Tag Archives: Literature

Problems of translation

The War of the End of the World

Mario Vargas Llosa's "The War of the End of the World"

Philip Meyer pointed out in an interview that one of the main metrics he uses for gauging whether or not a book qualifies as “literature” is how well it stands up to translation. I hadn’t given much thought to translation before that comment, but I’ve come to really agree with him.

It seems that in order for books to survive not only across languages but also across generations, they need to be constructed such that the heavy lifting is done chapter-to-chapter, rather than sentence-to-sentence. Of course, that heavy lifting also has to be complex and meaningful enough (and contain enough intellectual mysteries) to warrant examination across a wide stretch of time, but literary showmanship has a tendency to lose its luster once it passes more than a decade or so past its construction.

The author who I most often think of when considering this problem of translation is Denis Johnson. He’s still one of my favorites, and Jesus’s Son still knocks my ever-loving socks off each time I read it. However, there is so much in the way of literary pyrotechnics in Johnson’s writing that I can’t see it surviving into other languages while still maintaining its effect. The same goes for Kerouac, who I feel survives so heavily on his style that once you leave the “moment” that he’s describing, it’s hard to find what in his story there is to appreciate. I have a suspicion that Murakami may suffer from a similar affliction. The Wind Up Bird chronicle survives on the strength of its ideas, but the prose comes across as clunky in English.

On the opposite end of this spectrum I’d place Mario Vargas Llosa, whose books are meticulous edifices of idea. There is nothing showy about his prose and nothing pedestrian about it either. He presents an intellectual landscape that develops itself patiently in the space provided. Ian McEwan is another good example. Although much of the aesthetic beauty of McEwan’s writing would likely be lost in translating it to another language, his books would still hold up because their strength is in the way they organize ideas across the space of an entire novel, not in their sentence-to-sentence histrionics.

The middle ground that I can’t make up my mind about is Kafka. I feel like his parables are at least somewhat accessible in English, but he is such a meticulous writer that I worry a greater-than-usual nuance is being lost by taking him out of his native German.


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Roberto Bolano and Hieronymus Bosch


Roberto Bolano's "2666"

I recently attempted to write an essay about 2666—Roberto Bolano’s sprawling, late-life masterwork—and found myself stumped. For someone with my borderline unhealthy adoration of Bolano, this was unexpected to the point of offense. A couple things to help put this in perspective: 1) I LOVE Bolano. I have consumed almost his entire oeuvre and dragged myself through the 900-page wilderness of 2666 two times over. I am hovering near the range of obsession, even if I haven’t fully committed to that plunge. 2) There is so much addressed in 2666—so many philosophies, characters, times, and circumstances—that it’s almost impossible to not have anything to say about it. It’s like not having an opinion about life. And yet, there I was.

The problem I had in talking about 2666 is one that I find in addressing other such postmodern doorstops as Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow. All these books present such a titanic edifice of thought that it feels like you’d have to have several PHDs before you were qualified to offer a worthwhile opinion on any them. And even then, is it possible to talk about such works in broad terms? One could spend a lifetime picking through the intellectual cross-hatching of Gravity’s Rainbow and to talk about it in any degree lesser than “exhaustive” feels downright lazy.

2666 presents these same conundrums. The novel touches on everything from Robert Rodriguez to the Russian Revolution and trying to fit the pieces together could cause you to question your sanity (a prospect that the novel itself cheekily proffers). But the difference between 2666 and Gravity’s Rainbow, for me in any case, is that with 2666, I feel that superhuman erudition is a welcome companion to one’s journey through the novel, rather than a price of entry. Bolano, by his own admission, created a work with so many twists and blind alleys that not even he knew where all of them led. The novel was crafted as an experience accessible on the emotional level, as well as the scholarly, and it is for that reason that I think I developed such fondness for it. There are themes and thought experiments to be extrapolated from the five books that comprise 2666, but the aesthetic pleasure of reading was so strong that it could carry me through the novel without leaving me feeling obligated to dirty its margins with a spider web of notes and obscure references.

My problem in writing my essay was that I found it difficult to reconcile my desire to make sense of 2666’s details while also paying credence to its whole. To focus on the book’s affective qualities would mean neglecting its library of intellectual detail, and to focus exclusively on that detail would be to obfuscate why I was so interested in it in the first place. There was, of course, a model for such a critical balance, and I eventually happened upon it, the point of entry being the paintings of the sixteenth century Dutch master, Hieronymus Bosch.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights"

Little is known about Bosch’s life, other than that it began in the latter half of the fifteenth century and ended in the earlier days of the sixteenth. His themes were clear and remained consistent throughout his career—torture, temptation, suffering, and Christian salvation. Bosch took to this well-trod thematic ground with an unmistakable style. The painter’s horrific triptychs offer, at the same time, sweeping visions of pangeic agony and isolated capsules of metaphor, allusion, and, I think it’s more than likely, jest. All in all, his paintings engage an effect similar to Bolano’s novels.

Both Bolano and Bosch offer visions of outsized suffering, overstuffed with minute detail. In Bolano, this predilection manifests itself in the histories of fictional revolutions and desultory artistic movements; with Bosch, the artist’s imagination is set to work creating bird-beaked devils and revelers subjected to unique torments such as fit their particular sins. The organization of these encyclopedic grotesqueries is an impressive feat for both artists, as it is here where they form a cohesive whole from the sum of their great many parts. Again, there are parallels to be found in the work of both artists.

2666 is an inversion of Bosch’s most famous triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. Whereas with Bosch, Hell’s wasteland occupies the far side of the frame, in Bolano it is the center. “The Part About the Crimes”, the centerpiece of 2666, is comprised of a methodical recounting of systematic rape and murder so unflinching that it makes Beelzebub’s quests for human punishment seem quaint. The bleakness of these themes is balanced, both in Bosch and Bolano, by competing forces that at least attenuate such suffering, even if they fail to negate it.

Bosch’s cosmology is one in which Earth is a mixture of the divine and the profane, both balancing in a shaky middle ground. Bolano posits that such violence, grotesque for its inversion of rationality, is the centerpiece around which the world pivots. His instances of beauty exist in precarious flux about the edges of this violence. Bolano’s great anxiety is that goodness is simply untrue. As a character remarks in The Savage Detectives, “the question is whether evil is a force, for if it is a force, then it can be fought against, but if it is not, then all is hopeless.” In both Bosch and Bolano, the grandest schemes are revealed via the compilation of seemingly infinite minutia.

The Temptation of St. Anthony

Hieronymus Bosch's "The Temptation of St. Anthony"

Both Bosch and Bolano focus in a manner that is almost obsessive on the dark, the melancholy, the horrific. But in both cases, this subject matter is turned into aesthetic experience via its treatment. Bosch’s Hell and Bolano’s Mexico are similar places in that they reveal the torrid minutia of their creators’ subconsciouses, and rather than fighting this collection of demons (in Bolano’s case intellectual, in Bosch’s case literal) they give them free reign, resulting in works of striking detail that are, for all their varied grotesquery, beautiful.

Just as Bosch labors over the details of his duck-like demons and their ironic tortures, Bolano populates 2666 with every manner of well-crafted phantasm. There are wanderers, warriors, critics, madmen, solopsists, and supernumeraries. What unites Bolano’s wandering cavalcade is literature. Whereas Bosch’s Christianity provided the mythic patina for his work, Bolano’s obsessive, lifelong immersion in literature endows him with the characters and ideas that populate his masterpiece. All the great variety of ghosts that show up on the pages of 2666 are united by their pursuit of Art. There are the critics, the writers (both failed and adored), and the journalists, scrabbling morosely at their trade. What to make of this garden of deformities? In both cases, the answer is hidden.

Critical analysis of 2666 is possible, but it’s a doomed enterprise, for only through fallacy could one force the pieces of the novel into systematic cohesion. While Bosch’s tortures look uniform from afar, on closer inspection they show conflicting flashes of irony, pagan folklore, and oblique import; Bolano’s paean to literary ambition squandered in senseless violence has a shape discernable from telescopic ranges, but zoom to any of its finer details and there is revealed a fresh terrain in which to become lost.

The Conjurer

Hieronymus Bosch's "The Conjurer"

In the cases of both Bolano and Bosch, there is a critical contingent that argues that the artists’ encyclopedic catalogues of the horrific have no greater import than in their value as curiosities. This is a hard argument to refute. Despite critics that would paint him as a satirist, Bosch’s paintings seem very much in keeping with an orthodox, Christian view of the Middle Ages, and looking for a moral force beyond Christianity in his work is a strained enterprise at best. Bolano’s great novel presents similar frustrations, even if they arrive from a different set of problems. 2666 is an unfinished masterpiece and its constituent ideas propagate themselves without the restraint that marks Bolano’s shorter books. But my enjoyment of both Bolano and Bosch stems from a willingness to appreciate the aesthetic form, while making allowances for the possibility that the content might not contain the starkest of revelations.

This isn’t to say that my interest in either artist is diminished. I am more than capable of assuming transcendence in Bosch’s devils, just as I am willing to believe in meaning in Bolano’s mess. In both cases, these artists have forged a pure aesthetic by sheer force of will. It’s the sort of feat that makes transcendence seem possible, despite life’s horrors, despite the mind’s calamity.

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True confessions #579

Despite venturing two hundred and fifty pages into the thing, I have never actually finished reading “The Red and the Black”.

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Some questions about publishing on demand

Headed' the way of the Dodo

I’ve heard from a couple sources recently that publishing on demand is the future of the biz. Having a background in economics that is really no background at all, I can’t speak to the practicality of this business model, but just from my idle consideration of the subject, it seems like there are a couple of built-in problems.

1) It’s my understanding that the business model works on the principle of creating very small runs of a title, then printing more if demand picks up. Fine, if you’re self-publishing, but doesn’t the entire business depend on making large investments (advances, marketing, editing, fact-checking, design) and then banking on a large pay-off in the form of healthy retail success? By limiting the number of copies of a book you’re printing, it seems like the prospect of recouping your costs, and perhaps making at profit a the end of it, is going significantly downwards. The solution to this would be to, I suppose, release lots of titles to niche markets, all of which have a razor thin profit margin. But again, you have to spend money on advances, materials, and marketing in order for this to have any kind of success. It seems like the only place where money is really being saved is in warehouse storage, and that’s not even the biggest expense in the business. On demand publishing cuts output, but does it really cut down on the costs inherent to the business?

2) What about e-publishing? Publishing to formats like the Kindle and iPad is coming to dominate the publishing landscape, and publishing on-demand seems analogous to creating a “tank buster” while failing to realize that the enemy now has nukes. With e-publishing consuming such a larger share of the market, is it really necessary to revolutionize the way we create actual books? As e-publishing picks up an ever-larger market share, there will be smaller actual print runs of books, but that’s not so much a rethinking of the way we publish books as it is a scaling down of the same process.

So, what do you think? Am I grossly misinterpreting this whole thing?

For what it’s worth, I could see book publishing going to a model similar to what we’ve seen with the music industry (only not, with any luck, something that has a similarly devastating economic impact). I could see e-books becoming the norm, with actual, paper books becoming a specialty product for collectors, something analogous to the way vinyl is now viewed by music enthusiasts.

Or, maybe, we’ll all just quit reading and start watching reruns of Gossip Girl, which was actually pretty good last week.

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Artists in fiction

At the behest of a cousin, I have started reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. I didn’t know a whole lot about this book before the past month, and what I did known had mostly to do with the fact that Nicole Kidman, at one point in time, wore a funny nasal prosthetic.

The book is a tri-part narrative, centered around the thematic lines of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, suicide, and yellow flowers. There are three narratives that Cunningham follows, one dealing with a housewife in the late 1940s, the other dealing with a publisher in the late ’90s, and the foremost dealing with Virginia Woolf herself, as she constructs Mrs. Dalloway. Reading the book has created an interesting question, which is this:

What’s the verdict on portraying artists in fictional settings? I know that Peter Schaffer’s portrayal of Mozart has seen its share of harsh criticism. Shakespeare in Love, while charming, provides what I feel is an extreme simplification of its subject.

I’m not enough of an authority on Woolf to cast aspersions on Cunningham’s portrayal, but I’m sure that purists will approach The Hours with hackles raised. Artists are so personal to us that I think any kind of a fictional portrayal that doesn’t match our personal interpretation runs the risk of seeming treasonous.

The Hours is a good book (artfully deployed themes, engaging characters, innovative structure), but it seems inevitable that it must have riled Woolf enthusiasts.

So what do you think? Portraying artists in fiction—necessary evil or oft-broken taboo?


Michael Cunningham has the most ludicrously handsome jacket photo I have ever seen.

Michael Cunningham

The dashing Mr. Cunningham

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Wow. Fantastic Speech, Gabriel

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I came across Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and, good Lord, is it a doozy. Try this on for size (speaking in regards to One Hundred Years of Solitude):

I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.

The rest of the speech is full of a series of similarly chilling and profound revelations, both about literature and Latin America, especially in regards to both of these things’ relationship with Europe. I highly recommend reading the speech if you are interested in Latin American literature (as you all should be) or if you’re interested in Marquez (as I assume most of you are).

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For your consideration: Maurice Pons

Maurice Pons

French author Maurice Pons

I just read “The Baker’s Son” by French author Maurice Pons in the latest issue of Tin House. Check this guy out; he’s worth it. According to Edward Gauvin’s introduction to the author (in that same issue of Tin House), Pons is somewhat of a cult figure in France, splitting his time between writing, acting, and filmmaking.

So far I have only been able to get my hands on an English translation of “The Baker’s Son”, but if I can find any more of Pons’s work I’m going to be sure to snatch it up. The guy is good. “The Baker’s Son” is somewhat of a supernatural mystery, though its paranoia is very subtle and the story never makes it clear where conventional reality ends and the fantastic begins. Pons never overplays his hand, in terms of both plot and style. His writing is spare, and avoids resorting to flash in situations where patience is more appropriate.

Check out the story in Tin House if you’re interested. If anyone knows where I can find more of Pons’s books they should send that information my way.


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