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Towards New Ways of Reading

Bonjour à tous! Chad Post has asked me to take some time off from designing my “Google Translate is People!” t-shirts (hint: the words are superimposed over a horrified and battered Charlton Heston) and cover for him this week. I am delighted and honored to be guest blogging at “the threep.” I think this officially means I’m cool now.

This summer, The Southern Review will feature my translation of French fabulist Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s “Another Story.” At the recent AWP I had a fascinating chat about the piece with editor Jeanne Leiby that touched on readers’ expectations for translated fiction.

“We deliberated a long time over this one,” she confided. “We liked so much of it enough that if it’d been a piece by an American author we might have requested rewrites. Since it was a translation, that wasn’t a possibility.”

“Another Story,” which closes the Châteaureynaud collection out in May from Small Beer Press, can be read as a meditation on storytelling: specifically, the wherefore of employing the fantastical elements that are Châteaureynaud’s stock-in-trade. The question Todorov identified as central to the fantastical genre—is the impossible real or just in the character’s head?—is nested in a metafictional layer, as the story is narrated by a French fantastical writer, the guest of a billionaire on an island that, as Brian Evenson remarks, “seems half-built from The Tempest and half from Alfredo Bioy-Casares’s The Invention of Morel.” What reservations had the editors had about the piece?

“Well, we thought it was predictable at first. But instead it taught us to change how we read.” It was a reaction to the author’s work I’d gotten in rejection slips before. Jeanne went on to say that having the same reaction to a collection of Herta Müller’s stories had made her realize she was perhaps reading foreign stories against the expectations and fulfillments to which American stories had accustomed us.

“Part of the point of publishing translations,” she concluded, “is to expose readers to new and alternative narrative forms.”

This brings up all sorts of interesting issues. Storytelling shares features with other technologies: it has its pure mechanics, and can date in ways literature, generally said not to progress unidirectionally, doesn’t. The manipulation of surprise is mostly a technical problem. (If conjecture were to masquerade as generalization, I might say it’s one that delights every American’s inner engineer and pragmatist, our homo faber hearts.) Surprise is surely one of narrative’s virtues, but do Americans overlook, in its favor, other narrative rewards and satisfactions, other priorities and uses? Pop and pulp especially, by standardizing story forms and making, so to speak, formula racers—sleek, streamlined thrill machines capable of hugging hairpin plot reversals and sudden narrative curves—have made us canny consumers of plot.

We can ask of a piece, “Does this satisfy me in the ways I have come to expect to be satisfied?” or we can assume it has succeeded on its own terms, and then expand our ideas of the possible by trying to define those terms. This is a challenge reading translations sets before us, but I might extend the argument to any kind of fiction you’re not used to. Readers schooled in contemporary American realism may have difficulty with their first forays into fabulist fiction, where the unreal is often left unresolved, a wound in our consensual reality that the story’s end makes no attempt to close. In approaching any unfamiliar literature, there’s a learning curve, a disorienting period during which the standards and practices of what you’ve come to take as quality are flouted or ignored.

The Southern Review, by the way, has a great issue out right now with, among other gems, Soren Gauger’s translation of a Witold Gombrowicz excerpt on palant, a Polish ancestor of baseball, that all-American sport and the issue’s theme. Jeanne Leiby has asked me to put out the word that she is looking for translations. Translators, send in your best!

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