May contain peanuts


I wrote last week about how languages are presented in other languages in novels and wandered into thinking about translation and philosophies of. As it turns out Michael Hofmann, the translator of some of Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s work, does have quite a bit to say about his ideas on translation. I’m under strict post-travel austerity measures right now, so apart from $5 bags ‘o’ random and the $1 shelf in front of the thrift store, it’s the library for me. Luckily they had a copy of Where Have You Been?, Hofmann’s latest collection of book reviews and essays.

I immediately liked his style, full of half-sentence starts and general fuckyouitiveness:

“Last thing. My title, Where Have You Been?…isn’t it also the constant clamor or refrain, bandied from book to reader, reader to critic, critic to book, in an endless farce of ill timing? And vice versa too, of course. Where increasingly everything is global and blogal and instant and on demand, where the things we think we want talk to us (or at least the things that have been told to want us), isn’t it odd and lovely and even a little reassuring that there’s so much itinerant lostness about?”

Which comes out especially in “Sharp Biscuit,” an essay on translation and his all-in approach to the English language:

“This is translation not quite as autobiography but maybe as ‘autography’: turning out my pockets, Schwitters-style, a bus ticket, a scrap of newspaper, a fag packet, a page torn out of a diary. The words are not just words; they are words that I’ve knocked around with; they reflect my continuing engagement with Lowell, with Brodsky, with Bishop, with Malcolm Lowry, words that have had some wear and tear, there is fade in them, and softness, and history, maybe not visibly so for every reader, but palpably, to some.”

“Chocolates carry warnings that they may have been manufactured using equipment that has hosted peanuts; why not translations too? But then not just ‘has written the occasional modern poem’ but also ‘likes punk’ or ‘early familiarity with the works of Dickens’ or even ‘reads the Guardian’ or ‘follows the Dow’ or ‘fan of P. G. Wodehouse.’”

And then this, which raised for me a slightly separate issue:
“Even if you use eighteenth-century vocabulary, chances are you won’t manage a single sentence that would have passed muster in the eighteenth century….Meanwhile, your twenty-first-century reader reads you with what—his eighteenth-century parson’s soul? On his Nook?”

Now here’s a thing I’ve mostly held off talking to other editors about for fear of seeming sloppy or insufficiently interested in the details, which is, you know, editing’s whole deal. I read anecdotes editors tell about using Google Maps to spot a gaff in the author’s rendering of the outer suburbs of Sarnia and I tend to think, “Good on ya…I guess.” And in mystery editing in particular there seems to be a hard line drawn between made-up settings (Louise Penny’s Three Pines) and real (Sara Paretsky’s Chicago) in terms of what we’re supposed to be letting authors get away with. Lots of mystery readers read for setting, and I understand that impulse to do right by them. But even in a town I know down to the last shortcut (and I’ve edited books set in places I know well), I’m simply not going to hold you to every turn in the road, every plant in the ditch. You may have lost your pursuers in taking that side street that is in real life a cul-de-sac, but you have not lost me. In part because do we take this to its logical extreme and ask ourselves how many murders can really happen in one quiet seaside town before everyone simply moves away and they shut the place down? No, no we do not. That was great, give us more!

Historical fiction is another potential bonanza for an editor of a certain frame of mind. I have called authors on various glitches in historical accuracy, leaving notes along the lines of “My quick internet search tells me stainless steel was not widely available until ——. Do you want to adjust this?” But even then, in the back of my mind, I’m sometimes thinking: “Killjoy.” Because more often than not, really, really, that stainless steel is not affecting my engagement with the story one iota.

Several years ago I got to work on a fascinating book called Eva’s Threepenny Theatre by Andrew Steinmetz. The book was in part about where fact leaves off and fiction picks up, where family lore and memories bleed into misunderstanding and invention. The manuscript had gone through many incarnations before it got to me, and the precise balance of fact and fiction had shifted and continued to shift as we readied it for publication. (In trying to find the right way to describe it in marketing materials we eventually settled on “a fiction about memoir.” ) At a certain point in the process Andrew and I decided I would cease asking him which aspects of the story were real, as in from his life, and which were weren’t. In the book the narrator’s mother dies of meningitis and without asking myself why, I had become convinced that this was among the details drawn from Andrew’s life. So that when at the book launch I was introduced to his mother I assumed it must be his stepmother. Yet there were some nagging similarities in their faces. Eventually I pulled him aside and asked.
“Oh, you thought that one was real, huh.”
“I did.”

Frankly I loved that someone would off his mother for the sake of the story. That’s the spirit.

2 Responses to “May contain peanuts”
  1. Aube Giroux

    Kate I miss you. Also, have you heard of “In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri? I picked it up the other day and read only the first few pages but it was very promising… She writes in Italian (her third language) and then had it translated into English.

    • kate

      Miss you too, Aubie! I have heard about this book, but not yet checked it out. I loved “The Namesake”, though, an earlier one of hers.

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