov’s Dozen—partly to avoid an anxiety of translation influence, and partly to avoid overly Nabokovizing the translation, giving a false assurance to what is a halting, exposed piece.

Did the practice of translating “Mademoiselle O” produce any changes in your thoughts on the nature of translation?

I realized more precisely than ever that the problems with content and form were more complicated than I had thought. Often, the phonetic tricks, like alliteration, were quite easy to mimic: what proved recalcitrant were the small elements, like songs, or slang, or objects. And I became aware of the more personal problem: how to avoid one’s own tricks, or even, how to avoid the excessive imitation of the original writer’s tricks—how to prevent their later style from dominating one’s version of the earlier style.

Did particular words or phrases prove troublesome?

One example, to stand for many, of the attempt to reproduce a phonetic effect was the sentence I quoted above: “c’est une tâche inouïe, un labeur éreintant que de saisir les mots médiocrement justes qui voudront bien venir vêtir ma pensée.” The alliteration on “m” and “v” which V.N. plays with in the second half of that sentence became, in my version, an alliteration on “s” and “cl”: “an exhausting labour simply to seize hold of the moderately precise words which clamour to clothe my thought.”

The most troublesome, however, were the oddities, like his embedded pun:

on imaginait le père de Mademoiselle arrivant dans une ville d’eaux, ce qui—précédé d’une exclamation—donnait la formule idiote de quatre ‘o’ se suivant à la queue-leu-leu.

The exclamation he must mean, I assume, is: “Oh, les O aux eaux“: or even, I suppose, “Oh, O aux eaux.” Which was barely figured in my poor: “Four Os following each other in a row.” A pun which will be obvious only to someone who speaks French. (I actually thought of cutting it, but decided that V.N. would have frowned: in my questions to D.N., I asked him if he thought one should add an explanation; he said no. So it stands unexplained as it is.)

For some reason, I found “la marque de leur parenté” difficult in the following sentence: “ces pince-nez anciens qui retenaient dans la forme des verres largement et sombrement enchassés la marque de leur parenté avec les lunettes dont ils ne s’étaient pas encore différenciés“—and was pleased, in the end, with my “genetic similarity,” anachronistic but precise, I think.

Then there were the figures of speech: “un peu plus gros que la nature,” which became “a little larger than life,” or “entre chien et loup,” which became “in the gloaming.” Both of those took a lot of a) thinking and then b) moral worry at the degree of lateral thinking a literal translation might allow.

Then there were historical references: like this:

‘Cette première fable qu’on avait apprise ensemble, hein? Ou bien, lorsqu’on s’arrêtait en pleine campagne pour chanter tous trois à tue-tête Marlborough’, et ce mironton-ton-ton mirontaine, elle le fredonnait maintenant, ce qui faisait revivre le passé bien plus clairement et d’une tout autre manière qu’une phrase ronflante.

“That first fable we learned together, yes? Or when we stopped in the middle of the countryside, all three of us, to sing Marlborough s’en va t’en guerre at the top of our voices?,” and this tiddly-om-pom-pom, she hummed it now, which made the past come alive again much more clearly and in a completely different manner than the snore of a sentence.

I added the full first line of the Marlborough song—for the less informed English-speaking reader–and replaced the “mironton-ton ton mirontaine” with the inadequate “tiddly-om-pom-pom” from Winnie the Pooh, which at least had the merit of possessing a similarly nursery provenance.

And then there was “les gens de la maison—les ‘gensss’ comme on disait chez nous,” which I turned into the “starf”—which seemed inadequate to the V.N.; partly because I didn’t know what the connotation was: a bad Russian pronunciation? A deliberate family in-joke at the mock-expense of their French?

Finally, there was his description of Mademoiselle O’s realization “qu’elle était étrangère, naufragée, à bout de ressource, et qu’elle cherchait l’Eldorado où enfin elle serait comprise.” For me, there was the connotation of “to be taken in to safety,” as well as “understood,” in that final “comprise.” I offered, initially, “and that she was searching for the Eldorado where at last she would not be taken in, but taken in.” Dmitri Nabokov, rightly, thought this pun was too labored, and we settled on: “the Eldorado where at last she would not only be truly taken in, but comprehended.” However, I can’t check this against the finished copy as I don’t have one here—but I vaguely remember simply settling on “comprehended” for the final version. This may just be wishful thinking.

Once you had a complete draft, Dmitri Nabokov provided you with “detailed corrections”. What were some of the more illuminating? Were there any with which you differed and declined to assent or assented regretfully?

Early on, V.N. describes Mademoiselle O’s journey through the snows:

et la neige des toits s’unit à la neige bordant la route, que la lune, montée plus haut, commence à vernir, de sorte que bientôt les traces des traîneaux luisent, tandis que chaque inégalité, chaque petite motte de neige est soulignée par une enflure d’ombre démesurée.

Here is the version I sent to D.N., with his deletions and insertions.

and the snow on the roofs is one with the snow bordering the road, which the moon, now risen higher, begins to glaze, in such a way that soon the tracks of the sledge shine, while each inequality irregularity, each little lump of snow is underlined marked by an exaggeration amplification of limitless shadow.

I think D.N.’s move from “inequality” to “irregularity” is absolutely right; and his emendation to “amplification” for “enflure” is genius, I think.

Often, D.N. took out what I fondly imagined were my own Nabokovian moments of brilliance: “How I used to love those coloured pencils! The green which creates, as it whirls, a tree with its hair down disheveled tree“—where I was trying to render “Un arbre ébouriffé.”

But he allowed me O’s “thick black eyebrows which made each other’s acquaintance” for her “gros sourcils noirs qui se rejoignaient“—which I liked.

There was only one moment of regretful assent, rather than unmixedly happy agreement, in the following:

L’horloge abat les secondes à coups secs, avec une sorte de soupir rauque au milieu, car elle est très vieille.

The clock marks off deletes the seconds with dry beats chops, with a sort of ill exhalation in the middle, for it is very old.

Regretful, only because for once it didn’t seem equal to V.N.: “deletes” seemed too modern; and “chops” too old-fashioned. Though that combination of the contemporary and the anachronistic is very Nabokovian. So, on reflection, maybe it was right.

And then there were two moments were I tried to translate and was rebuffed. First, there was the man who operated the lift in their St. Petersburg home—called by V.N. “le Suisse.” Which interested me because Switzerland, in the piece, is a symbol of exile, and so it seemed unlikely that V.N. would have used the word without thinking, but on the other hand a Suisse is also slang in French for any kind of person who helps out (it’s even there in Shakespeare’s English, when in Hamlet Claudius asks for his bodyguards, his “Switzers”). I couldn’t gauge how far it was being used literally or slangily: in the end, I went for “the man,” and D.N. corrected this to “the Swiss chap.” And secondly there was V.N.’s description of the young man who came to teach them: “C’était ce que nous nommions ‘un répétiteur’ plutôt qu’un gouverneur.” I decided on this: ‘He was a man we called a ‘companion’ rather than a “tutor”’—and D.N. changed this to “He was a man we called a ‘_répétiteur‘ rather than, more accurately, a ‘tutor.'” In both cases, then, he wanted to preserve the literal word.

Can we expect to see you take on a longer translation in the future?

I’d love there to be more translated from South American writers from the early twentieth century: Roberto Arlt, Macedonio Fernandez. Then a more complete version of Central Europeans like Bohumil Hrabal. And also more from less well-known periods of major literatures, like the libertine French novels of the eighteenth century, by novelists like Crébillon fils. As for me, though, I don’t know when I’ll ever undertake any of these. I was asked by my publisher if I wanted to translate Madame Bovary—which initially excited me and then I thought of the time it would take—about the time, basically, it would take to write Madame Bovary. I wish more novelists translated novels, but novelists, rightly, in a way, are selfish, and translation of long works takes up so much time. The great novelist-translators like Nabokov and Kundera are massively concerned with the translation of their own works, not the translations of other people. Nabokov’s Pushkin is an uncharacteristically altruistic monument.

What translation do feel is most egregiously underknown? The most unjustly praised? The most unfairly bashed?

Egregiously underknown: Juliet Herbert’s Madame Bovary, I suppose; and then Romain Gary’s self-translations; the early translations of Hrabal by Edith Pargeter; D. H. Lawrence’s translation of Verga.

Unjustly praised: the new Proust—I’m just not convinced by the decision to use more than one translator—a decision too in love with translation theory, and not enough with the art of the novel; Lowe-Porter’s Mann. But in the end I admire all translations—better Lowe-Porter than no one. The problem is that like original fiction, translation is a history of a million decisions. And these million decisions will reveal the style, and the talent. But they also represent a huge amount of work.

Hence, the unfairly bashed: Constance Garnett. The sheer volume she produced is astonishing—and helped reinvigorate the novel in English. And for all the seeming breeziness with which she set about her task, she’s still often very subtle and careful. There is a difference between her Gogol and her Tolstoy, say—evidence for her talent.

What involvement have you had in the translation of your novel, Politics? What is the worst of its foreign titles? The best?

I had little or no involvement in any of the translations of my novel, a circumstance that I’m sure created an anxiety which underlay my book and its associated projects. I had lunch with my French translator, after he’d finished the translation, and we discussed the French novels we both liked. That was as far as we got to a working relationship. My Swedish translator sent a list of questions, mainly trying to make precise whether a character’s grandmother was maternal or paternal–Swedish, it turned out, has different words for both. You couldn’t sit on the imaginary fence. As for the title, the problem publishers faced was that in many languages the equivalent has a much narrower meaning than in English. English speakers can use ‘politics’ to mean the contemporary practice of politics in the White House or at Downing Street, and also political theory in general, and—even wider—systems of strategy and power and control. Whereas in most other languages it simply means the contemporary practice: the Elysée, or the Reichstag. In some countries, therefore, like Italy, Politics was simply left in the English; in Germany and Romania it became the wider Strategie. But mostly it was left alone, to fend for itself.

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