Being Translated, or the Virgin Mary’s Hair


EVERY CHURCH NEEDS an altar, and every altar needs a dead saint. A shortage of the latter in the early 8th century first prompted the practice of cutting up beatified cadavers and distributing their bits and pieces among the unendowed churches. Pity poor Saint Elizabeth whose still-warm corpse was divested of hair, fingernails, and nipples by overenthusiastic relic-hunters in 1231. Or Saint James: one arm in Liege, the other in Alsace, a hand in Reading, part of his breast in Pistoia, a tooth in Bremen, and the rest in Santiago de Compostela. The Holy Family, having been raised bodily to heaven on their deaths, could provide no relics except those discarded during life. Nine different churches claim to hold the foreskin of Christ. Sixty-nine claim vials of milk expressed from the breasts of the Virgin Mary. A lock of her hair has led a separate, highly mobile existence ever since the original hair-cut sometime in the late 1st century BC.

The theological term for such a displacement is ‘translation’. It derives from that most irregular of Latin verbs ‘fero, ferre, tuli, latum’, which means ‘to bear’ or ‘to carry’. The ancient Greek term for the dismemberment which necessarily precedes a multiple ‘translation’ is ‘sparagmos’, which is what the Maenads of Thrace did to Orpheus. Namely, tearing him to pieces. His head ended up in the river Hebrus, whence it found its way, still singing by some accounts, to an eventual landfall and burial on Lesbos.

Latterly, ‘translation’ has become something that happens to books. (‘Sparagmos’ too, although that now goes by the name ‘editing’.) Of course the cutting-up and distribution of saints only loosely approximates the kinds of operations performed upon books. That a single lock of hair from the head of the Virgin Mary might be as efficacious as the whole body, that a saint can be infinitely sub-divided and each part retain the power of the whole (to heal, or save, or guard against misfortune) ultimately depends upon the doctrine of grace, which requires in turn a considerable leap of faith.

These are the same doctrinal foundations which upheld the sale of indulgences; such shaky underpinnings do not inspire much confidence, yet the demands upon the faithful run on. For a lock of hair from the head of the Virgin Mary to have its claimed beneficial effect implies not only that the lock of hair represents the whole body and the body the whole store of Mary’s virtuously-earned grace, but also (the doctrine of grace being absolute) that these successive representations must be perfect: the meaning of the hair is the Virgin Mary, and everything she means is present in the lock of hair. Synecdoche with a vengeance.

Charlemagne believed it and wore the relic around his neck enclosed in a hemisphere of polished crystal. To expect the readers of today to make such a leap of faith reveals an optimism bordering on lunacy, and yet that is the presumption every time a literary translation is published. But, by and large, that optimism is justified. Readers believe in translation. For writers, however, the process is more fraught.

Here, by way of illustration, is a list of books which I did not write: Lemprière’s Wörterbuch, Le Dictionnaire de Lemprière, Slownik Lemprièra ‘a, Lempriere’s Ordabók, Lemprières Lexicon, El Diccionario de Lemprière, A Lemprière-lexicon, Het Woordenboek van Lemprière, Kabbalin Kulta (‘Lemprière’ being unpronounceable in Finnish), Dictionarului Lemprière, Lemprière’s Ordbog, and several further variations in languages (Hebrew, Cantonese, Korean, Russian, Japanese) whose alphabets are, to me at least, illegible.

The implicit promise of a translation is that it carries within it the original text, that the original writer’s expressed intent is present in the new version just as surely as the Virgin Mary’s salvific goodness is present in a lock of her hair. In translation, however, there is no doctrine of grace. In fact, as far as I can see, there is no coherent doctrine or theory at all, and the existence of Chairs of Translation Theory within universities the world over no more guarantees the possibility of a perfect translation than the Pope’s throne ensures virtue within the Church of Rome.

Foundationless edifices induce nervousness in their inhabitants and all writers are notoriously prone to paranoia. Amongst the worrisome operations performed on one’s book (editing, binding, jacketing, publication, reviewing. . .) translation maintains an effortless pre-eminence. It is of course an unignorable signal that the book has ceased being one’s own and has become a public property, has stopped being what one does and has become something one has done. Opus has turned into corpus and, for the writer even if no one else, a dead corpus at that.

Next: the dismemberment. Territorial and language rights are auctioned off Then for a long time nothing happens. Or nothing seems to happen. Distantly and inscrutably, translations are underway. One’s ‘0’s are becoming ‘Ø’s. One’s ‘C’s are sprouting little tails. Umlauts, accents, and all manner of other sigils and squiggles settle over the text, blanketing it in a diacritical fallout. The text mutates and, most obviously, swells. A translated book is usually 20% longer than the original. Sometimes, however, it contracts. The UK edition of my first novel has 530 pages; the Hebrew edition has 431. Translation? Sparagmos? Where is the rest of the Virgin Mary’s hair? One simply does not know what happens to one’s book in translation, and sometimes it is best not to ask.

But the questions come at one whether one asks or not. They come from one’s translators. You anticipate and, to a certain extent, even welcome them. How will they deal with the delicate tissue of half-puns, glancing allusions, and tiny shifts in tone which energise your masterwork? Having ransacked the English language to stuff five synonyms for ‘Ship’ into a single sentence, you wonder whether your landlocked translators will be able to find a sufficient number in, say, Czech, let alone Slovak. And what about the twenty-five synonyms for ‘Book’, each one to begin with a different letter of the alphabet excepting whichever letter begins that language’s word for ‘Dictionary’, which must appear with jokey belatedness in the following paragraph? How will this work in Greek, whose alphabet does not possess the requisite twenty-six characters? Or Cantonese, which doesn’t really have characters at all?

Actually, all these ‘wonderings’ can be organised under two successive headings: ‘Will my translators recognise how extraordinarily clever and talented I am?’ and, if the answer to that is in the affirmative, ‘Will they then write and tell me so?’

I suppose this is excusable when one considers, firstly, the mind-warping effects of spending years on end with only a computer screen for company and, secondly, the fact that although most writers need only a medium-sized truck to transport their hypertrophied egos, an oil-tanker would not suffice to carry their attendant insecurities. Anyway, the answers to the above questions usually turn out to be, ‘Only out of politeness’ and ‘No’. A translator’s questions, one quickly understands, are not designed to make authors feel good about themselves.

So: ‘How many legs, if any, does Captain Roy have? On page 170 he is described as the amputee and it says that he has lost one leg; whereas on pages 389 and 478 he appears to have no legs at all.’

Or: ‘The coach turned left before the Marché des Innocents as though to cross the river by the Pont ……. are you sure you mean left and not right?’

‘And by the way (page 284) how can Caltanisetta (Sicily) sulfur come from Cagliare (the “Cagliare”, I suppose, on Sardinia)?’

Lastly: ‘He had not realized before – REALIZED WHAT??? Can you just realize like that, without an object?’

To which one is tempted not to reply.

One does though, because one’s translators are not only one’s closest and most attentive readers but also one’s closest and most attentive re-writers. Your text is in their hands. From my Swedish translator, Thomas Preis: ‘Thank you very much for an extremely speedy answer. You care about your own work. Not all authors seem to do so. I am right now reading the proof of my translation of James ElIroy’s LA Confidential; he didn’t even deign to write an answer and tell me he wasn’t interested in co-operating. . .’. The smart writer remains, at the very least, polite.

A translator’s queries centre on inconsistencies and questions of vocabulary. Woe betide the sloppy plotter and the forger of neologisms. But, given that a novel is more than items of vocabulary strung together by a plot, it would be a writer of inhuman confidence who did not, from time to time, wonder what was happening to the other things: style, for instance, or shifts of register, the relative broadness or subtlety of the comic passages, degrees of irony. I have never been asked whether or not I am ‘trying to be funny’.

A writer-in-translation is as isolated as a general in his bunker trying simultaneously to direct a war on twenty or more fronts. The dispatches come through (or fail to) but, reduced as they are to their bare essentials, it is hard to know how the conflict as a whole is going. One suspects that those in the field are taking matters into their own hands. Worse, that they are showing initiative, or worse yet, that there has been an outbreak of creative flair. The situation is out of control…

Not true, or only partially so; control has been devolved. One’s book is becoming other books, which should mean that its writer is becoming other writers or, more specifically, a group of translators. But that is where the analogy breaks down. You remain ‘you’ while your book is reincarnated in Albanian, and Estonian, and Japanese. Who are these impostors busily imitating the ‘you’ who wrote the book? The spread of a text through the languages capable of reproducing it extends its reach and strengthens its appeal, but the reproductions (by one’s translators) of the effort expended in its original writing seem parodic, somehow mocking. Of course it is possible that a translator appreciates only dimly the titanic labours involved in a book’s composition; but it is certain that a writer understands the difficulties of its subsequent translation not at all. It is quite common for a writer never to meet his or her translators and to participate in the process of translation only tangentially. The finished book seems to appear ex nihilo, effortlessly, or with one’s original effort elided.

The process of translation finds an uneasy place amongst those several activities which sunder a book from its author, place the former before its potential readers, and recast the latter as a garrulous puppet in its service. In short, publication. Fraught with misunderstandings and paranoias, translation is the act which makes incontrovertible a book’s transition from the privacy of a writer’s imagination to the public arenas of the culture and the market. My translated editions are, quite literally, foreign to me.

And they also paid for my house.

The ‘translation’ as object, by which I mean the translated book rather than the process by which it came into existence, makes writers rich and readers happy. Amongst the activities by which writers compromise themselves in search of an extra buck (always euphemised as ‘placing one’s work before the widest possible audience’), selling translation rights is at once the most profitable and least venal. It does not involve the writer in tear-jerking accounts of his childhood delivered to suitably sympathetic journalists, or recitations of his work to single-digit audiences, or manufactured feuds with carefully-selected critics. It does, however, close the door on an esoteric but cherished dream.

Imagine this: a book so good that its felicities had the power to turn the debased rhetorical dross of its best reviews into truths. Instead of being ‘compelling’ (meaning, its author has made some attempt at constructing a story) it would actually be compelling. Instead of being ‘beautifully written’ (meaning, it contains adjectives) it would actually be beautifully written. And instead of being ‘that rarest of things, a necessary book’ (meaning, its author is married to the reviewer) its story would in fact have the force, relevance, and acuity which together add up to necessity. And, instead of instantly running through thirty or more translated editions, its very perfection would render it perfectly untranslatable. What next?
I am sure that those vaguely-sourced anecdotes retailing the travails of dedicated readers who learn Russian in order to read Pushkin, or Spanish for Cervantes, or Finnish (this stretches credulity) for the Kalevala, are all apocryphal. Nevertheless, this notional book would be so good (meaning: compelling, beautifully written, and necessary) that readers the world over, instantly and en masse, would take the bookworm’s equivalent of the leap of faith. They would begin diligent studies in whatever language it might be written for the sole purpose of reading this wonder-tome.

Instead of the book setting out on the hazardous journey to its readers, wherever they might be and whatever language they might speak, imagine readers propelling themselves furiously through thickets of alien grammar, irregular verbs, slang, arcane vocabulary, and all the other things which once led a friend of mine to describe translation, quite simply, as ‘hell’. And finally, having battled with their impatience until their proficiency sufficed for this extraordinary book’s delicacies and nuances, they crack open the spine and begin to feast on the hard-won banquet set before them…

Pope Boniface IX tried to ban the ‘translation’ of saints just as later popes tried to control ‘translation’ of the Bible. All failed, and mummified feet, fingers, foreskins, and the Word of God duly devolved from Rome to the most far-flung churches of Christendom. The paranoias of writers are identical to those of Boniface. They suspect and resent devolution, interpretation, translation; anything which takes their book away from them. But the flow, whether cultural or spiritual, is always outward, away from the centre. The tendency of everything is to spread.

Yet I think that a simple desire lurks within the fog of paranoia that envelopes the translated writer. Everyone would like to write that impossible book: the book which pulls readers into its world and language just as Rome pulls pilgrims into its churches. This is, of course, a mawkish and sentimental fantasy, but its corollary is even worse. As a translated writer, it is just possible to convince oneself that one has already written such a book, except that twenty-odd translators got their hands on it first. Had they not – the argument runs on – then by now one would either be considerably less-read or (the tempting alternative) universally acknowledged as the greatest writer on the planet.

Whether the extreme implausibility of this scenario signals the high degree of writerly paranoia over being translated or vice versa seems undecidable, and perhaps not very important for the odds of either possibility being true are about the same as the Virgin Mary emerging alive, well, and intact (except for a slightly irregular haircut) from a hollow crystal hemisphere which once hung about the neck of the Emperor Charlemagne.

The only real way out of this uncomfortable conundrum is to translate one’s books oneself. But, leaving aside the mind-boggling effort required, this involves a peculiarly uncomfortable linguistic straddle. It was touched on by Hilaire Belloc in a lecture delivered in 1931: ‘There is a certain degree of familiarity with German which makes an Englishman, especially in the theological field, incomprehensible. There is a certain degree of familiarity with French which makes the English sentence professing to translate a French one unnatural and slightly ridiculous.’ If that seems opaque, here is a paraphrase (albeit an unwitting one) given by the duty sergeant from Hill Street Blues a mere fifty years later: ‘Remember people, let’s be careful out there . . .

Unfortunately, the translated writer can be either ‘out there’ or ‘careful’. But not both.