‘How to recognise a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarisers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all of this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, whichever) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its voyage to the edge, and both are enriched and the kid adds an ounce of value to its original value, then we have something before us, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings: not a plowed field but a mountain, not the image of a dark forest but the dark forest, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.’

—‘Translation is an Anvil’, Roberto Bolaño, Between Parentheses (Picador, 2012)

According to Walter Benjamin the task of the translator is not to assemble or express what is to be conveyed; the author has already done that with the original text. Instead, the task of the translator ‘consists in finding that intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original’. Like Bolaño, Benjamin sees translatability as the ‘essential quality of certain works’. He doesn’t advocate that all such works should be translated, though—thus defining them as works of art by Bolaño’s standards—only that ‘a specific significance inherent in the original manifests in its translatability’. For Benjamin, the task of the translator is impossible, but such failures add up to something more.

As Benjamin wrote, ‘no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original’, so George Steiner said that translation is not a science but an exact art. Though not turning away from Benjamin, two recent anthologies converge to Bolaño’s belief that translatability is what defines art, and help to trace new directions for that exact art.

‘Language is a sly and treacherous medium,’ says John Banville in his preface to Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2013. Who, then, would be a translator, he asks, ‘when we consider it at all carefully, we realise that there can be no such thing as translation.’ He writes: ‘What a translator produces is a new thing, and when he finishes, there are two works where before there was one. That is inevitable, given the nature of language, and given that there are languages. The Book of Babel is legion.’ Not an imitation, nor an echo of the original, but a new piece of work in and of itself.

Best European Fiction series editor Aleksandar Hemon, who, as legend has it, learned English by reading Nabokov—looking up the words he didn’t know—says that no human experience appears translatable or, indeed, understandable outside itself. ‘The world looks different from each individual position—everyone is inescapably locked in a worldview.’

So, who would be a translator? The contributors to Hemon’s anthology for one. Now in its fourth year, the anthology has introduced more than a hundred European writers to English-language readers, translated from more than forty languages. Translation is necessary to literature, Hemon says, as is the ‘impossibility to translate exactly’, for it ‘is in trying to grasp Proust that we fall in love with his work. Pursuing the meaning in literature is the meaning of literature.’

For Hemon, language is more than a mode of transmission: it is a portal to the unknown and unknowable, and imprecision, or the fallibility of translation, is ‘as essential to language and literature as precision.’

This is a view shared by literary wunderkind Adam Thirlwell, editor of McSweeney’s 42, who says that the most important thing is ‘translation of effect’, that a translation might have to be ‘reworked’. Put another way, a translation would have to be a ‘form of a variation and therefore, will no longer, strictly, be a translation at all.’

In Is That a Fish in Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation (Penguin, 2012) David Bellos navigates the reader through what a translator does, his own take on the task of the translator if you like. One view of translation—and Nabokov held this view—is that only a literal translation is morally and philosophically possible. Bellos says that any utterance of more than trivial length has no single translation, that ‘all utterances have innumerably many acceptable translations’; in other words the plurality of translation releases its potential. He thinks Nabokov’s strong opinions on translation come, like Georges Perec’s, from ‘the sense of having been already out-written’:

At much the same time as Nabokov started his plain prose version of Pushkin, Georges Perec read Herman Melville’s story of a New York clerk, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’. It seemed to him quite perfect, and he wished he had written it himself. ‘But I can’t do that!’ he explained in an interview, ‘because Melville wrote it first…’ Nabokov had done some stanzas of [Eugene] Onegin into English verse in the 1950s already—but then turned around in fright. He could see he was not Pushkin. Later on, he adopted his servile path of pseudo-literal translation not because it was relevant to the study or practice of literary translation, but because it helped hide that embarrassing fact.

Nabokov, Bellos tells us, was famous among translation students for ‘his thundering assault on the folly of trying to translate rhyme by rhyme’; he believed that any reproduction of Pushkin’s rhythmical movements weren’t as the poet intended and that the formal constraints of Eugene Onegin were ‘mathematically impossible’. Not true, says Bellos, who cites Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate composed in the same form, and besides, he continues, there are more ways than one for translating fixed form.

In 1959 Brion Gysin—poet, artist and inventor of The Dream Machine alongside William Burroughs—claimed writing was fifty years behind painting. Around that time, serendipitously, not as a direct response, the French literary movement Ouvroir pour la littérature potentielle (‘Workshop for the Potential of Literature’, or Oulipo) was founded and set out to explore the uses of mathematical structures in literary texts. Co-founder Raymond Queneau defined Oulipians as ‘rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.’

The Oulipian idea is that through constraints the artist, and hence the art, becomes liberated. The movement was a perfect fit for Georges Perec, by trade a crossword-setter and indexer for a laboratory, a wordsmith who revelled in books built around unsolvable quests and missing pieces (no more so than in A Void, a lipogrammatic novel written without the letter E). In his masterpiece Life: User’s Manual, translated by David Bellos, Perec got to realise his Melville novel, but with a Bartlebooth rather than a Bartleby. Life is a brilliant novel composed with a structure that mimics the ‘Knight’s Tour’ on a chessboard, and tells the story of an entire French apartment block, room by room.

During his most productive years Perec kept a dream diary, his ‘nocturnal autobiography’, which got its first English translation last year by fellow Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker and was published, in a nice twist, by Melville House as La boutique obscure. It is not the best place to start as an introduction to Perec’s work, but it is of interest for our purposes (dream number 49 is of two phrases Perec has been translating, and dream number 57 is one of a translation of Things for people who stutter) because as Levin Becker says, La Boutique obscure offers an invitation to translate the ‘patterns and echoes and contradictions of [Perec’s] dreams, psychologically and linguistically’.

Perec’s work demonstrates a dreamland, a ‘wonderland of invention… his facility with language and mastery of structure were rivaled only by his tireless will to challenge himself’. A book of translated dreams brings to mind something else John Banville said about a novel in its original language being already a translation as ‘fiction is a kind of dream-metaphor, a moulded and mannered traducing of “what really happened”’.

Despite, or perhaps in spite, of the ludic contraptions of Oulipo, Raymond Queneau, his translator Barbara Wright says, is ‘not limited’ and doesn’t take himself seriously. ‘He’s too wise. He doesn’t limit himself to being either serious or frivolous.’ While Perec may be one of the greatest avant-garde writers of the twentieth century, Queneau is the essence of Oulipo, and his Exercises in Style (translated by Barbara Wright and Chris Clarke, New Directions, 2012), though written before the founding of the movement, is a blueprint for it.

In it, Queneau takes one banal anecdote—a man on a bus with a felt hat and long neck watches a passenger complain about being jostled, and later sees the same man with a friend in the street who points out that his jacket is missing a button—and retells it as an anagram, and as reported speech, and as a blurb, and as a dream, and as an Alexandrine, and in Cockney (Wright’s clever ‘substitution’ for vulgaire), and so on, 99 variations on the same scenario. It is, says Wright, ‘a profound exploration into the possibilities of language… an experiment in the philosophy of language. [Queneau] pushes language around in a multiplicity of directions to see what will happen.’

Oulipian play had to produce valid literary results. Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems) contains 10 to the power of 14 poetic variations on a Petrarchan sonnet, and pushes the recognised boundaries of potential literature beyond traditional forms of composition. In its initial form the sonnets were each printed on perforated paper, so that when assembled, any line of any of the sonnets had the potential to be combined into a new poem with any line that came before or after it. As a result, the reader can construct any combination of one hundred trillion potential combinations.

Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito’s The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement (Zero Books, 2013) is a call to arms for more translated novels, and for more experimental writing:

Looking around the decaying landscape of American literature, in which countless graduates of writing programs produce fully competent and easily forgettable books, it is clear that movements like Oulipo are desperately needed… there is still a fervent and sizeable audience for literature that is legitimately new and interesting. But US writers are failing to provide it. Increasingly, the most interesting works being produced in English are translations of novels from other countries.

Around three per cent of books published in the US are works in translation, so why do Elkin and Esposito hold literature in translation in such high regard, as breaking new ground? Is it, as the Canadian poet and conceptual artist Christian Bök suggests, because artistic innovation has been co-opted by the mainstream?

Postmodern life has utterly recoded the avant-garde demand for radical newness. Innovation in art no longer differs from the kind of manufactured obsolescence that had come to justify advertisements for ‘improved’ products; nevertheless, we have to find a new way to contribute by generating a ‘surprise’. That surprise, that innovation is found in translation.

According to Paul Klee genius is the error in the system, a sentiment Adam Thirlwell shares. ‘There are no perfect translations, just as there are no perfect styles,’ he says. ‘Something is still translatable, even if its translation is not perfect.’ The first imperfect French translation of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was made by Joseph Pierre Frénais in 1776. Imperfect, for not only did Frénais omit Sterne’s stylistic tricks (looped lines, diagrams, blank pages, and so on) he left out sentences that bored him, restructured paragraphs and tampered with Sterne’s ‘impolite’ jokes. The translation was not without its merit. In it, Frénais invented the word dada as an equivalent to Sterne’s word ‘hobby-horse’, later plucked from the dictionary by Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara in search of a name for their anti-art movement of assemblage and readymades.

André Breton, an associate of Tzara and inventor of Surrealism, liked to play the cadavre exquis game, a collective collage of words or images where several people would write a phrase on a sheet of paper, concertina the paper to conceal part of it and pass it on to the next player for their contribution. Thirlwell, whose recent project editing the McSweeney’s ‘Multiples’ issue, can but nod in agreement with those Surrealist experiments in language.

‘What would happen if a story were successively translated by a series of novelists, each one working from the version immediately prior to their own—the aim being to preserve that story’s style?’ Thirlwell’s experiment—to have twelve stories translated in and out of eighteen languages by sixty-one authors—is a bold one, especially considering he elects to use fiction writers not all fluent in the other language, rather than professional translators. (Let its translator be far from brilliant, Bolaño said.) His hypothesis, though, echoes that of Hemon’s: ‘the art of the novel is an international art. Its history is international, and the mechanics of this history is translation—which means that the art of fiction, having survived this history, must be tougher than it looks.’

Thirlwell’s exquisite corpse sees a newly translated story retranslated, the retranslations retranslated, re-re-re-translations, re-re-re-re-translations, and finally, re-re-re-re-re-translations. Appropriately enough Banville and Hemon contribute to the ‘crisscrossing puzzlement’ (both translate Danilo Kiš; Hemon from Serbo-Croat to English, Banville from French to English). Like Oulipo, ‘Multiples’ had constraints: each ‘translator’ was allowed to see only the text they were translating, rather than any earlier versions and only the first translator had access to the original text. Thus, the experiment is an experiment in multiplying translation.

Though Thirlwell doesn’t name names, some novelists only contributed on the condition they could do it as literally as possible, others if they could essentially write a new story. And by his own admission the experiment wasn’t a complete success, which proves, he says, it was a true experiment: ‘The degree to which each story emerges unscathed veers wildly in each case… a gracious sense of fidelity to the dead overlaps with an ungracious glee in infidelity.’

Thirlwell also happily admits that he appropriated David Bellos’s idea that we have to move away from thinking that translation is substitution. ‘A translation is more like a portrait in oils’, said Bellos, and Thirlwell sees translations as likenesses rather than exact reproductions. ‘Maybe in some hypothetical future,’ Thirlwell writes, ‘literature will become the pure international—oblivious to the problems of time and space—and somehow the language in which you write or read your literature will be less important than the singular multiple structures those languages happen to form.’

Until such times arrive, we are left with artists’ impressions of other artists’ work. But, as Walter Benjamin said, fidelity and freedom are often regarded as being in conflict. They may not be. As the artistic constraints of Oulipo liberated the artist and produced ‘potential literature’, so errors and shifts in translation become infinitely important. Translation is not a perfect reproduction of the original, it is combined with the original to approach something more: it has an ounce of value added to its original value.

Books discussed:

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation by David Bellos, Penguin Books, 2012.

Illuminations: Essays & Reflections by Walter Benjamin, translated by Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, 2007.

Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles & Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño, Picador, 2012.

The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement by Laura Elkin & Scott Esposito, Zero Books, 2013.

Best European Fiction 2013, edited by Aleksandar Hemon, Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.

La boutique obscure by Georges Perec, translated by Daniel Levin Becker, Melville House, 2012.

Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos, Vintage Classics, 2008.

A Void by Georges Perec, translated by Gilbert Adair, Vintage Classics, 2008.

Things: A Story of the Sixties with A Man Asleep by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos & Andrew Leak, Vintage Classics, 2011.

Eugene Onegin, A Novel in Verse by Aleksandr Pushkin, translated by Vladimir Nabokov, Princeton University Press, 1991.

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright & Chris Clarke, New Directions, 2012.

The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, Visual Editions, 2010.

Miss Herbert, An Essay in Five Parts by Adam Thirlwell, Jonathan Cape, 2007.

McSweeney’s 42: Multiples, edited (in one language) by Adam Thirlwell, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, 2012.