JANUARY 17, 2018
I WAS IN the airport bookstore in Tallinn, Estonia, when I noticed a translation of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty. This was 2015. It had taken a while for him to reach the Baltics — 24 years, to be exact. That’s a long time compared to other American writers like Paul Auster and Charles Bukowski. Is there something about Elmore Leonard’s work that resists translation?
After reading Charles Rzepka’s Being Cool in paperback reissue (hardback 2013), I venture that there is. In this detailed and deep investigation of Leonard’s sangfroid, Rzepka lays out a number of factors that contribute to a more hermetic American-ness, one that just doesn’t offer foreign translators, publishers, or readers an easy grip on the author’s native charms. And it might matter that most of my translator friends in Estonia are women: I’ll get to that later.
Among the selling points of this study are useful snippets of Leonard’s biography, which Rzepka slips into his readings very dexterously. We learn that Leonard was the good Catholic schoolboy, the son of a General Motors executive, a skilled sand-lot baseball player, and a Seabee during World War II. He trained up as a writer at the Ewald-Campbell Advertising Agency in Detroit and after publishing a number of Western stories (relying on Arizona Highways magazine as his landscape guide), used its severance package to launch his full-time writing career. Although other writers have come up similarly (think of Kurt Vonnegut at GE, or Allen Ginsberg’s gig as a market researcher), Leonard was always very serious about his corporate work. In his fiction, Rzepka notes, “scenes of apprenticeship, mentoring, and testing” are “early versions of ‘being cool’ as a way of defending against self-dispossession by anger or panic.”
Rzepka dovetails this background of the “organization man” with Leonard’s self-schooling in the mechanics of the Western, showing the disciplined bones beneath early classics such as “Three-Ten to Yuma” (1953). There is great finesse here, not just the tricky plot reversals that strike us on first reading or viewing. By the time we reach an account of Leonard’s The Big Bounce (1969), his first crime novel, Rzepka has imparted a very modern sense of what the genre writer is. Like Cormac McCarthy, Leonard is above all a writer who does research, who knows that art is work and who works at it every day, who polishes his dialogue until not a word “sounds like writing” and strives to eliminate the “sharp elbows” in his plotting that might cause a reader to pause.
I myself came to Leonard with City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (1980). I had just signed to write a book on Dashiell Hammett, so I was reading the two authors in tandem, and I found that Leonard had none of Hammett’s pop and repartee. But I could see that these were well-managed narratives, so I continued with Glitz (1985) and Freaky Deaky (1988). Then Carl Hiassen came into view and usurped this particular channel in my interests. And that’s another clue, I think, in explaining why Elmore Leonard has not traveled as well as Bukowski or Auster or Hiassen. His cool is hermetic.
Leonard doesn’t offer foreign readers what my academic colleagues would call affordances, a feature of visual design that tells you a doorknob is for turning or a ball is for throwing. If you are the translator of Raymond Chandler, you wait for his elaborate metaphors with relish; they are a challenge and a chance to have fun. Hemingway, meanwhile, is a par course and García Márquez a master class in syntax, while Bukowski sends you deep into the resources of your native slang. Leonard, by contrast, worked to make his presence invisible, to eliminate all the literary speech, to remove all the plot elbows. Translating him might be like recreating Amish chairs.
How Leonard achieved such seeming simplicity is what Rzepka calls his techne, Aristotle’s (and Thomas Aquinas’s) term for “skill.” The skills here are all in the service of “flow,” a being-in-the-moment sense that athletes know well: it is not timelessness, but such a high degree of practice that what comes next has been anticipated, has been set up so that there is no visible transition. According to Rzepka, this is what all of Leonard’s protagonists strive for too, but it took about a decade for the author and his heroes to meld style with character. The obstacle was that the style needed a certain amount of “flow” in order to avoid appearing wooden. The flow seems to readers to be improvisation, but actually it consists of subtle parallels, repetitions, and omissions: think of Joe Morello’s drum solo in “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. In this scene from Mr. Majestyk (1974), for instance, the protagonist almost sets his nephew straight about a certain woman:
“Listen,” Mr. Majestyk said then. “That broad on the phone —”
Mr. Majestyk smiled, self-conscious, showing his white perfect teeth. He shrugged then. “Why should I say anything — right? You’re old enough.”
“I was about to mention it,” Ryan said.
Then there is Nancy, in the same novel, characterized — via free indirect discourse, says Rzepka — by her internal repetitions:
She sat quietly while Ray and his group whipped off to Chicago to attend the dumb meeting or look at the dumb plant and make big important decisions about their dumb business. Wow. And she sat here waiting for him.
Considering “cool,” of course, always leads back to Hemingway, for whom courage was “grace under pressure.” In his short story “Soldiers’ Home,” the character Krebs thinks about the lies he has been telling since returning from World War I. He has lost
all of the times that had been able to make him feel cool and clear inside himself when he thought of them; the times so long back when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else, now lost their cool, valuable quality and then were lost themselves.
That clearly includes killing people.
This is very close to what “cool” means to Leonard too, but Rzepka insists that his characters always feel at home in their skins, that these are not the intermittent “times” of Hemingway but a continuous flow, “never forgetting who you really were.” No Krebs’s moments of lying. This inspires the cool ones to “always dress well,” to “always be polite on the job,” and to “never say more than is necessary.” That some of these internal character rules are among Leonard’s rules for writing, leading to a synthesis of style and character, may be among the problems confronting translation.
While the reader of this book may flash back to Hemingway, it is impossible to read about Leonard’s dialogue without flashing forward to Richard Price. This is not a topic that Rzepka takes up, but the relation became explicit in a 2015 Washington Post interview with Price: “He admire[s] the great Elmore Leonard, perhaps the only writer in America that one could say surpassed him in street dialogue.” But Price does precious little research and admits to “making it up.” “I’m a good mimic,” he says.
Once you get the patter of how someone talks, you can replicate it. It’s not verbatim … It’s like after George Bush was president for eight years, if you told everybody in America to do Bush reading Shakespeare, everybody could do it. Maybe you’d [screw] up the Shakespeare, but you’d get the idea of how it would sound.
So perhaps it all does come down to craft: as the author of Clockers says elsewhere, “Realistic dialogue is interminable and goes nowhere. Good dialogue is about heightened reality, nudging it into a form that doesn’t really exist in the way people talk.” And the way people talk is gendered. If you are a translator, that’s another of your affordances, so that if you are a woman translating Hammett or Paul Auster, you can invoke and understand the gender gradations or oppositions that inform their worlds. Christine Le Bœuf once translated “The coot was stuck on her” in Auster’s The Book of Illusions as “Le vieux avait le béguin pour elle.” That’s gender genius because, while the contemporary meaning of “béguin” is “crush,” it was originally a hood worn in convents. The coot doesn’t get the girl in this novel, but the historic resonance of the word choice makes the French reader brake and shift gears. Le Bœuf told me that she worked on and worried about that word for several days.
But if “cool” has now become friction-free, then it’s more difficult to suggest the frisson behind the speech of Mr. Majestyk. Perhaps the foreign reader needs to know the films made from Leonard’s novels? But that’s not necessary with Richard Price, whose French translations read like sips of Grand Marnier. In Leonard’s A Coyote’s in the House (2004), the titular quadruped looks down on Hollywood and thinks, “It was their turf.” We understand the “cool” of that in American English, but there’s not much for a translator to work with. It becomes “C’était leur territoire” in French. And that’s not cool at all.
William Marling, Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of several books on the detective novel and, most recently, of Gatekeepers: The Emergence of World Literature (Oxford University Press, 2016).