Translation à la McSweeney’s

So I’ve just made my way from NYC to Bloomington for the ALTA conference, arriving too late for today’s sessions, alas. But while I was up in the air, an essay of mine got published that I wrote on the kind invitation of Public Books managing editor Stephen Twilley after reading that big McSweeney’s issue 42 (“Multiples”) that came out last spring with the telephone on the cover. Guess what, it’s all about translation, and mostly not the kind I spend my life doing, but a more freestyle sort, performed by writers who may or may not have any particular mastery of the foreign languages from which they are translating. Sounds a bit nuts, especially when you consider that the multiple translations that editor Adam Thirlwell commissioned for the issue – 61 translators went to town on 12 stories – were multiples in a serial rather than parallel sense. Writer A translated story X into language A’, then writer B translated A’s translation into language B’ and so on and so forth, up to six “generations” per story. And the results are pretty gorgeous. I mean, what do you think is going to happen when you ask Gary Shteyngart to translate Daniil Kharms (“I don’t play Xbox but I love the ladies”) or Dave Eggers to do a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation of a Kafka story? Much hilarity is produced, along with some pretty solid insights as to what sort of machine a literary work is and what happens when it gets disassembled and reassembled over and over again by a whole assembly line of mad horologists. Lots of great stories come out of the project, along with some interesting ideas about the work (each participant was invited to submit a translator’s note if so inclined). My only real gripe with the project is that its gender and racial politics suck. Of the 61 writers Thirlwell invited to participate, only 13 are women (one of them co-translating with a man). Of the 12 stories Thirlwell picked to get translated, all 12 are by men. And it’s pretty much all white guys too, unless they happen to be representing countries in which the majority is some other hue. I’m thinking that a project that seems to be going to such great lengths to produce and represent literary diversity would have profited from a more open-minded response to the question “Who are the writers producing interesting work these days?” The world-view behind this project might be a bit too narrow for me after all. At the same time, I found a lot of things to love about McSweeney’s “Multiples,” and you can find them enumerated (along with a bit of translation-themed commentary and only the most subtle, restrained bitching about sexism) on the Public Books website.

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