Nuance-ticklers and word nerds: celebrating the art of translation
A new short story anthology called Found in Translation offers a glimpse into many countries and cultures
Translator Frank Wynne has selected 100 short stories from around the globe. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
I have a memory of the first short story that made an impression on me that is so vivid, so visceral that the hair on the back of my neck still prickles 30 years later. I would have been 14, perhaps 15, when I read it, sitting in Miss Collins’ French class, in Sligo Grammar School. We were reading En Mer by Guy de Maupassant, a brief story, no more than five pages long, whose sparse, plain language was just within the grasp of my rudimentary French. It is the simple story of an accident aboard a fishing trawler manned by two brothers. As they are returning to port, the net is almost lost in a heavy squall and the arm of the younger brother is trapped between the ropes and the gunwale. To cut the rope would mean losing the valuable net. Instead, the elder brother drops anchor and, in a shocking, visceral scene, the fishermen manage to free the arm, now shattered and horribly mangled. Gangrene quickly sets in.
I can still remember sitting at my desk, reading the sentence where the younger brother “…began to cut his own arm. He cut carefully, painstakingly, slicing through the last tendons with a blade as sharp as a razor; soon there was nothing but a stump”. This was what first offered me a glimpse of the unique power of the short story. Maupassant’s, detached, dispassionate tone somehow makes the horror all the more devastating. I began to devour short stories wherever I could find them – I remember furtively buying a copy of Ian McEwan’s stories First Love, Last Rights in Keohane’s Bookshop, I remember the quiet devastation of my first encounters with John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor and, later, Raymond Carver. Long before I was fortunate enough to stumble into a career as a literary translator – or believed that such a fantastical thing could happen – I read stories by Pushkin, Borges and Calvino, with little inkling of the work of the translators who brought English readers to such fleeting masterworks.
The short story has the matchless ability to capture a mood or a moment, to halt time, to suspend the commonplace and imbue everyday objects with startling power. It can conjure a world in a handful of pages, it can be poignant, tragic, funny or surreal; can leave a reader tearful, terrified or inexplicably serene; it can be as fleeting and unfinished as lives glimpsed from a moving train or as forensically precise as an autopsy report.
Two years ago my dear friend David Miller, also my agent, died suddenly at the age of 50. The loss he has left in the lives of his friends and family is incalculable. Shortly before his death, he gave me what would turn out to be a parting gift. He arranged for me to select and edit an anthology of 100 stories in translation. When he first proposed the idea, I was both preposterously excited and utterly terrified; I said no, then yes, then no way, then settled on yes.
A daunting task
The task of selecting 100 stories from the countless tales translated from any language, from any country is – to say the least – daunting, and first requires an editor to define a short story. While every culture throughout the world has told stories since the fall of Babel (itself a fable), these are distinct from the short story as we know it today, which is best summed up by one of its great living exponents, Annie Proulx: “In a rough way the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinet maker is to a house carpenter.”
From the outset, I decided that I wanted to cast my net as widely as possible, to offer a glimpse of as many countries and cultures, as many languages as would fit between these covers and simultaneously to try to chart a course from the 17th century to short masterpieces of the 21st century. Consequently, when I first set out to make a longlist of stories which I might later whittle down, I was quickly brought face to face with what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns”.
Though I was moderately well versed in the European tradition, and could easily imagine an anthology 100 French or Russian short stories, I realised that my map of the literary world was still filled with murky areas emblazoned “Here Be Monsters”. Beyond a handful of names, what did I know of the short story in Bengali or Urdu, in Norwegian, Japanese, or Arabic, to say nothing of languages like Azeri, Uzbek or Bahasa Indonesia? It was impossible to read every story ever translated; how then would I know when I had read enough? The process of editing Found in Translation has taught me one true thing: you will never have read enough.
I reached out to translators and writers from other languages, asked for suggestions of authors, stories, specific translations that they admired, loved or revered. The responses I received broadened and deepened my reading, took me to countries I could barely point out on a globe, to cultures I half-understood, to stories that moved or changed me. Paring down the list was painful, and even as I did so, I would happen on another writer, another story, and my carefully managed Excel spreadsheet would grow rather than shrink and I would be faced with more decisions.
Above all, I wanted to celebrate translation, what Wittgenstein once called “that exact art”. Though there are a handful of authors who have translated their own work (Isak Dinesen, Samuel Beckett, Ngugu wa Thiong’o), when we read a story by Mann, Cortázar, Tanizaki, every word, every phrase is that of a translator. Their task is as simple as it may seem impossible: to quote Günter Grass, “translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes”. This is not a matter of finding equivalent words (since there is never an exact equivalence), but of weighing the weight and heft of words, of teasing out connotations, striving to preserve cadence and rhythm, recreating puns, producing voices that live on the page. Like a musician or an actor, a translator must interpret and perform, while hewing as closely as possible to the shape of the original. It is a process that is almost invisible and often unacknowledged, hence we say we have read Tolstoy or Proust when actually we have read Constance Garnett or C K Scott Moncrieff, we talk about the style of García Marquez or Murakami, but the style we so admire owes much to Edith Grossman or Jay Rubin.
As the author of Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, said of his experience co-translating The Reason I Jump from Japanese: “As a writer I can be bad, but I can’t be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock”.
Every anthology is, by its nature, subjective, yet none is truly the work of a single editor. Found in Translation is the result of countless conversations, of squabbles with friends who champion a particular story or author, with those who passionately insist that X is the finest short story writer who ever lived and others who are adamant that X is wildly overrated. Editing an anthology is a microcosm of a reading life, it is a journey filled with startling discoveries and occasional disappointments; it is a library in miniature of stories the editor feels everyone needs to read, as such every selection may delight and edify, but also frustrate and infuriate.
I have never much liked the word “anthology”; to my ear, it has a textbook ring of certainty at odds with what is, at best, a curious cabinet of wonders. But I have always loved the old English term “rattle-bag” (famously used by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes); it has the clank and clatter of things found, scavenged, unearthed and retrieved, all jostling between the covers, clamouring for attention. And if each story leaves us wanting, that is as it should be: to quote the great Bernard Malamud: “The short story packs a self in a few pages predicating a lifetime”.
Found in Translation, selected by Frank Wynne, is published by Apollo, at £25