5 June 13 | Chad W. Post

This article is a transcript of a presentation Esther Allen gave at Boston University on Friday, February 22, 2013. Click here for Part I.

For the reader of the original text, the book’s origin in the Spanish-speaking world is evident in its every word and requires no further emphasis. As its translator into English, my overwhelming primary allegiance was to the Spanish language. If readers of the English translation were allowed to forget that the book was first written in Spanish—not Russian or English—and was translated from Spanish—not Russian—the book risked being denatured, stripped of all the historic and cultural meaning that derives from the specific language in which it was first written.

The translation therefore explicitly sought to emphasize the Spanish-ness of this text about Russia, but in a way that did not undermine the original’s will to leave its Latin American origins in the deep background. Keeping certain words or phrases in the source language, always an option, here became an imperative, and the English retains as much Spanish as I felt was possible. No longer the language of the text itself, Spanish becomes a key element in its polyglossia.

Another feature of the text that is present, but kept very much in the background in the original text, is its meditation on translation. The 1998 Encyclopedia concludes with the following line:

Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible (Whitman). (Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible) Yo.

The repetition already indicates that this is translation of a sort; in the first iteration, it is a line by Whitman; in the second, the line is claimed by the narrator, recontextualized into his own life experience. The fact that both iterations are in Spanish disguises the element of translation. A translator into Chinese or Russian could do the same, repeating the line twice in its Chinese or Russian version. But the translator into Whitman’s own language doesn’t have that option. What was more, this was a chance to conclude the novel with a final reminder of its Spanishness by offering the narrator’s Spanish version of Whitman as a translation.

Full of life now, compact, visible (Whitman). (Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible.) Me.

This solution struck me as perfect, but entrained a whole set of consequences. If the imperative of alphabetical order and the need to re-emphasize the original language was requiring me to position a source text alongside its translation here and in many of the headwords such as Pasarela, (which in my translation is followed by the English Catwalk in parentheses), the tacit theme of translation which those solutions made explicit had to become more explicit throughout—by positioning the source texts of all the Encyclopedia’s myriad citations alongside their translation into English. For if this had to be done with translations between English and Spanish (one of the less important language pairings within the polyglossia of this text), then it had to be done with all the other languages as well. When I first discussed this option with José, he resisted it, and with good reason. He worried that marking the text’s polyglossia so strongly, including citations in seven different languages, would alienate potential Anglophone readers, striking them as off-puttingly pretentious or academic. He was also laudably concerned that the incorporation of so many languages would appear to constitute a claim to fluency in all of them—a claim that neither he nor I could honestly make. He didn’t want to seem like a fraud.

The first of his objections would quite likely have been valid if this translation had been published at the same time or within a year or two of the original 1998 text. However, my sense is that over the course of the past two decades and especially in the past five years, multilingualism has acquired a marked cachet in the Anglophone urban literary sphere that is likely to take interest in this kind of novel. For examples, I’ll point out the increased use of foreign language dialogue with subtitles in Hollywood blockbuster films (of which the recent films by Quentin Tarrantino that include the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz are an instance), the rise of a foodie culture with its highly polyglot vocabulary, the increased popularity of yoga with its constant use of Sanskrit, the surging success of web-based language learning sites such as Rosetta Stone, LiveMocha, Babbel. For those readers of the Encyclopedia with some understanding of one or more of its source languages, their incorporation into the translation could only enhance the experience of the novel. And for those who understand only the English, the visible presence of those alien words on the page would constitute a kind of pictorial illustration of the confrontation with a foreign system of meaning that is the book’s fundamental subject matter.

To enhance this sense of “foreign language as illustration” I wanted to include as little transliteration as possible, but use original scripts for all source texts. This meant, first and foremost, offering Russian words and passages in Cyrillic, and including transliteration only when the words’ sound value could add some dimension of meaning or rhythm to the visual impact of the Cyrillic letters. I quickly realized there was an additional feature of the text that motivated my sense that this was necessary. The Encyclopedia includes many reflections on recent innovations in printing technology—recent in the mid-90s—such as the scanner, the e-book, and advances in word-processing technology that were eliminating the distinction between manuscript and published text. In the two decades following that first publication, those advances have made it as easy to include the Cyrillic alphabet in a publication as it is to change a text’s font on a computer screen. Low-tech, old-fashioned transliteration would have belied the novel’s own claim to expertise in the cutting edge of printing technology.

This left me with a big headache. For the logic that dictated the inclusion of the Cyrillic, which José could supply, dictated the inclusion of the original Japanese and Hebrew texts in their respective writing systems as well, and that was a far more daunting challenge in which, fortunately, several friends who speak those languages very generously came to my assistance.

I ultimately persuaded José to go along with this adventure in polyglossia and include all the source texts by reminding him that translations are often published bilingually. Our narrator, I argued, is not claiming to be fluent in seven or more languages. Rather he is fascinated by language and likes to read books in bilingual editions, his eye often straying to the facing page. In other words, for the narrator, too, as for the monolingual Anglophone reader, many of the source languages are little more than pictorial illustrations of the foreign. With José’s permission, I made this explicit in the English version by adding the following phrase, in parenthesis, to a meditation on the unknowable nature of the material world and the closed cycle of cultures that appears under the headword Sea Sirens:

(the unfathomable original, there on the open page, that does not cease to trouble us as we read through its translation)

The English version of the Encyclopedia came out in January, and I must say that so far my the various intentions I’ve mentioned here—to foreground the text’s Spanishness, heighten its polyglossia, and make its meditation on translation more explicit—have been entirely ignored by reviewers and readers. None of the articles I’ve read or the readers I’ve discussed the book with have assessed it in the context of Latin American literature; none have considered what it has to tell us about translation; only one has even alluded (with considerable irritation) to the presence of source texts in various languages and scripts. Instead, the novel has been connected to various contemporary discussions of remix culture and the Internet, it has been compared to Huysmans’s A Rebours, the accuracy of its depiction of Russian life in the 90s has been debated, etc. A translator’s intentions, it turns out, are as limited in their ability to dictate the ways a text will ultimately be read as an author’s are. I have, however, had one satisfying confirmation of certain of them. The most recent issue of McSweeney’s, edited by Adam Thirlwell and published at almost exactly the same time as the English translation of the Encylopedia, is an astonishing literary romp across a polyglot universe: twelve stories are translated by sixty-one authors into eighteen languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Urdu, and Hebrew, all published in their own scripts. I had no idea that this issue of McSweeney’s was in the works as I was making my decisions about the Encyclopedia—though I do recall defending my notion to include source languages with a line from a book review by Adam Thirlwell in which he spoke of the new possibility of a “reckless internationalism” in the English language. Now that I do know about this issue of McSweeney’s, I’m happy to take it as confirmation of my intentions. In the end, I may decide that I intended it that way.


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