Everyone Needs an Editor
Before I get into the meat of this post—which is basically just a bunch of quotes and a handful of observations—I wanted to check back in on something from an earlier essay.
Back in January, I wrote about Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and basically assumed that it would be a best-seller. (There was also a lot of stuff about one-star reviews and how divided opinions about a popular book only fuels its sales.) Well, after a few weeks out in the world, I don’t think it’s actually made a best-seller list . . . yet.
That’s not to say that the book isn’t doing well. According to Nieslen BookScan—which people claim represents something like 75-80% of overall sales1—the numbers for The Perfect Nanny are at 27,399, with 2,427 sales just last week.
I don’t want to waste half of tomorrow’s post now, but to put this in perspective, Frankenstein in Baghdad—which I also wrote about and thought would be a huge deal—has “only” sold 2,689, with 326 last week. Still very good! We only have a couple books over our ten-year history that are above that, and I’m certain you can guess what they are. I’m going to write more in depth about this in my March Preview, so I’ll save the details, but will leave off by saying that 27,399 is like 27 times more than what most literary translations tend to sell.
Although it may not be an official bestseller (yet), at $16 a pop, those nearly 28,000 sales generated $438,384 in revenue, which, if you apply a 50% discount on sales to Costco/Amazon/independents (a number that might actually be too low) that’s about $219,000. (Again, no spoilers, but that’s a lot more than what a normal literary translation earns. Especially for presses that have two key employees and no where near the marketing resources. $219,000 would be half—or more—of these presses annual budgets. We live in different spheres.)
Is that what Penguin Random House was hoping for though? I kind of doubt it. It’ll be curious to see if they sign on the Slimani collection of stories and personal essays that was just presented to me by a new literary agent . . .
She was arrested and charged with supporting terrorism, not because of her novels but as a result of her affiliation, as an adviser, with a newspaper linked to the Kurdish movement that has since been shut down. She still faces a trial that could land her back in prison, and with that hanging over her, she has been living with her mother, sleeping late, not writing much and dealing with the new fame that her case has brought.
According to Wikipedia, she was the Turkish representative of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee from 1998 to 2000. She also worked at CERN as a particle physicist. Her novel The City in Crimson Cloak about a Turkish woman in dire straits in Rio de Janeiro was published in 2007 by Soft Skull. (I remember reading this, and liking it, but that’s about it. The passage of time sucks.)
Here’s how she describes her own writing in that same New York Times profile:
She describes her writing as “sublime language plus crude metaphors” that has had only a limited appeal in Turkey, where readers tend to flock to realistic works steeped in Ottoman history or nostalgia, like the books of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel-winning novelist.
“There’s nothing realistic in my books,” she said. “I am a difficult writer.”
Nowadays, millions of people—at least notionally—are educated to graduate levels, and one would’ve expected this to inculcate them with a positive zest for challenging prose—but this doesn’t seem to be the case. When I get going in this vein, my 16-year-old son says: “Face it, Dad, you’re just an old man shaking your fist at the cloud.” Yet I don’t regard myself as opposed to the new media technologies in any way at all—nor do I view them as “bad,” let alone as cultural panopathogens. I’ve no doubt that human intelligence will continue to be pretty much the same as it has heretofore—but the particular form of intelligence associated with book-learning (and all that this entails) is undoubtedly on the wane, with the “extended mind” of the smart phone increasingly replacing our own memories, and the hive-mindedness of the web usurping our notions of the canonical. I shan’t belabor the point, but it’s worth thinking about the impact of the so-called tyranny of film on contemporary cinema: the length of shots have become shorter and shorter, while the editing technique of cross-cutting between them in order to compel viewers’ attention has become ubiquitous. Arguably, this is similar to the concentration in the literary realm on “page-turners” with characters that are “relatable”—both narrative mediums are looking for ways to make their consumers’ experience more facile.
Yep. Totally on board. Props to Literary Hub for publishing this! (And this is a good reminder that I really need to get to Shark and Phone.)
Self’s general view jibes with my old-man outlook on life and literature, where books that are “challenging” because they force you to think different are ignored, labeled as “not for everyone,” and fiscally dismissed in favor of books with “relatable characters” that you don’t have to think too hard to read.
I get palpably excited thinking about books that are “difficult,” titles that require attention and puzzling out. Books that employ language and techniques that defy the expected, the familiar—those are my jam.
For all these reasons, The Stone Building and Other Place, Erdoğan’s latest book to appear in English, seemed like it would be right up my alley. And I think, under different circumstances, in a different time and place, with a different set of eyes and internal questions, I really would like this. Lots of other people do. As happy as I am to champion Erdoğan as a human being and activist, the language in this book really didn’t work for me.2
Instead of being intrigued and sucked into a politically charged world of words, I was left questioning everything that I was reading, trying to figure out whether it was the original or the translation that wasn’t working for me, or if it was just me. (Probably the last one.)
First admissions first: I read a portion of this book when it was being pitched to publishers. I knew of Erdoğan from The City in Crimson Cloak, but received the submission before her arrest, before the New York Times article, before any of that. Not that it would’ve changed my opinion per se, but it would’ve created a much different context in which to read this book.
Here’s the opening of that sample:
The facts are obvious, contradictory, blunt… He likes to speak loud. I leave the facts, stacked like huge stones, for those who busy themselves with grave matters. I’m only interested in the murmur among them. Indistinct, addictive…Searching through heaps of stones, I’m after a handful of truths – or what used to be called so—these days it doesn’t have a name. After a flash of light, if I could delve deeper and deeper and manage to reach the bottom and return—I’m after the handful of sand, the song of the sand that slips through my fingers. “Those who speak of the shadow, speak the truth.” Truth speaks through shadows. Today, I will talk about the stone building, which language shies away from. Gives it a wide berth. Looks at it behind the words. It was built long before I was born. If we don’t count the basement, it is five stories tall. There is a staircase at its entrance.
Everyone’s first draft needs work. If there’s a thesis to this post, that’s it. That and that a great translation generally has a great editor to go along with a great author and great translator. It takes a team to make a great book. Or whatever other cliche you’d like to throw in there.
That said, this sample has a number of indicators that it would be a lot of work. That’s not necessarily bad, but without getting into gory specifics, I just want to say that for a tiny press that’s already punching above its weight, signing on a translation that’s going to require all the editing hours is a dangerous idea. Sometimes you get a winner, most times you fall behind schedule and see your sales slump. Not to mention, for as stat-centric and economics-informed as I am, I am also aware that there is such a thing as office morale. A really frustrating book/author/translator can totally fuck up the vibe. To put it in real talk.
Casting aside all the formatting quirks that drive me crazy (re: ellipses and em-dashes), here are a few questions that jump out at me:
1. How does the “He” who likes to “speak loud” (is that accurate? does that mean that he’s a loud talker or someone imposing his viewpoint?) relate to the sentences before and after?
2. “Stacked like huge stones, for those who busy themselves with grave matters” might unintentionally imply grave markers. Is that intentional?
3. “I’m only interested in the murmur among them.” Is the “them” the stones, the facts, or something else? This murmur contrasts with “speak loud,” which I suppose is nice, if the pronouns were more logically consistent.
4. Next sentence has an agreement problem “after a handful of truths . . . these days it doesn’t have a name.”
5. I can’t make sense of “After a flash of light, if I could delve deeper and deeper and manage to reach the bottom and return—I’m after the handful of sand, the song of the sand that slips through my fingers.” The “after a flash of light” seems disconnected from the rest of the sentence, mostly because of the “if” that follows it. What is the “song of the sand”?
6. Skipping ahead, the first sentence from the next paragraph is “One must write with flesh, with the naked, vulnerable flesh under the skin.” And I’m out.
(This is more or less how one of our weekly translation workshops—which we refer to as “Plüb” for reasons I’ll only explain in person—tends to go. Lots of questions for the translator to either explain away or think about during revisions. A live-action reader-response experience of the text.)
The translations that win me over are the ones that have a sort of confidence. The prose is assured in its word choices, syntax, voice. It could all be bullshit, but it’s bullshit that I, as a reader, can believe in. Every draft has its problems. Every book has a sentence or two that you stumble over. But if you’re reading a book where every sentence raises a new question? That’s not pleasant. Once your trust has eroded, even the most basic of sentences feels like it’s possibly not quite right. The voice goes all wobbly. Everything feels forced and stilted. The book stops working.
Back in 2005, Words Without Borders published a translation of Erdoğan’s story “Wooden Birds,” and in 2008 they ran “The Prisoner.” Both of these are included in The Stone Building and Other Stories, but these versions were translated by different translators.
I discovered these right around the time that I decided that I was going to read The Stone Building for this series of articles. I didn’t read them until after I had finished reading this City Lights translation, but after I finished the new book—and the original sample—I felt like I had to go back and see how these compared.
Here’s the first paragraph of the WWB version of “The Prisoner”:
She woke up long before the alarm. As though wanting to make sure the night was over, she blinked for a while in the dawn. She’d slept a total of three hours, but the night, full of tossing and turning, and full of realistic dreams, dreams far more painful than reality, had seemed to last forever. An endless waiting…4
Here’s the City Lights version:
She woke up long before the alarm went off. As if checking to make sure the night was over, she opened and closed her eyes a few times in the humid, pre-dawn twilight. She had slept for a total of three hours, and the night — full of tossing and turning, and dreams burdened with an intense realism, much more painful than reality itself — had felt like it dragged on endlessly. A sense of waiting with no beginning and no end . . .
Comparing translations is a dangerous game—you always want parts of one and not the other. “Blinking” over “opened and closed her eyes a few times,” especially if you’re adding “humid.” But “dragged on endlessly” is much more alive on the page (in a cliched way, granted) than “seemed to last forever.” And is “went off” even necessary in relation to the alarm going off? “She woke up long before the alarm” is probably enough. Although that decision must be made in relation to the rest of the paragraph. What is the voice? What is the style? Is she the type to say that her dreams were “burdened with an intense realism” or is she more of a “my dreams were more painful than reality” sort of character?
Regardless, the first sentence of the next paragraph was the one that lost me: Neither “For hours she had lain like a chained ghost with her knees pulled up to her belly, afraid to move, pricking up her ears at the slightest noise” or “For hours, she’d lain like a chained ghost, ears pricking up at the slightest sound, afraid to budge, knees bent to her chest” did enough to overcome the incongruity (for me) of a “chained ghost.”
Let’s move on.
Here’s the opening of the Words Without Borders version of “Wooden Birds,” by far my favorite piece in The Stone Buildings and Other Places:
The door of the room was opened suddenly and a redhead burst in. Dijana’s voice, breathless and impatient, was heard. “Come on now, Felicita! Shall we be waiting for you all day? Get that big arse of yours out of bed. You’re dead inside, woman, dead.”
The door was shut as quickly as it was opened; the antiseptic smell of the hospital corridor, Dijana’s shrill voice and superficial but hurtful mocking remained outside.
Filiz, whom the lung patients called “Felicita” (“happiness”), was in reality an extremely pessimistic, reserved, and embittered person.
Dijana is so British. Not just “arse” but “shall we be waiting.” At least it’s a consistent voice though. I can envision a redheaded Brit talking like that. I’m not sure about “superficial but hurtful mocking.” Seems like it’s explaining too much to the reader.
Here’s the City Lights version:
The door opened suddenly, and a bright red head peeked in. Dijana’s breathless, impatient voice rang out:
“Hurry up, Felicita! Do we have to wait for you all day? Get your fat ass out of that bed. I swear, you’re like the walking dead!”
The door closed as quickly as it had opened, shutting out the hospital corridor’s smell of disinfectant, Dijana’s shrill voice, and her offhand, stinging sarcasm.
Filiz, of “Felicita” as she was called with distinct irony by the lung patients — was an extremely gloomy, withdrawn, and wounded person.
Again, so much to mix and match. The City Lights version, though occasionally too explanatory in these more realistic stories, does a better job with the actions in this section. The “door opened suddenly” is condensed and functional. “The door closed as quickly as it had opened” is another plus, and one that I want to pause on for a second.
Active verbs are always a problem with the young translators I work with. They’re much more likely to initially opt for “the door was closed” instead of “the door closed.” Scratch it up to a quirk of languages, of English, of trying to capture every word. Regardless, it’s the sort of thing that sets translators apart. It’s also something that I suspect City Lights edited into this translation.
Dijana’s voice in the City Lights version isn’t quite as distinctive as the WWB one, but it’s fine. Although given the seemingly omnipresent show, I would avoid phrases like “walking dead,” but that’s just me. “Hurry up, Felicita” is a bit nondescript as well, but in this case, I’m willing to go along with the idea that Dijana’s voice will be developed later in the story. If this was being Plübbed, it would’ve received only a few comments. Reading it, it feels workshopped already.5
“The Stone Building” is what I really want to talk about. If it weren’t for the jacket copy, which told me that “these tales culminate in a soaring novella whose ‘stone building’ echoes with a chorus of voices of those held captive within its walls,” I would have had almost no idea what this half of the book is all about.
(Worth noting that this is reiterated in the World Literature Today review that states:
The titular work, “The Stone Building,” is the longest story in the collection and probably the most representative of the writer’s use of magical realism. While the protagonist, A., reappears in these chapters as a character who has suffered torture and imprisonment, it is the impressions, the ambience, that define these intertwining stories. Particularly, the theme of betrayal and symbols like the wind and the presence of labyrinths and cyclical time give the story its distinctive dreamlike tone.
OK. Sure. The connection between her use of “magical realism” [sorry, had to gag] and the rest of that paragraph is tenuous at best.)
Back to my general theme: People will love “The Stone Building.” Because I was already questioning the text itself, these lines left me confused and somewhat irritated:
I will now defer my laughter and take you to the stone building.
Defer my laughter. Defer it.
I loved somebody once. He left his eyes with me. Since he had no one else to leave them with. Love.
There’s an overblown tone to this piece that probably won’t come through in these snippets, but which is exhausting to read. The closest comparison I can think of is an undergrad’s journal entries that they write while high. Every line is dripping with meaning.
Then, I recognized your voice, my own voice coming from you. How strange! What frightened me most was that you might cry, beg, collapse. You did none of these. As if death were some kind of literary gesture—an overly dramatic ending held in reserve. But you stood fast, in the middle of a sentence whose dawn would never arrive.
But wait. That’s not the paragraph in the final book.
Here’s that same passage in the finished copy:
Then, I recognized your voice, my own voice coming from you. How strange! What frightened me most was that you might cry, beg, collapse. You did none of these. As if death were some kind of overly dramatic end — a literary device kept on reserve for me. But you stood fast, suspended in the middle of a sentence where the dawn never arrives.
Note 1: Remember that tossaway comment above about young translators needing to make their verbs more active? See: “whose dawn would never arrive” versus “where the dawn never arrives.” That’s so editorial.
Note 2: The flip-flopping of “literary” and “dramatic” is interesting. I don’t know that it solves the core problem of this bit for me (what is a literary device kept on reserve? Where is it kept? Why is it on reserve?), but it is trying to do something.6
The facts are obvious, contradictory, coarse . . . And blaring.
The “he likes to speak loud” line has been replaced by “and blaring.” Which clearly refers back to the facts and sets up something concrete and alarming. So much better.
I leave the facts, like a mound of giant stones, to those who busy themselves with important matters.
By getting rid of “grave matters” the graveyard aspect of this is gone. That solves a certain number of questions for me as a reader.
What interests me is the murmur among them. Indistinct, obsessive . . . Digging through the rock pile of facts, I’m after a handful of truths — or what used to be called that, these days it doesn’t have a name.
I like that in this version we have “rock pile of facts” versus “heaps of stones,” which is ambiguous and nondescript. But what about that “flash of light, if”??
Lured on by a flickering light, what if I were to dive deeper and deeper, if I could reach the bottom and make it back — I’m after a handful of sand, the song of the sand that slips through my fingers and disappears.
Well, that clarified a lot. Even the song of the sand! By simply adding “and disappears” to that sentence, the song of the sand goes from some weird mythical thing that exists on its own to the song of the sand that slips through my fingers and disappears. Emphasizing “sand that slips” instead of “song of sand” is a huge advancement.
1 The percentage depends on how embarrassing the reported number is. I think BookScan captures about 10% of our overall sales.
2 I’m very uncomfortable criticizing this book. The idea of criticizing it makes me extremely anxious. Criticism itself is in a weird place right now. But really, does my opinion mean anything at all? No! Given Erdoğan’s status, it will get the review attention it needs to appeal to a decent set of readers. Will it Scan 27,000 copies? Most probably absolutely unlikely not. But more than 1,000? Sure! Not that sales are everything, but because I mentioned it at the beginning, it seems relevant.
3 Still so uncomfortable! I set out writing this with the goal of walking readers through the decision-making process I go through when I start reading a translation—especially a sample—because I thought it might explain something about how translations are received by perceptive readers. The sort of readers who don’t take any prose—originally written in English or translated into it—at face value, but interrogate the text as they go. But that’s an approach that relies upon using a text that I don’t really like. Which feels mean and I don’t want to be mean about this book. It’s just . . . keep reading.
4 Here’s how you do ellipses: . . . Like that. Not… This… Looks so low rent. Like you’re reading a zine from 1990 laid out in WordPerfect.
5 Knowing me, I would’ve recommended this: “The door closed as quickly as it had opened, shutting out the hospital corridor’s smell of disinfectant, Dijana’s shrill voice, her stinging sarcasm.” I like to speed things up in texts like this that tend to dilly-dally and get caught up in a web of unnecessary words.
6 I don’t want to bash this book, but I also want to say that I didn’t find this half as interesting as academics might make it out to be. I love weird prose, but this was so tiresome. And baffling. The geography of the scenes is all over the place and the abstract nature of the writing ends up being more confusing than provocative. I’m sure a number of people will tell me what I’m missing, but in the end, I think this book is more interesting in theory than in its prose. Erdoğan = amazing; “The Stone Building” is . . . words.