Multiples: 12 Stories in 18 Languages by 61 Authors
edited by Adam Thirlwell
Too often translation is discussed in terms of loss. What hasn't come through? How is the translation inferior to the original? Multiples, refreshingly, does the opposite: it asks, instead, what is it that survives? And in particular, can something like "style" survive being wrenched out of a language entirely and remade in another? Novelist Adam Thirlwell devised an experiment to put these questions to the test. The outcome is this impossible, fascinating book.
The idea in brief: get a story translated several times in series (Russian to French, to English, to Dutch…) and as the distance from the original increases, watch what changes and what remains. To put extra strain on the original's integrity, Thirlwell invited novelists to do the translating.
Many hadn't translated before. Some possessed - it transpired - only the ropiest understanding of the source language. And novelists are expected to have styles of their own so might struggle to avoid incorporating their particular stylistic distortions. How could an original survive?
Eventually the experiment would grow to comprise 12 stories, from Daniil Kharms to Soren Kierkegaard, Enrique Vila-Matas to Kenji Miyazawa, Richard Middleton to Danilo Kis, each translated serially between four and six times (usually via English at alternate stages), featuring 18 languages and the translating talents/failings of 61 novelists.
Part of the pleasure of the translations being undertaken serially, rather than in parallel, comes from watching a little distortion or imprecision being compounded, or amplified, as the series progresses. A Lebanese story by Youssef Habchi El-Achkar features a setting rendered by Rawi Hage as a "coffee shop". Tristan Garcia's French translation calls it "le cafe" - not quite the same thing. In English, under Joe Dunthorne, this becomes a "cafe-bar". In Francesco Pacifico's Italian, next, "il bar". So we're now, apparently, in a bar. And it's in London. Which is absolutely not where we started.
There's no such thing as a perfect translation, and all these writers have produced translations of sorts. So is Multiples designed to fail? If it is, then it fails in multiple different ways - stories change, or resist, they shift in essential or merely cosmetic ways; some survive the process, others detach themselves entirely.
By one measure, every translated story must be inadequate, yet each is still a distinct piece of writing that recently didn't exist. To anyone interested in translation - or in the effects of style - each failure is something new, something fascinating, that is gained.
Guardian News & Media