THE HISTORY OF LITERATURE is full of untranslatable books, the vast majority of which have been translated very well at least once. The most famous example of this is probably the Bible, a volume that has been reimagined thousands of times, but whose readers seem to be constantly insisting that their version is the last. In the fourth century AD, for instance, no less a mind than Saint Augustine begged the future patron saint of translators, Jerome, not to undertake his revolutionary retranslation from the original Hebrew. In retrospect, his attempt to prevent the familiar translation’s authority from being undermined looks as much political as literary — but it points to an underlying nervousness about translation that has been with literature since its beginnings. As readers we want God’s Word; failing that, we want a version of this Word that makes us forget that it is a version. Translations that we call successful, therefore, tend to encourage us to forget where they came from, hypnotizing us through deft mannerism (who needs Turgenev when you’ve got Constance Garnett?) or blinding us with genius (try seeing Homer around the mushroom cloud of Christopher Logue’s War Music). The unsuccessful translation, on the other hand, can’t forget anything. Like Borges’s Funes, it is cursed with a flawless memory — a memory that curses us in turn by reminding us over and over again that the book we’re reading is actually a version of another book which we aren’t reading, but which we can feel floating behind our heads like a moon. The sensation is annoying, to say the least, which may be why certain volumes acquire the label “untranslatable” in the first place. For at the end of the day, isn’t it smarter to avoid those books we can’t imagine transforming? Isn’t it better to leave them where they are, roaming the forests of literature like gigantic beasts that, though terrifying, are doomed to extinction?
Reading Bottom’s Dream, John E. Woods’s new English translation of Arno Schmidt’s notoriously-untranslatable Zettel’s Traum, is like watching one of these beasts saunter out of the forest and begin munching on a telephone pole: the sheer, jurassic weirdness of the thing scrambles our pathways, making it difficult to do anything except stare. Part of this is simply a matter of size, for at 1,400 folio-sized pages Bottom’s Dream is both long and so physically cumbersome that it’s hard to imagine reading it on anything other than a lectern, or maybe a whale-elephant-turtle pagoda. Inside its cover, the idiosyncratically spelt and punctuated narrative scrolls downward in a trunk with marginal notes protruding like the ribs of a gigantic skeleton. The whole effect seems meant to repel, which is weird, since one of the first impressions we get upon reading Bottom’s Dream is of entering a puzzle or game, something designed to hold our attention. Foreboding in appearance, it responds to its audience as if it had been waiting for us … and then the more we read, the more the labyrinth opens, until soon we recognize it as less a minotaur’s trap than a kind of illustrated manuscript: a “booke” whose intricately embroidered letters are meant not just to be read, but to teach us how to read better.
It’s easy to see how it does so, for when it comes to technique, Bottom’s Dream keeps its gears on the surface. It’s like a gigantic Rube Goldberg machine, bristling with an inventiveness that veers past “smart” to a point between “zany” and “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” Here, for example, is Dan, the book’s hero and authorial stand-in, talking about his Lord Don Quixote:
… As a ›decipherer‹ Sancho is really not an elegant clever or perceptive man« (ie himself capable of producing similar EMG=images) »but justa coarse’n’crude knot, whose leathery organs ‘re simply insensate: ›DON QUIXOTE turned his head and saw by the light of the moon, which was in its full splendor, that some one was calling to him from the hole in the wall, which seemed to him to be a window, & what is more, with a gilt grating.‹ « (just as, for You Wilma, the sun’s now gilding the netta-nylon in which Your breasts ‘re trapped, gratis brocade) : › – the ›task‹ is simply as follos… : You are obliged to take the statements of these one-sidedly=enchanted witnesses, and reconstruct both their=selves & their true appearance; their deeds, t’gether with the world that actually surrounded them during their earthly pilgrimitch.
The crazy-quilt density of this passage, which weaves puns and neologisms into a mixture of literary theorizing, quotation, and physical description, invites us both to zoom in and zone out — to linger concentratedly in a way we often do with paintings or drawings but seldom with narratives. It asks us to stop and think, for example, about the spiritual and sexual “itch” in every pilgrimage, or the “cipher” in the decipherer. Such wordplay can feel, at times, complicated or obvious, joyous or torturous, high-brow or sophomoric — but it never seems gratuitous. On the contrary, one of the things that makes the lexical wizardry of Bottom’s Dream so compelling is the way that it constantly points past itself, into the “world that actually surrounds them,” outside a window or beneath a brassier, or, for that matter, in the white space that flanks the text on every folio page, like the banks of a raging river.
Whether or not we can ever definitively read this world, or whether all our glosses are doomed to slide impotently off it, is the central question of Bottom’s Dream. And we can never be sure we’ve answered it, since, unlike a crossword puzzle, the book has no answer key at the back. Its difficulty tempts us, at points, to say that there is no answer, but to do this is to misunderstand the model of reading being offered to us — a model that, though it may at times be frustrating, still believes in what it’s doing. It believes, ultimately, that the world is there to be read, and can be read.
This optimistic pragmatism also undergirds the act of translation itself. Just as the translator knows that he will never perfectly recreate the book he’s translating, this gigantic book understands that the world outside language will always be bigger than language is, while still believing that we can approach it. The untranslatable can be translated, as Bottom’s Dream itself demonstrates — demonstrates even better, maybe, than Zettel’s Traum does. This is a weird thing to think about. We are so used to talking about aspects of a work being “lost in translation” that the idea of anything being added sounds strange, even sacrilegious. And yet, this is at least partly what has happened here. The transformation of Schmidt’s Word has added another level to It, illustrating the book’s own suggestion that it is precisely the “untranslatable” thing that is crying out most acutely to be translated, interpreted, read. Doing so isn’t necessarily easy — but then why should it be? Transformation isn’t easy; on the contrary, it thrives on wreckage. It demands that we be pragmatic, admitting up front that many of our “successes” will be compromises, so that some of them will be miracles. It requires that we translate, in other words, which is not something I would normally recommend to any sane person. But then maybe reading doesn’t have as much to do with sanity as we’re used to thinking.
The Pentecostal whoop of Bottom’s Dream convinces us, at least while we’re reading it, that even the most difficult masterpiece can be heard, as the Apostles were, “in [our] own language.” Turning to Andrew Boguslawski’s new translation of Sasha Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf, on the other hand, we find a noticeably more cautious approach to the problem of untranslatability. Our first inkling of this comes in Boguslawski’s introduction, which is excellent and thorough, but which gives off a distinct whiff of anxiety: as if its writer were worried we might not be able to navigate the rich landscape of Between Dog and Wolf by ourselves. The book is “an elaborate tapestry, woven from many-colored yarns and decorated by patterns and ornaments,” while at the same time existing in “a realm where nothing is certain,” and in which readers “will have to work hard to discover what is going on.” Boguslawski’s hope is clearly that a thorough introduction and scholarly notes will help us do this work, but his efforts suggest an uncomfortable truth about translation that Bottom’s Dream mostly ignored: namely, that an immense distance exists between any original book and the reader of its translation — a distance that may be reduced, but can never be erased.
Framed in Boguslawski’s introduction, the formal gambit of Between Dog and Wolf sounds a lot like the one in Bottom’s Dream: to immerse the reader in a language that is strange but not impenetrable, and thereby to teach us a method of reading that is riskier and more rewarding than the one we know. But whereas the latter book managed to convey the impression of a real world waiting just outside the borders of its language, the former takes a more investigative tack. Like the crime at the book’s center, the shared reality that the separate voices of Between Dog and Wolf are all trying to report on is something we have to piece together after the fact, like detectives sorting through contradictory testimonies. Even when we “succeed” in doing this it can be hard to tell whether what we’re seeing is the truth itself, or just another version of it. The overall effect is hazy, claustrophobic, and, occasionally, gorgeous. It’s like hearing a planet’s lone inhabitant describe his green sun setting over a pink desert: listening, we feel like we are being drawn, not out, but in — down a rabbit hole of articulate solitude. This is particularly true in the sections of the story spoken by Ilya, the self-described “Sharpener” whose stolen crutches are one of the narrative’s motors:
Who am I, they sometimes ask, and for whom? I’m a matchmaker and brother for someone, for someone a godfather, and occasionally a son-in-law, I guess, no more, no less. But sometimes — I am nobody for nobody, only for myself, and even then not entirely […] But when I sleep myself sober I’m a prophet again. That’s nothin, really, compared to the moment when once in a blue moon, I walk along the speckled path to do my sharpenin: I turned into a Sharpener, a craftsmen of the unfamiliar suns. There, on the right side, burn the Fiery Stozhary — here, on the left, rises Krylobyl, the club-footed hunter. Behind me are the nurses, in front — Orina-Foolina and her progeny Orion. I wandered a lot around the world’s fringes and defined many constellations.
Rooted in the late 20th-century flowering of the Russian skaz (a rollicking and often unreliable method of first-person narration that will be recognizable to readers of Venedikt Yerofeyev, or, for that matter, Mark Twain and Ring Lardner), such flights are mesmerizing in their loneliness — like rockets that, powered only by their own bluster, nonetheless manage to pierce Earth’s atmosphere before exploding. Their message is clear: language, our prison, is also our reward. It’s the tool by which we chart our own constellations and then, if we’re skilled enough, get others to see them too — which is another, less cynical way of saying that, for all its richness, language is a confidence trick. Lacking justice, love, or companions, we create these things with the bleak bravado of a man whistling along a frozen river. The world we create is not the world. But it’s ours.
Ilya’s monologues may be eccentric, but they’re vivid, and convincing. Their willingness to replace the world rather than simply describe it allows them to transcend solitude and become something others can understand: a language, in other words. By contrast, the least successful sections of Between Dog and Wolf feel like second-hand reports of another world, or language, or book, providing us with a superficial outline without ever actually bringing their subject to life. There is, admittedly, a thematic appropriateness to this — for at its worst, Boguslawski’s translation puts its reader in a wandering and indeterminate “in-between” space not unlike the frozen river that so many of its characters move through. But whereas the inhabitants of Sokolov’s book can throw their language like a fishing line at the world and have it stick every time, the English reader of Between Dog and Wolf watches his own hook frequently bob up empty. This is especially true of the long sections written in verse, which swim past us meaning something (probably many things), but with an imperviousness that makes us understand why Sokolov’s book was considered untranslatable for so many years. It is not, of course — Boguslawski has proven this (and in two languages, no less: he spent 10 years producing a Polish version). And yet something essential eludes us, not because we can’t see it, but because it isn’t there. Where is it then? In the original? Presumably — although who knows. Miracles, as Whitman said about personality, convince. But ordinary successes just leave us hungrier for the book we’ve never read, and which we insist must be out there somewhere.