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Michael Cunningham

June 17th, 2010

After almost thirty years of writing fiction, I’ve come to understand that translation is not merely a job assigned to a translator, but a long, complex, and even profound series of transformations that involve the writer and reader as well. “Translation” as a human act is, like so many human acts, a far more complicated proposition than it may initially seem to be. Let’s start, however, at the putative beginning. Let’s talk about the actual work that translators do.

Having spent time with any number of translators over the years, I’ve learned a few things about their lives and their work. I’ve learned that they are so underestimated and underpaid as to make poets look like movie stars. And I’ve learned that they are artists. It will not surprise any of you to hear that good translators do not simply turn a book from one language into another. Good translators agonize over the question of fidelity to the original text. To what extent should the translator reproduce, as exactly as possible, the source material, even though lines that are forceful and muscular and musical in one language are often clunky and awkward in another? Then again, to what extent should the translator feel free to try and replicate the aforementioned force and muscularity and music by rewriting it to conform to the more agreeable meanings and sounds available in the translator’s own language, even if the translated line veers, sometimes rather dramatically, from the original? To what extent can the translator presume to understand the author’s intentions, and re-imagine them in Italian, Finnish, or Mandarin?

Please permit me to offer an example of the translator’s dilemma.

Let’s take what is probably the most famous line in American literature: “Call me Ishmael.” That, as you probably know, is the opening sentence of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In America, even the semi-literate recognize that line. Still. “Call me Ishmael.” Three simple words. What’s the big deal? For one thing, they possess that most fundamental but elusive of all writerly qualities: authority. As writers we must, from our very opening sentence, speak with authority to our readers.

It’s a little like waltzing with a new partner for the first time. Any of you who are able to waltz, or fox trot, or tango, or perform any sort of dance that requires physical contact with a responsive partner, knows that there is a first moment, on the dance floor, when you assess, automatically, whether or not the new partner in question can dance at all, and if he or she can in fact dance, how well. You know almost instantly whether or not you have a novice on your hands, and that if you do, you’ll have to do a fair amount of work just to keep things moving. If, on the other hand, it’s apparent that you’ve lucked into someone at least as adept as you are, you know you can relax and enjoy yourself. You know that you’re in for a proper dance, as opposed to a tutorial, a work-out, or an extended act of benevolent patience. With an authoritative opening line we, as writers, assure our readers that we can dance, can in fact dance quite well, and so our readers can relax and let themselves be led. They understand, immediately, that they are in the hands of someone who knows what he or she is doing.

“Authority” is a rather mysterious quality, and it’s almost impossible to parse it for its components. The translator’s first task, then, is to re-render a certain forcefulness that can’t quite be described or explained.

The translator is called upon to perform an act of magic.

But all right, although the words “Call me Ishmael” have force and confidence, force and confidence alone aren’t enough. Idiot, read thishas force and confidence too,but is less likely to produce the desired effect. What else do Melville’s words possess that Idiot, read thislack? They have music. Here’s where the job of translation gets even more difficult. Language in fiction is made up of equal parts meaning and music. The  sentences should have rhythm and cadence, they should engage and delight the inner ear. Ideally, a sentence read aloud, in a foreign language, should still sound like something, even if the listener has no idea what it is he or she is being told.

Let’s try to forget that the words “Call me Ishmael mean anything, and talk about how they sound. Listen to the vowel sounds: ah, ee, soft I, aa. Four sounds, each different, and each a soft, soothing note. Listen too to the way the line is bracketed by consonants.  They open with the hard c, hit the l at the end of call, and then, in a lovely act of symmetry, hit the second l at the end of Ishmael. Call me Arthur orCall me Bob are adequate but not, for musical reasons, as satisfying.

I hope it won’t seem as if I’m splitting hairs. Most readers, of course, wouldn’t be able to tell you that they respond to those three words because they are soothing and symmetrical, but most readers register the fact unconsciously. You could probably say that meaning is the force we employ, and music is the seduction  It is the translator’s job to reproduce the force as well as the music.

Chiamami Ismaele.

That of course is the Italian version of Melville’s line, and the translator has done a nice job. I can tell you, as a reader who doesn’t speak Italian, that those two words do in fact sound like something, independent of their meaning. Although different from the English, we have a new, equally lovely progression of vowel sounds – ee-a, ah, ee, A, ee  – and those three m’s, nicely spaced.

All right, then. If you’re translating Moby Dick, that’s one sentence down, approximately a million more to go.

I encourage my translators to take as much license as they feel that they need. I’d rather my sentences sparkle in altered form than lie there like so many concrete blocks in their faithfully-rendered versions. I choose to trust my translators. This is not quite the heroic gesture it might be, because I’ve learned, from working with translators over the years, that the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself. It is not of course translated into another language but it is a translation from the images in the author’s mind to that which he is able to put down on paper.

Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, feel that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of fiction-writing. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.

Even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire. It contains neither all you know nor all you can imagine. You may even have thought, in moments of particularly delirious delusions of grandeur, that you could account for all of human experience, and you can’t help but notice that the completed entity contains nothing whatsoever about the Crimean War, the Great Vowel Shift, or interstellar travel. It is only this. This book. And it contains only what it contains.

It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.

The translator, then, is simply moving the book another step along the translation continuum. The translator is translating a translation.

I am able, just barely, to survive the fits of disappointment that set in when I finish a novel because I don’t have, and never have had, much sense of my books as sacred texts. A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also neither more nor less than a record of the experience the novelist underwent as he learned how to write a novel by writing one. Novelists should be overly ambitious. They should always feel like they’re in a little over their heads, like they don’t entirely know what they’re doing. This is how the novel attains its life. A novel written by a self-professed “expert” – a novel that had not felt, in the writing, at least intermittently like a failure – may be well crafted and may even be “good,” but it is not likely to be profound. It is more likely to resemble a Swiss music box, in which a little ballerina pops up and dances to Fur Elise, than it is the raging, uneven, mysterious creature that a novel ought to be.

The best example I know of this necessary state of continuing semi-competence comes not from literature but from painting. Monet, who created those spectacular paintings of ponds filled with water lilies late in his very long life, was trying – and failing – to depict the motion of reeds under the surface of the water when he died. He expired trying to get those painted reeds to undulate properly. He died, that is, still learning how to paint, still striving for an effect that eluded him. That is the model, in my opinion, for artists of any kind. If you consider yourself, as a writer, to be a lifelong student of writing, it’s just about impossible to think of any book you’ve written as definitive. A novel, any novel, can only be the best novel that you, the writer, were capable of writing at that time in your life, and even if it’s turned out pretty well, you’d write it differently five years later. I find, personally, that I’d write most of my books differently six months later, and it’s all I can do not to go from bookstore to bookstore with a pen, picking up copies from the shelves and crossing out certain lines I’ve already come to regret.

I’m not trying to seem unduly modest here. No novelist is modest. Consider what the novelist is saying to the world at large: stop whatever you’re doing, and read this. Don’t have lunch, don’t have sex, don’t call a friend, and don’t, for god’s sake, read anything else. Read this instead. A novelist – any novelist I admire – performs a tricky balancing act between hubris and self-abnegation. You have to be confident enough to write the thing at all, and to believe that it’s worth the paper it’s printed on. And at the same time you have to subjugate yourself to your stories, your characters, your art. I’m sure we’ve all read books the primary purpose of which is to demonstrate to us the writer’s skills; to show us once and for all that the writer in question is smarter and more gifted than we’d dared to imagine. I don’t know about you, but I find the experience rather empty.

This brings us to the question of the relationship between writers and their readers, where another act of translation occurs.

I teach writing, and one of the first questions I ask my students every semester is, who are you writing for? The answer, nine times out of ten, is that they write for themselves. I tell them that I understand, that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake, and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate, eroticised interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space. My students tend to respond by accusing me of asking that they pander to their readers. I respond, in turn, by asserting that if every intense, challenging relationship inevitably involves pandering, we should all go live on mountaintops by ourselves. I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and by now, in the twenty-first century, there’s been such an accumulation of literature that few of us will live long enough to read all the great stories and novels, never mind the pretty good ones. Not to mention the fact that we, as readers, are busy. We have large and difficult lives. We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see; we need to keep up with current events; we have gophers in our gardens and neighbors at our doors demanding to know why they should rake up leaves dropped by our trees into their yards; we have to determine whether the cat is truly lost this time and we have to get dinner made somehow; we are trying to fix the washing machine ourselves because the repairman seems only to have broken it further; we are taking extension courses in French or wine-tasting or art appreciation; we are looking for evidence that our lovers are cheating on us; we are wondering why in the world we agreed to have forty people over on Saturday night; we are trying to talk our children out of wearing disastrously inappropriate outfits to school and into doing their homework; we are worried about money and global warming; we are TIVO-ing five or six of our favorite television shows.

What the writer is saying, essentially, is: make room in all that for this. Stop what you’re doing and read this. It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.

I should admit that when I was as young as my students are now, I too thought of myself as writing either for myself, for some ghostly ideal reader, or, at my most grandiose moments, for future generations. I did not find any of these hypothetical readers, ranging as they did from me to the still-unborn, to be sufficiently specific, and my work suffered as a result.

I discovered a better method many years ago, when I was working in a restaurant bar in Laguna Beach, California. One of the hostesses was a woman named Helen, who was in her mid-forties at the time and so seemed, to me, to be just slightly younger than the Ancient Mariner. Helen was a lovely, generous woman who had four children and who had been left, abruptly and without warning, by her husband. Abruptly, without warning, without a forwarding address, and with gambling debts he had neglected to mention to her. And so, in addition to raising the kids (and doing her best to keep the oldest one out of jail), she had to work. And work and work. She worked in a bakery in the early mornings, typed manuscripts for writers in the afternoons, and seated diners at the restaurant nights. She was an avid reader, and her great joy, at the end of her long, hard days, was to get into bed and read for an hour before she caught the short interlude of sleep that was granted her. She read widely and voraciously. She was, when we met, reading a trashy murder mystery, and I, as only the young and pretentious might do, suggested that she try Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, since she liked detective stories. She did. She read Crime and Punishment in less than a week. When she had finished it she told me, “That was wonderful.” 

“Thought you’d like it,” I answered.

She added, “Dostoyevsky is much better than Ken Follett.”


Then she paused. “But he’s not as good as Scott Turow.”

Although I didn’t necessarily agree with her about Dostoyevsky versus Turow, I did like, very much, the fact that Helen had no school-inspired sense of what she was supposed to enjoy more, and what less. She simply needed what any good reader needs: absorption, emotion, momentum, and the sense of being transported from the world in which she lived and transplanted into another one.

I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. A book that would feel like proper compensation for all she suffered. A book that would be waiting for her at the end of the day and would give her something she’d value.

And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. I’d seen, rather suddenly, that writing is not only an exercise in self-expression, it is also, more importantly, a gift we as writers are trying to give to readers. And, given who’s out there and what they are coping with, it had better be a gift worth having.

Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal. Although writing fiction is, and should be, a daunting prospect, one can approach it with a bit more enthusiasm if one thinks less of history and more of the reader.

The reader represents the final step in a book’s ongoing life of translation.

I have met many, many more readers since that long-ago exchange with Helen, and the experience has been decidedly mixed. The good news: some people tell you that they love your books, and are moved by them. The less good news: other readers tell you they couldn’t make sense of your books, or found them too depressing, or just couldn’t seem to get involved. To the former body of readers, one is grateful. Of the latter one can only think, Well, it seems I didn’t translate your hopes into a language you could read.”

This experience is not, of course, confined to one’s own books. As a teacher one is forever grappling with students who find Chekhov dull, Gide overwrought, and Proust impenetrable. Some students are upset by their difficulties with great works of literature. Others are rather proud of it.

One of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is the fact that no two readers ever read the same book. We will all feel differently about a movie or a play or a painting or a song, but we have all undeniably seen or heard the same movie, play, painting, or song. They are physical entities. A painting by Velasquez is purely and simply itself, as is Blue by Joni Mitchell. If you walk into the appropriate gallery in the Prado, or if someone puts a Joni Mitchell disc on, you will see the painting or hear the music. You have no choice. Writing, however, does not exist without an active, consenting reader. Writing requires a different level of participation. Words on paper are abstractions, and everyone who reads words on paper, even though they’re the same words being read by everybody else, brings to them a different set of associations and images. I have vivid mental pictures of Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, and Huckleberry Finn, but I feel confident they are not identical to the images carried in the minds of anyone else in this room.

It’s more, of course, than just how we imagine a character. It’s the whole experience of reading a novel, of being moved or not moved, frightened or consoled, turned on or turned off. We read in solitude, and none of us is reading exactly the same book. Even my beloved Helen was, clearly, not reading the same Crime and Punishment I was. She wasn’t looking for an existential work of genius, she was looking for a good mystery, and she read Dostoyevsky with that thought in mind. I don’t blame her for it. I like to imagine that Dostoyevsky wouldn’t, either.

What the reader is doing, then, is translating the words on the pages into his or her own private, imaginary lexicon, according to his or her interests and needs and levels of comprehension.

Imagine this, then. At one point we have a writer in a room, struggling to approximate the impossible vision that hovers over his head. He finishes it, with misgivings. He worries that he’s betrayed his own book through sheer ineptitude, but understands that sooner or later every book must be declared complete, because the only alternative is to keep working on the same unfinishable novel all his life.

Some time later we have a translator in another room in another country, struggling to approximate the vision, not to mention the particulars of language and voice, of the text that lies before him. He does the best he can, but is never satisfied. He feels that he’s missed something, left something out or done too much; that he has failed, and betrayed the book through sheer ineptitude. But he turns it in because the only alternative would be to spend his life translating the same book over and over again, never feeling that it’s quite good enough.

And then, finally, the reader. The reader is the least tortured of this trio (thank god for that, or no one would ever buy books), but the reader too may very well feel that he is missing something in the book, that he’s not adequate to the challenge of the book, that through sheer ineptitude he is failing to be a proper vessel for the book’s overarching vision. He may also feel – though he may not be consciously aware of the feeling – that he’s looking for a better book, not only better than the book in hand but a better book than any human being could possibly write, a book that will tell the whole human story, that will be brilliantly comic and profoundly tragic and will account for the Crimean War, the Great Vowel Shift, and interstellar travel.

I don’t mean to suggest that writer, translator, and reader are all engaged in a mass exercise in disappointment. How depressing would that be? And how untrue. Literature enlivens us, illuminates us, accompanies us from our childhoods to our deaths. Great books astonish us, as miracles are meant to do. They attest to the fact that, despite all the odds, despite the limits of the flesh, the occasional, extraordinary individual is able to take the humblest of materials, ink and paper, and produce with them an enormous dream for readers not only to receive but in which they can participate. From the inanimate, a great writer creates something that can stand unembarrassed beside the spectacle of life itself.

And still. We, as a species, are always looking for cathedrals made of fire, and part of the thrill of reading a great book is the promise of another yet to come, a book that may move us even more deeply, raise us even higher. One of the consolations of writing books is the seemingly unquenchable conviction that the next book will be better, will be bigger and bolder and more comprehensive and truer to the lives we live. We exist in an ongoing condition of hope, we love the beauty and truth that come to us, and do our best to tamp down our doubts and disappointments. That is the peculiarity of us. That is the glory of us. We are on a quest, and are not discouraged by our collective suspicion that the perfection we look for in art is about as likely to turn up as is the Holy Grail. That is one of the reasons why we, I mean we humans, are not only the creators, translators, and consumers of literature, but also its subjects.