Tim Parks, Style, and Europanto

As in past weeks, here’s a PDF version of this post, which might be a lot easier to read.

For a few years now, on the first day of my “Translation & World Literature” class, I give my students an impossible task—translating the first few paragraphs of Diego Marani’s Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot into English. Inspector Cabillot may well be the only book ever published in Europanto, a macaronic language Marani invented that uses common words from any and all Western European languages, and has no fixed rules. Here are a few of the paragraphs I make the students translate:

Inspector Cabillot put seine Europanto crossverba under der desk, hanged der telefono und jumped op der cuirassed liftor por emergence cases.

“Moi demanded, Captain What?”

“Ja. Ich habe eine delicate mission por you. Als you know, die europeanos countries send plenty aid zum developingantes countries und superalles, butter, second hand bicyclos, italian beer, english vino, germanische fashion, olde stamps, greek horloges, rumenian shoes und bulgarische used tyres. Well, some van diese aid never arrive zum destinatione. There must esse eine hole someplatz in Sudamerica, plus exacto in der Petite Guyane Luxembourgeoise. There esse tambien eine klinika por invalidos europeanos polizeros die esse eine poquito suspecta. Ich wand dat you make eine enquest, inspector. You shal pretende de esse eine invalido Europeano polizero und make toiself hospitalized. Sergent Otto Oliveira van der Europeane Polizei Brigade por Paranormale Eventos (EPOBRIFOPAREV) shal mit you in touch permane und toi assiste from Brussel.

Even though I group the students by the languages they know (all Romance language speakers together, everyone familiar with Japanese or Chinese, etc.), there are a few things that are almost always present in their translations:

1) There’s a tendency to overemphasize the English words present, ending up with sentences like “You shall pretend to be a sick European policeman and make yourself hospitalized.”

2) To date, every single group has translated “bulgarische used tyres” as “Bulgarian used tires,” which isn’t nearly as natural as “used Bulgarian tires.” Because all the other items in the list follow the “country modifying noun” format (“Italian beer,” “English wine,” which is weird for a different reason), I think they just get caught up in that repetition.

3) Generally they have a similar experience when reading this: at first it seems like nonsense, then, after they realize that they know more cognates than they initially assumed, they can read it quickly, fill in the blanks and get the general gist. Once they start going through it sentence by sentence and word by word though, they realize that they don’t actually understand the text in full. (“Superalles” and “greek horloges” tend to cause the most difficulty in this section.)

4) They always translate for meaning instead of style. Given how the task is presented (“OK, go have fun and translate this into English. We’ll read all of the versions out loud and talk about which one is the best.”) this isn’t entirely fair, but no one ever tries to capture Marani’s style per se. They go after some aspects of the tone—trying to make it kind of madcap, a bit off kilter yet drawing from detective story tropes we’re all familiar with—but generally just try and take each little bit of this and figure out what it means. Sure, they can figure out what the story is about, but does that capture what makes this example of Marani’s writing unique? Shouldn’t they leave some of it as is, incorporating some of the foreignness, the strangeness into their translation? Isn’t part of the point of this story/book to force the reader to slow down and enjoy some weird language jokes?


Translating Style by Tim Parks starts off from a related idea: For one of the seminars he taught, he would give students the same text (generally from a travel brochure or advertisement) in both English and Italian and ask them to guess which one was the original and which was the translation.

Rather than simply replicate one of his travel brochure examples in Italian and bad English translation, I thought it would be more interesting to compare bad English translation to Google Translate. See if you can guess which is which:

The limpid poetry of the landscape on which descend sweet sunsets, the fertile earth with long rows of poplars and lazy currents of rivers and canals, the vigorous and hard-working people of the vast agricultural and industrial area (simple and tenacious in their traditions) are as wreath at the historical group of the city that the exemplary wisdom of local governments has duly respected.

The clear poem of the surrounding landscape, where very sweet sunsets go down, the fertile land with long poplar-rows and slow streams of rivers and canals, the laborious and strong people of the vast agricultural and industrial zone (simple and persevering in their own traditions) form like a ring round the historical group of the city that the exemplary wisdom of the local administrations has opportunely respected.1

Parks found that it’s pretty easy to figure out which is the original when you’re looking at texts of this nature. The translation tends to be overly wordy, and more or less ridiculous. (“Form like a ring round the historical group of the city that the exemplary wisdom.”) What’s fun about bad translations (like English As She Is Spoke) is that they’re oftentimes incredibly funny.2

What he found—and which shouldn’t be all that surprising—is that literature was much more difficult to judge.

In a few minutes the train was running through the disgrace of outspread suburbia. Everybody in the carriage was on the alert, waiting to escape. At last they were under the huge arch of the station, in the tremendous shadow of the town. B shut himself together—he was in now.

Di li a qualche il treno percorreva gli squallidi sobborghi della città. Tutti i passeggeri erano all’erta, in attesa di evadere dal convoglio. Finalmente entrarono sotto l’enorme arco della stazione, nell’ombra terribile e immensa della città. B si chiuse in se stesso: ormai era preso.

In this case, most of his students didn’t recognize D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, instead assuming that the Italian was the original.

The rationale of his students does make some sense: “disgrace of outspread suburbia” isn’t a natural phrasing in English, and “waiting to escape” lacks a direct object (what are they escaping from?). By contrast, the Italian is much more “normal”: “the squalid suburbs of the town” and “escape from the train.”

By looking at the differences between original works by Lawrence, Woolf, Joyce, Beckett, Pym, and Henry Green and the translations, Parks zeros in on the way in which the translations tend to normalize the original style, oftentimes obscuring the larger philosophical-linguistic intent that prompted the author to bend English in his/her particular way. Style had been pushed aside in favor of meaning.

But rather than dwelling on possible alternatives in Italian, the thing to grasp is how all the translator’s changes, whether forced or not, are in the same direction, towards more conventional, commonplace concepts than those generated in the English. In diverging from ordinary usage here, Lawrence insists that the experiences he is talking about require thought, and what’s more deserve to be thought about in new ways. Again expressions like “in complete ease” and “her complete self” get their meaning through their provocative distance from the conventional. Without wishing to be unkind, the Italian reads like the kind of text Lawrence was eager to escape from.

This sentiment recurs over and over throughout Translating Style. Boiling the book down into two main points, it’s about a) how translations tend to standardize innovative prose styles and b) by back-translating and examining the differences between the translation and the original, interesting things about the author’s global approach tend to emerge.3


There are at least three tangents that this book inspired me to think about, and which I want to elaborate on:

1) The obvious tension between translating for style vs. meaning.

This goes back to my initial Marani example, but I’ve always argued in class (inspired in part by Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States) that the goal of translation isn’t fidelity to the original or making the text work in the target language, but capturing the style of the original. The problem with this is that the idea of style is, almost by definition, incredibly elusive, mostly because it can manifest in so many different ways.

In short: It’s not what you say, but how you write it. This is an incredibly lame, obvious statement to make. But one that’s harder to follow than you first imagine.

First off, there’s the difficulty of determining what aspects—on the line-by-line level—are distinctive, rather than something that needs to be normalized when it’s mapped onto English. What’s weird about the author’s style that’s intentional and distinct from the trappings of the language the author writes in.

Secondly, not many people feel comfortable translating ambiguously. So many times an editor—who is basically just doing his/her job—will ask a translator, “what exactly does this mean?” with the expectation that the translator will be able to parse a particular sentence. Sometimes that’s the case, and once the translator explains the line in question, both parties realize that switching one word or reversing one phrase makes everything click. But again, what if the author was trying to do something strange and non-normal in his/her writing that, taken in the aggregate, points to a larger philosophical belief? When are you normalizing the larger idea out of the text?

Which brings us to:

2) Translators and editors need to be great readers.

I don’t want to go full Venuti here,4 but it’s crucial that anyone undertaking a translation have a justifiable read on the book’s overall style. Almost every pitch letter we (being Open Letter) receive deals with what a book is about. It’s important because it’s the first book from XXXX to deal with women’s issues during the reign of YYYY. It’s a book that should be translated because nothing from ZZZZ has ever been translated into English.

All of these reasons for translating a book—or reading one—are totally fine. But they also don’t even brush up against the idea of what makes that book unique. These are structural things based in meaning; books that last are books that are stylistically unique and convey their larger ideas in a way that is inimitable. A pitch letter detailing how a particular author employs language in a strikingly unique fashion is much more likely to make it through our editorial process than one that emphasizes the social issues present in a novel.

That said, it’s terrifying to translate or edit a book on this basis. I don’t think many people who read are all that keyed into these ideas of language and structure. Some are, sure, but they are in the minority. Reading Parks’s book just reminded me over and over how stupid I am about interpreting and understanding books. It’s much, much easier to read for visceral pleasure. To take oddities as odd and just jam them into your cognitive schemas, scraping books for general ideas and momentary pleasure before moving on to the next book/Netflix show/album/political kerfuffle. Being able to break down a text on such a detailed level (“the lack of a direct object in this sentence is related to the author’s general approach of how boxes work on humans in general, unspecified ways, which then becomes a core part of his writing style”) requires more self-confidence and concentration than most people are capable of.5

Editing a book brings with it a basket of neuroses. Getting things “into English” might be the smartest way to find people interested in reading and buying a book, but might fuck that author’s chances of being known as a Beckett-level stylist forever.6 We all tend to normalize. This doesn’t mean whitewashing every instance of the foreign (like changing place names and fashions), but on a more syntactical level, translators and editors want things to “sound right.”

I am super guilty of this at our weekly translation workshops. Partially this is due to the fact that I’m just tired of everything—I feel old and like literature doesn’t really matter in the end—and also because I find it hard to understand an individualized style based on three pages of a novel that I’m reading for the first time. In my defense, when a book is sufficiently weird (re: written in an interesting style), I glom on to it and we try and publish it.

But way too frequently, I rip on something for “not being in English.” About 75% of the time that’s because the translation is sloppy—an event that happened without a terrible amount of thought during the execution—and the rest of the time it’s because I have an idea of how English can be written and I want the book being translated to fit into that.7

Sometimes that’s pretty minor—a type of phrasing that is a frequent translation issue, or a word choice—other times it’s much larger—the overall voice. Either way, I have a frame that the book needs to fit into. And as weirdly as my frame might be bent, it’s not absolutely forgiving.

This sentiment is what’s behind translators’ laments that editors tend to “smooth out” their translation. Lawrence Venuti wrote a long, sort of diatribe about this in relation to his translation of Melissa P.‘s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed. His piece frequently focuses on specific word choices and fashions that the editor “normalized” according to her belief in how this character would “talk” in English:

My editor thought otherwise. I had to use “beautiful” instead of “lovely,” since “American teenagers generally don’t use this word to describe things.” Likewise “pants” instead of “trousers,” “crying” instead of “weeping,” “totally” instead of “utterly.” Archaisms provoked disagreement, even in a Gothic sex dream in which the cold enters the “finestrello” (embrasure) of the castle cell where Melissa lies naked, and she smells her “umori” (humors) on her monkish companion’s face. Ethnic dialects were out. For the “sugo” on the spaghetti eaten by Melissa and her parents I chose “gravy” precisely because the word is Italian-American for this meal. It was changed to “sauce.”

Occasionally my choices met with obtuseness. “Some people have plans that are linear and orderly,” Melissa is told at an orgy, “while others prefer a rococo caprice.” That curious phrase is my calque of the Italian (“un capriccio rococò”). My editor judged it “so obscure as to be meaningless,” so she consulted colleagues at Grove/Atlantic, who concurred. Yet Melissa is simply using an art historical metaphor to distinguish between conventional sex and kinkiness. Amazing that a publisher of erotic classics doesn’t employ editors who could get the point.

Venuti’s piece can be a bit aggressive, and I’m not sure I personally always agree with him, but he’s not alone in making complaints of this sort. Gather a group of experienced translators together and give them a bottle (or three) of wine, and you’ll hear about all sorts of egregious “fixes” that editors made to their translations—frequently at the expense of an author’s unique style, which is then subsumed into the dominant mode of contemporary American writing.8

Defenses can be made for the actions of these editors (this is a book that’s being sold to an American audience, and most of publishing is a business first, concerned with sales, not aesthetic advances), and there should be a healthy conversation between and editor and a translator, but one idea related to this has stuck with me for more than a decade: When an American writer does something strange with language, editors and critics are much more likely to praise this as innovative or progressive or new; when a translation twists the usual sentence structure or phrasings, it’s assumed that this is a problem with the translation, that the text hasn’t made it all the way over yet.

This is an idea that I’m definitely going to pick up in future posts.

3) Do contemporary authors write in styles that will be philosophically and linguistically meaningful 80 years from now?

This is a question that can’t possibly be answered either in this post, or at this time. If we could somehow transport ourselves to the year 2100 and look back on the books that came out from 2005-2015 to evaluate what stylistic quirks and philosophical-aesthetic advances changed the way we thought about literature and the way writers wrote, who would we focus on?

Again, there’s obviously no way to evaluate this, since it’s impossible to predict literary trends in advance, but at the same time, for me, there aren’t that many people who come to mind who will be studied rigorously, with their prose painstakingly analyzed in the way that Parks did with D. H. Lawrence or Henry Green.

One complicating reason is that the books that will last for the next 80 years will likely need to be popular right now. New York Review Books Classics and Dalkey Archive (along with Melville House to a lesser degree and a handful of others) have spent decades rediscovering major books that have been out-of-print, generally unavailable to readers for years and years. Books like Stoner by John Williams, or the aforementioned works of Henry Green. Not that long ago, Dalkey “rediscovered” the early works of Carlos Fuentes—while he was still alive and actively writing. Given the publishing landscape, it’s much easier to envision stylistically innovative works having to be rediscovered by a future press interested in preserving literary history, than it is to imagine these books staying in print and influencing writers and readers in such a pervasive way. That doesn’t necessarily preclude these writers from developing a cult readership and exerting a significant impact on the literary world, but it sure does make it more difficult.

There are a number of popular literary writers of the moment who might have their works survive until that period of time, but I’m not personally certain that they’re doing anything stylistically unique—at least not on a world-changing level. That may not be possible anymore, given the democratic—and ever-expanding—nature of today’s publishing scene; that may not be something that writers are as interested in. (At least not the ones with large enough sales to have a big enough platform to talk about this.) Without using a lot of examples, and really digging into this, I’m 100% sure that I’m going to say some stupid shit, but my impression is that the American authors we think of as the most literary and/or important are doing more in the realm of representing traditionally underrepresented (or completely absent) voices and addressing major social issues, than they are in terms of altering the shape of writing on a sentence-by-sentence, stylistic level. Writers like Claudia Rankine and Roxane Gay immediately come to mind, along with Maggie Nelson and Chris Krause. There are counterexamples, obviously, and there are authors like Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders, who may or may not be all that influential in 80 years and who, it could be argued, are masters because they distilled the lessons of preexisting writerly techniques (at the moment in which audiences craved those distillations), rather than inventing something totally new.

And while I’m saying random shit, by contrast, it seems like at least some of the big names writing in languages other than English (Knausgaard and Marías, Ferrante much less so) are much more focused on style and form. There are social issues in the background of all of these books, sure, but what makes a Marías book unique are his long, mannered sentences that progress by a sort of one-step-forward-two-steps-sideways fashion.

Again, I’m way over my head here, and pretty definitely wrong in this general assessment. But the idea of style and how it’s represented in contemporary fiction—from English and elsewhere—is something I’m sure I’m going to pick up again in future posts. Especially how these styles play against the business of books, and how they come through (or don’t) in translation. And I’m going to start down this path next week by looking at Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay.

1 The first is from Google, the second from Translating Style. I think “descend sweet sunsets,” “fertile earth,” “vigorous and hard-working people”—all from Google—are better than the version Parks used. Both are garbage, obviously, but still.

2 Who hasn’t put things through Google Translate for a cheap laugh?

3 Just to give an example, in the section on Samuel Beckett, the Italian translations totally lack the rhythm and pointed attention to language present in the English (and French) versions. So instead of getting the sort of playful linguistic humor evident in Murphy, Italian readers get a pure bleakness. But this sort of play is what Beckett aimed for—ramping it up in the French versions—and is a key element underlying his whole literary career. Trying to capture the meaning at the expense of the style basically kills Beckett’s prose for Italian readers. It’s just bleak, not bleakly funny. (All of this is based on Translating Style. I read zero Italian and know nothing of what contemporary Italian readers think of Beckett. But the examples in the book are pretty convincing.)

4 The incredibly famous and influential translation studies theorist and writer Lawrence Venuti gave a speech at an American Literary Translators Association conference a number of years back in which he argued that everyone involved in the translation process—editors, translators, etc.—needed to be familiar with the literary history of whatever country a book is coming from, along with the history of translation theory. Basically, he set forth a sort of ideal in which publishers and translators knew as much as possible about the context for every project they embarked upon—a really idealistic and admirable situation, but one that’s also 100% impractical.

5 All the math in the footnotes . . . So, let’s say you’re translating a 300-page novel. You’ll get paid approximately $9,000 for that. How much of your year does $9,000 pay for? Depending on where you live, this can vary wildly, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that everyone should earn at least $41,600 a year or $20/hour. (Yeah, whatever.) That means that you have about two and a half months in which to translate this book. That’s four pages a day, which, at first blush, sounds totally doable, and probably is, but not necessarily if you want to read the book two three times so that you can figure out what exactly makes this book’s language work and then replicate it. And that two and a half months includes no time for arguing with your editor about specific phrases.

This isn’t to say that translators don’t do an amazing job—they do, hands down—but by necessity, there’s a lot of slippage. Phrases that could be illuminating in their awkwardness get rendered into “normal” English, by fault of the translator and editor. And what do we miss out on? Everything, maybe.

6 Thirlwell occasionally argues in The Delighted States that even bad translations tend to capture the overreaching style at the expense of other literary aspects. I think that’s maybe true with classics but only because they became classics. It isn’t possible to read the average literary novel translated in 2017 in this way.

7 If you stick with me through this book or series of unpublishable essays because they are neither interesting nor have anything intriguing to say or, rather, blog posts that will dissolve into the ether by the end of the year, this core idea will come up about seven hundred times.

8 The more a translation sounds like it was written for an American audience, by an American writer, the better chance it has of selling. At least that’s one working theory.

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