An interview with Adam Thirlwell

Frances Riddle

Photograph by Mathieu Bourgois

British novelist Adam Thirlwell (b. 1978) broke onto the literary scene in 2003 with his hugely successful novel Politics, which has since been translated into more than a dozen languages. That same year he was included in Granta's Best of Young British Novelists and received this honor again in 2013. His books include The Delighted States, an investigation of the role of translation as a factor in the literary influences of canonical writers, the novel Escape, and Kapow!, a visually-diverting work of experimental fiction.

Thirlwell maintains that translation plays a major role in our perception of great literature. This concept has fueled much of his work, including his latest undertaking, Multiples. Initially published as Issue 42 of McSweeney's Quarterly as an experiment focused on style in translation, Multiples is subtitled "12 stories in 18 languages by 61 authors." The project took short stories never before published in translation, and rendered them in a few different languages, returning to English for every other transformation to let English-speaking readers check in on it. Each translation was produced from the version that immediately preceded it, so that each author-turned-translator only had access to it, not the original text.

Well-known writers, such as Colm Tóibín, Zadie Smith, Etgar Keret, Lydia Davis, David Mitchell, and Jonas Hassen Khemiri were chosen to participate in the experiment, some of whom had limited understanding of the language they were translating from. The central question to be answered was whether the original author's style would survive after being re-imagined using several other writing styles, in entirely different languages.

As Thirlwell said during our interview, Multiples is about rethinking our views on translation. Converting a text to another language, in this case, might require a total restructuring, a start from scratch. So to criticize these translations in terms of loss would be somewhat illogical, in light of this project's aims, because the very act of participating demands a blind leap away from the original text. The title, Multiples, refers to Thirlwell's view that translation produces not a copy but a second original.

I caught up with Thirlwell via e-mail as he hopped around the globe, attending literary festivals, readings, and book fairs throughout Europe and South America.

—Frances Riddle

Translation is a recurring theme in your writing. You mentioned that you speak French and have done some translating. Could you talk a little about how the idea of translation inspires you, or offer an anecdote about how your interest in translation began?

I've always been interested in translation, as long as I've been interested in writing. The general person to blame I think is Ezra Pound. In my very earnest youth, I was obsessed by Ezra Pound. When he dictatorially told the reader that they had to think of literature internationally, obviously I agreed. Just as when he argued that a writer should both translate other people's work, and translate their own into another language, to be able to analyse it better, I agreed, too. So now I can only think about the art of the novel as an international art and, therefore, dependent on the art of translation. But also there was obviously some kind of more neurotic obsession to it. Always I have been glamourized by foreign elements.

How does your work as a fiction author affect your approach to translation projects like Multiples?

The strangeness of being translated is that it destroys your artistic vanity. Or philosophical vanity. It makes you realize that your dream of the perfect work, and perfect translation, are different aspects of the same delusion. So in one sense the Multiples project came directly out of that experience. And also, perhaps, in the feeling that writing and translating do not exist in a hierarchy: they are both involved in the creation of originals—the only difference is that a translation is a second original, not a first. But second doesn't mean worse.

Assembling the talent for Multiples must have been a massive challenge. Why are hybrid projects attractive to you? What do you gain from collaboration with other writers? Are there any aspects of collaboration that you don't particularly enjoy?

More and more, I love hybrid, collaborative projects. I think some of that is purely personal: a kind of affection for making writing less lonely, less isolated. But also there might be less shameful reasons, too. Why should it be logical that one person should always care for their single style? It seems at least possible that other people can be useful—otherwise why have editors? Or translators? And at its grandest level the extent to which the collective or collaborative can exist in literature seems to me one way of testing literature's limits. A work is so often figured as only possible when created by one intelligence. But I'm not so totally convinced of that.

Obviously, there are problems. Every writer is a dictator and megalomaniac. So am I. The dream collaboration is naturally the one where collectively people agree you are right.

Why is it that so few women ended up in the book? Was it harder to get women to participate in the project for some reason?

I hate that there aren't enough women in it! Which was partly that, just freakishly, of the people who in the end didn't have time to do it, more were women than men. And also some women said no because they had scruples about their language ability—but I don't think that higher moral precision was necessarily because they were women.

A typical translation goes from language A to language B and one question you posed was "If B is translated to C, is it also possible to say that C is a translation of A? Can you make a translation from a third language?" After carrying out your experiment, what would be your answer to this question?

I totally believe that a translation from a third language is still a translation. And the reason is that our idea of translation is too limited. What I mean is, the crucial thing when translating fiction—or at least, artistic fiction—is the preservation of the essence of the style, and that essence will be much larger, or in general will be much larger, than the minuscule phonetics of the original's sentences: it will be in the play of construction and rearrangement. That construction should be visible, therefore, not just in a translation from a third language, but perhaps a fourth and fifth as well.

Your intention with Multiples was to look at style in translation. Do you think that "great" writing is inherently transportable or that we only translate novels with transportable style? In what ways has your understanding of style changed through the process of this experiment?

I think I might agree with both your statements. A novelist like [Carlo Emilio] Gadda, with his dense, erudite, argotic style, is very much untranslated into English—and this must have something to do with the difficulty of transporting his style. But at the same time, I still think Gadda is transportable—which is why I tried to do this as a finale to the Multiples project. Because, as I alluded to earlier, a style is larger than a pun, or phonetic frisson. In Gadda, it's in the shifts of tone, and the vast ramshackle syntax, and something non-linguistic: the constant movement between chaos and order. And those things, I think, are transportable in any other language. They just require incredible amounts of work.

But yes, that wasn't what I believed, say, ten years ago. I used to believe much more in the stylistic and translation strictness of Vladimir Nabokov, or Milan Kundera. Deep down, perhaps, I still do. But I'm also struck by how both Nabokov and Kundera are exiles, and their strictness is, I think, one effect of that isolated condition; and also tempted by this vision offered by my Multiples: that both style and translation might be less tidy than I would like.

If you could repeat the experiment, changing one variable, what would you change and why?

I would not be the person who was having to organize sixty-one writers. Or, maybe it would be interesting not to have to go in and out of English all the time: that was a constraint rightly imposed on me by McSweeney's Quarterly, for whom I edited the original anthology. They thought their subscribers might resist an issue with almost no English in it. But I like the idea of a relay race from language to language, ending up in outer space.

For your experiment in Multiples you ask well-known authors to translate with the aim of preserving the original style. The reader might wonder about this choice since each writer has an established style of their own. Alejandro Zambra's translation of Franz Kafka ends up as much a Zambra story as a Kafka. Sheila Heti's style is also unmistakable. Some writers seemed to use the original as a jumping off point for their own interpretation. In terms of translation theory, the approach used in Multiples is on the experimental end of the spectrum.  Is this what you mean by "politely frazzling" the idea of an original? Did you catch any flak from translators who objected to this approach?

The intention was always to see what would happen to an original's style, when subjected to a novelist-translator with their own particular style. I chose novelists who hauled around their style wherever they went. Because one question was: Is Kafka, when multiplied by John Wray/Etgar Keret/Nathan Englander/Zambra/Dave Eggers, still Kafka? That's why also I deliberately left the degree of licence to each novelist's conscience: they could overhaul and ingurgitate as much as they wanted, depending on their morals: because I think this is always a problem—where the aesthetic and the ethical overlap—this problem of transporting someone else's property.

And therefore as for politely frazzling the idea of the original—yes, I think what I wanted to explore was how far every translation constitutes an original of its own. Why is there this hierarchy of original and copy? It seems to me that instead there's a series of originals.

As for murder threats and arson from translators, so far I seem safe. I did a talk at the British Centre for Literary Translation's Summer School—and the translators there seemed happy rather than mobster-like. And perhaps the reason, I think, is that this is only an experiment. It's pure play. It's not proposing that all translation should always be done by novelists. If there's any polemical intent, it's the other way 'round—to argue that translators should be allowed more freedom to impose their own substitutions and inventions, in the interests of a true reproduction, because a true one may not be an accurate one.

Could you explain a bit about your differentiation between the ethics of a novelist-translator and the translator-translator? Do they not both have the same responsibility or freedom in relation to the original text? And if not, what about their tasks is different? Does the author, then, have more "authority" even when translating?

I think the thing I was trying to say with that difference was to describe the difference in the reader's expectation. Poetry already has this tradition. When I read Lowell's Imitations—a book I love, and which I'm sure was a subliminal influence on this project—I know that I'm as much reading Lowell as Baudelaire, or anyone else in that book. So when he rearranges stanzas between poems, or takes other crazy liberties, I don't feel any sense of betrayal. Whereas if that translation were published in the Penguin Classics series as a standard translation, then I might well feel dismayed.

And I think the real point of emphasizing that differentiation was to point out how orthodox translation theory has become. What happened to genius creations like Johnson's versions of Juvenal, or Pope's Horace? I suppose one problem is the decline of common multi-linguistic-ness—Pope could assume the reader knew the Horace, whereas the translator of a Flaubert conte today can't assume that basic knowledge, which therefore adds a different moral problem. But I wish a little more wildness were permitted to translators, and perhaps especially of prose—which still seems governed by rules which poetry isn't governed by, and this is philosophically strange when you think that the whole project of the modernist novel since, say, Laurence Sterne, was to subject prose to the kind of formal attention that is applied to poetry. I certainly don't think a novelist has more stylistic authority than a translator. I was trying to invert things the other way—I think translators should be allowed more authority of their own. That would be my utopian aim.

In Multiples, some of the writers-turned-translators stayed closer to the originals, while others took a freer approach, often with amusing results. Colm Tóibín's phrase, "being elusive, they cannot be easily pinned down," became, in the next English version by Julie Orringer, "they are volatile as farts, uncatchable as butterflies," by way of Peter Esterházy's intermediate Hungarian. Which translations in Multiples did you most enjoy, the more or less faithful? Can you give an example of one of your favorite permutations?

Well, obviously I can't actually read a large amount of this book. Many of these translations are opaque to me. I simply ordered them and sent them to McSweeney's. As well as English, I speak good French, poor Russian (and in fact I couldn't persuade any Russians to take part, so that was irrelevant), and terrible Spanish.

I wonder if in general my favorites were the ones where something massive occurs, while at the same time staying faithful (though I think the whole vocabulary of faithfulness, and so on, is mildly crazy). So I love the way the Kafka story in a synagogue becomes a shul in Nathan Englander's version, which Alejandro Zambra then turns into a casa, and Dave Eggers into a church: the basic structure of the story (up until Dave's version) stays very similar—but the key word-change in each case creates a completely rearranged object.

Which is why another one I love is the Pontiggia story. Zadie Smith did a very precise version of Pontiggia's Italian original, which Ma Jian then followed pretty closely, apart from setting the entire story in China. Pontiggia's story is the story of an ordinary Italian life, proceeding chronologically through the twentieth century. What I love in Ma Jian's version—which Tash Aw put back into English—is that while all the cultural details are changed and made Chinese, he preserved Pontiggia's dates. And the dates which Pontiggia happened to have chosen basically for their total randomness to the overall course of Italian history, are massively over-determined with political meaning in the history of contemporary China. So that the same story is also a different story: the value of the ordinary, which is the subject of Pontiggia's story, gets refracted and almost ironised.

In general, what aspects of the originals seemed to endure across all the translations, if any? In terms of axioms a translator should follow, some "losses" are unacceptable. Would you agree? And, if so, could you give an example of the kind of "loss" that you wouldn't have accepted outside of this experiment?

The losses varied massively depending on the translators. But this makes me think that the discussion of loss in translation seems to be very oddly constructed. It's very much based on the idea of translation as a comprehension exercise. Novelists, I think, are much more relaxed about small freedoms in translation, especially to preserve some kind of phonetic or stylistic effect. Whereas the usual dogma would be that loss of literal meaning is the worst problem.

This ignores the deeper problem that since every translation is an immediate and total loss from the moment it begins, since no word is the same, except perhaps a character's name, then perhaps the question should be put differently. In his recent book on translation, David Bellos proposes the lovely idea that a translation is not a substitute but a match—and that, like a portrait in oils, it can only match in certain ways. You have to select, in each text, what the key things are that must be preserved. A translation is therefore a reading.

Often, in literature, the literal meaning might be less important than something stranger, more formal or more elusive. The talent of the translator is not just linguistic, it's interpretative—to understand what is essential and what's not: to choose what you're blithely going to lose.

Could you elaborate on your view of how cultural elements should be rendered in translation? In some of the translations in Multiples, the setting of the story is translated. For example, Lebanon becomes London. To follow-up on one of the previous questions, aren't those word choices, what amount to "minuscule phonetics," carefully chosen by the original author and often deeply informed by cultural history? If a translator chooses to let their personal history, or choice of style, alter that culturally-guided word choice, could they be eliminating by degrees the original text's cultural richness, in some respect?

Well, definitely. But isn't that cultural richness lost as soon as it's translated anyway? A footnote is not an adequate match to the original, after all. Just as something else that interests me is how translation is both a problem of time and space—even within one's own language, cultural specificity can be lost in a decade.

I understand what you mean, of course. The danger of a translation like Ma Jian's Pontiggia is the same as our culture's general worry about globalization—that some kind of uniformity gets imposed on heterogeneous material. But to put this the other way round, translation does seem to me to imply a belief in something very much retro and un-chic—an idea of the universal.

I don't know if I have an answer. No, I know I don't have an answer. Because my other fear or thought that I came up with when this project was over was: perhaps we're completely wrong about translation. Perhaps style is easy, and so is form. What's really untranslatable is content. Because while the universalist would say something like: a novel only understandable within its own cultural context is perhaps not a great novel, it's obviously possible to imagine a novel that is both absolutely local and also great literature. Content, in other words, might be the much larger, messier problem.

It seems that the theories that interest you now are based perhaps in the idea that cultural boundaries are in fact opportunities rather than obstacles. Do you have any other projects going on you'd like to discuss, related to these ideas of a larger, more global sense of what style and translation mean in defining human experience?

Certainly I think that the consubstantiality (if that's a word) of literature and translation needs far more thinking—and requires the invention of more projects, projects which I think will seem frivolous or flippant, given how orthodox our thinking is.

There is a definite need for more multilingual laboratories and experiments. I'd like to see more cross-linguistic collaborations. I'm doing something with Daniel Kehlmann, which we may or may not ever finish; and I keep talking with José Peixoto about a mutual project with Pessoa, who, after all, also wrote in English. In my wilder dreams I imagine international writing schools, or international production companies for literature. But first I need to finish this (monolinguistic) novel I'm writing.

Could you tell us what works in translations you're looking forward to reading in 2014, or that you enjoyed in 2013?

I loved Sarah Ruden's version of Apuleius's The Golden Ass. And I'm looking forward to the New York Review of Books republishing John Florio's Montaigne in 2014: one of the great translations in all literature. While my hope for 2014 is that someone translates Álvaro Enrigue's Muerte subita, which just came out from Anagrama—and which everyone tells me is a masterpiece. That's a frustrating experience, when your Spanish is as bad as mine is.