Towers of Babel: An Interview with the Founder of The Untranslated

Editor’s note: The Untranslated is without a doubt my favorite blog. Run by an erudite polyglot, the blog consists of English reviews of “significant literary works not yet translated into English.” Thus Andrei, the blog’s founder, makes porous the language barrier, allowing us self-loathing monoglots (or those with only a few disparate tongues) to peer into contents of foreign literary masterpieces that may or may not be translated, let alone translatable. Reading his blog is like reading a Borges story about a book that doesn’t exist, yet it does exist. I thank Andrei for all his hard work and for agreeing to this interview.

George Salis: Why do you think the audience for translated fiction is so small? Is it because the audience for fiction in general is not all that large to begin with?

Andrei: The fact that this audience is a small fraction of the small fraction of people who read fiction is lamentable in itself, but it’s more than a simple issue of the decline in reading in the 21st century. Here we’re talking about English-speaking readers of course, as translated literature enjoys considerable popularity among speakers of other languages, albeit it’s Anglophone literature that they mostly read in translation. Perhaps it will sound strange coming from me, but one of the obvious reasons is that so much good stuff originally written in English is up for grabs. The two greatest innovators of 20th century literature, Joyce and Pynchon, wrote their landmark texts in English, and that’s something to be reckoned with. Moreover, take any genre like science fiction, mystery, horror, romance: the leading proponents in most cases would be English-language writers. Besides that, you approach a work in the original language on its own terms, but with a translation there are a lot of variables. The translation might be just poorly done; it could be too literate or, conversely, too cavalier with the original, you name it. You’d be surprised to learn how much of the original text sometimes gets left out in the translation. I mean, whole sentences are just omitted. And don’t get me started on the heinous phenomenon of abridged translations without any mention of the fact in the translated book. Then there’s a certain discomfort of immersing yourself into a foreign frame of reference, and many readers are not ready for that. Getting, say, 0.5% of all the cultural references in a book translated from Russian or Japanese can be demotivating, to say the least. It is also true that translated literature doesn’t get enough publicity. If the mainstream media lent more space to translated titles, the scales would certainly tip.

GS: What makes a faithful translation and does it matter? Or should the artistry of the translation be the only thing that matters?

A: That’s the perennial issue of domestication versus foreignisation as well as the naive belief that it’s possible to strike a balance. I think each case should be treated individually. I am well aware that the Russian translations that granted me my first exposure to Don Quixote and Gargantua and Pantagruel, being the products of the domestication school, were more frivolous with the originals than necessary, yet I wouldn’t have wished it any other way. Then there are books like Finnegans Wake or Julián Ríos’ Larva whose “faithful” translation is plain inconceivable.

GS: Who are your favorite translators and why?

A: I cannot say I have a favourite translator because I do not read that many translations nowadays, mostly channelling my energies into reading literature in the original. That said, when my Spanish wasn’t up to scratch, I was very impressed with Margaret Sayers Peden’s translation of Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra. That was a spectacular achievement. In my opinion, she managed to capture the grandiosity and unbridled eccentricity of this monumental work. I highly recommend her translation.

GS: Are there books that you’ve read both in the original and in the translated form? Did you learn anything significant from doing that?

A: Yes, there have been some. I read the translation first and then the original. My main take-away was that the notion that the translation can be as good as or, in some cases, even better than the original is a myth, at least in the case of literary fiction. There were egregious mistakes and jarring disparities even in the most expert, high-wire-act, awe-inspiring translations. It’s better not to know.

GS: If more people know more languages then perhaps truly multilingual novels could be a thing. What do you think of such a notion?

A: This makes me think of the first page of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where there’s more French text than Russian. I do think that multilingual societies are more likely to produce novels that reflect their linguistic situation, but if by a “truly multilingual” novel you mean a book whose text is evenly distributed between several languages, I am rather skeptical that such a work could be of high literary quality and transcend the status of an oddity. There’s just too little time for any human being to get good at producing remarkable prose in more than two languages. Yes, we have the examples of Nabokov and Beckett, but has there been any writer of their calibre who could write equally well in three languages? Now that I think of it, I wish Nabokov had written a half-Russian and half-English novel, I mean really 50-50. How would one go about translating it?

GS: What is the appeal of books that demonstrate “complexity, experimentalism, eccentricity, weirdness,” as you put it in your anniversary post?

A: If I speak about myself, this fascination is mostly due to being fed-up with kitchen-sink realism and the realist tradition in general. I can’t take it anymore. I don’t want to keep recognising the same patterns from one book to another. Echoing Steven Moore, the author of an alternative history of the novel, I am frustrated with the fact that the 19th century realist novel has been accepted as some kind of golden standard of literature. What about all the crazy fantastic epics written thousands of years before? I want to be surprised either by the outlandish and unexpected ideas expressed in a literary work, or by its wild erudition, or by its linguistic exuberance, and, ideally by all three. “Only the difficult is stimulating” famously wrote José Lezama Lima, the author of Paradiso, perhaps the most exuberant novel ever written, and he was right. All those innovative, non-standard, complex works offer us an illusion of transcendence, of getting beyond the boundaries of our experience, of our language, even of our consciousness, which I think is one of the most important illusions for any human being. A traditional text doesn’t leave much space for that kind of transcendence, and there is something hopeless about that. Please, do not offer me the Flaubert of Madame Bovary; give me the Flaubert of The Temptation of Saint Anthony!

GS: Are there any specific books we can expect to read about on your blog in the near future?

A: I am too much in favour of suspense and surprise to get too specific on this count, but I can share my general intentions. If we talk about languages, I would love to review more works originally written in Catalan and Portuguese not least because those were the last two languages I taught myself to read. I would also like to review more poetry, something I have been unforgivably neglecting all this time. I don’t have much experience of writing about poetry, so that might be a challenge worth facing in the future. Trying my hand at reviewing a graphic novel is also a possibility. And of course, there will be more mega-reviews of mega-novels: I will stay true to myself in this respect.

GS: Is Zettel’s Traum (Bottom’s Dream) the most surprising book to be translated, or is there something else?

A: Zettel’s Traum takes the prize, no doubt about that. Apart from John E. Woods’ endeavour, I was quite surprised to learn about the translation of Sasha Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf undertaken by Alexander Boguslwaski. I am a native Russian speaker, educated (I want to believe) and I could not make head or tail of the original. It’s a very demanding and intricate text, a linguistic scrimshaw of a novel, if you please. I have no idea how it could be rendered in English. I can’t say anything about this translation because I haven’t read it, and to tell the truth, I am not planning to, partly because in general reading works translated from my mother tongue just freaks me out, and partly because my intuition tells me that for me it will be a disappointing reading experience. However, I don’t wish to discourage anyone who doesn’t read Russian from giving it a go: even if the original is untranslatable, it might still be possible to glimpse some of its splendour in the translation.

GS: If you had to pick one untranslated book to be translated into English, what would it be?

A: That’s a tough one. On my blog I have a list of the ten best untranslated novels, and ideally I would like to see all of them available in English. Actually, it has been made recently public that one of them, Mircea Cărtărescu’s surreal epic Solenoid, is going to be translated into English and published by Deep Vellum, so that leaves me with just nine books to choose from. Though…wait a moment. Not really, after all, because since that post I have read and reviewed Michael Lentz’s new ambitious novel Schattenfroh, which I truly believe to be the greatest German novel of the 21st century so far. So, I still have to choose from ten titles. I think I would go with Alberto Laiseca’s mammoth magnum opus Los sorias. In my review I call it the Gravity’s Rainbow of Latin America, and for a reason. It’s not only the longest Argentine novel, but also one of the most mind-bending literary works ever produced. Weird, enormous, obscene, uproariously funny, undeservedly neglected, and totally uncompromising in its artistic vision—what’s there not to love?

GS: Larry Riley, fed up with waiting for a translation of Roberto Arlt’s The Flamethrowers (the second part of a two-part novel that starts with The Seven Madmen), eventually translated the book himself even with his limited knowledge of Spanish. One thing led to another and it was eventually published by River Boat Books. Have you thought about translating books yourself?

A: I used to toy with the idea of becoming a literary translator, and even translated in longhand a slim science fiction novel from English into Russian when I was about 16 (I didn’t own a computer at the time), but that wish passed. These days I am quite OK with just reading books in different languages and occasionally sharing the impressions on my blog.

GS: Many writers, like Joyce, have tried to give linguistic shape to our brain’s subconscious. Do you think the language of the subconscious is universal, individual, or somewhere in-between? Or is it too primitive or primordial to elucidate?

A: As soon as the chaos of the subconscious is trapped in language it becomes an artificial contraption, so we’ll never know. I am fascinated by what Joyce and the Surrealists have tried to do, but in my view, text is not the most appropriate retort for conjuring up this homunculus, and the cinema will always be more successful in doing that. One David Lynch movie is more effective in giving us a glimpse of the subconscious than hundreds of pages with automatic writing.

GS: The myth about the Tower of Babel is obviously defunct, in literal terms, now that humanity has reached the moon and beyond. Are there metaphorical implications we can glean from that myth?

A: Lack of understanding impeding progress? Perhaps, but for a short while. In the long perspective, the failure to finish the Tower of Babel seems a mere setback in humanity’s ongoing quest for expansion. The confusion of tongues can always be mitigated by the adoption of a lingua franca, and then another tower, more imposing than the previous one, can be built. This myth tell us more about our unrestrained ambition as a species than about our limitations.

GS: What do you think about history’s attempts to make a universal language? Is this practical? Is there any literary value in it?

A: The creation of artificial languages has been a noble enterprise, which predictably failed in its purpose of establishing a linguistic level playing field for everyone. There will never be hundreds of millions of speakers of Esperanto. I am quite happy with English as the universal language: it’s easy to learn at a basic level, and, harking back to the previous question, it has become an important facilitator in our expansion and progress. As for the literary value, well, I haven’t heard yet of any literary masterpiece originally written in an artificial language. I don’t see it happening. Language is more than a system of signs; it’s like a live tissue, and only ‘natural’ languages can be used in the creation of great works of literature.

Andrei is the founder of, and main contributor to, The Untranslated, a blog dedicated to literature not yet available in English translation. He hails from Eastern Europe and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature.

George Salis is the award-winning author of Sea Above, Sun Below (forthcoming from River Boat Books, 2019). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineThe Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com

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