The Translations of McSweeney’s 42: Crashing Dad’s Sports Car

M. Lynx Qualey
March 11, 2013
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At the very end of McSweeney’s 42 (“Multiples”), Francesco Pacifico likens the project of bringing Carlo Emilio Gadda’s “L’Incendio di Via Keplero” into English — which he does in collusion with Adam Thirlwell — to letting a friend take out his father’s sports car.

The Gadda translation, which closes the issue, is perhaps the least crazy of the projects. Other stories in the collection, often brilliant stories from dead authors, are translated into four or five languages, seemingly half the time by authors who have only a “passing familiarity” with the source language and resorted to dictionaries or Twitter followers or Google translate.

In his final note, Pacifico, who co-translated “L’Incendio” with Thirlwell, the issue’s editor, said:

So I agreed to embark on this impresa in order to smuggle some Gadda outside of the usual narrow routes that take him to the literati for enormously elitarian tasting sessions, and give him instead to this most untrustworthy British novelist, Gaddam Thirwell. Could I trust him? I wasn’t sure: he’s always upbeat; he’s schemy like a nine-year-old; he has these weird vibes, as if he does unorthodox things to the books he carries to the bathroom. So basically Gadda is my father’s sports car, and I’m a teenager who just called this crazy friend who was desperate for it and told him to come and try the car while my parents were away.

Any passionate reader could feel the same about many other stories in 42. If you love Kierkegaard, you might want to close your eyes after the story leaves J. M. Coetzee’s hands. Sometimes, very occasionally, the novelist-translators who took part in this project were very translator-like in their work. Cees Nooteboom and Coetzee took out one of the fancy cars (Kierkegaard’s “A Preface to Writing Samples”) and rendered it a slightly different sports car—but it ran, sounded, and felt almost the same.

But this story, like many others, eventually did get pretty wrecked-looking, sustaining along the way a series of innovations and quick-changes (what about a camper-top!?). Coetzee’s sports-car-looking version was handed to Jean-Christophe Valtat, who passed it to Sheila Heti, who writes, “While I agreed to do this, I did not agree because I am fluent in French.” (Yes, clearly.)

Jonathan Lethem, who co-translated a version of Kenji Miyazawa’s “The Earth God and the Fox,” likened the project to a game of telephone. Indeed, many of the stories lose sense as they go around the circle. Most of the authors seem to have been encouraged to (goaded into?) changing the stories, there are some uncomfortable readings. Francesco Pacifico says that, following his adventures with “L’Incendio,” he half-expects to be beaten up by a young Italian critic “along with a bunch of Gaddian priests.” It perhaps occurred to me to rough up one of the translators who took Youssef Habchi el-Achkar’s “الفصول الأربعة، بلا صيف,” originally translated by Rawi Hage, and swapped the Lebanese civil war for the Tunisia of December 2010, because both were, according to the Welsh novelist-translator, “civil war in the Middle East.” Later, we have Osama bin Laden, Turkey, Syria.

There are also beautiful re-stagings: Giuseppe Pontiggia’s “Incontrarsi” is translated by Zadie Smith, then re-imagined as Chinese story by Ma Jian, and then translated again into English by Tash Aw. Re-seeing “Incontrarsi” as a Chinese story is a lovely new staging, one that talks with the first version in interesting ways rather than just seeming like a smashed-up car.

Beauty happens again with the Richard Middleton story, “The Making of a Man.” We don’t get the original Middleton, but instead start with a Spanish version by Javier Marías (who says he’s being faithful), then a version in English (Andrew Sean Greer), German (Julia Franck), English again (A.S. Byatt), Hebrew (Orly Castel-Bloom), and English (Adam Foulds). In this group of novelist-translators, there are some who are not-so-fluent in their source language, but none here makes a virtue of it, or makes so wild as to just throw the whole thing in Google translate and see what comes out.

Instead, they make re-stagings. The final one is stylistically very different fro the first (maybe dad now has a fine racing bicycle instead of his car) but is a beautiful way of reading the story.

Pacifico says, in his final word on the Gadda story, “it looks totaled, I’d say.” You could say the same for many of the stories in “McSweeney’s 42.” When they reach their final stop, they look like they’ve been in a demolition derby.

Still, though. It was a pretty fun ride.

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