Likes of the Future Are Shaped by Likes of the Past

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

Two years ago, Yale University Press released The Dirty Dust, Alan Titley’s translation of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, a supposedly “untranslatable” masterpiece of Irish literature. This past year, Yale released Graveyard Clay, Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson’s translation of this same book. We’ll get into how unusual that situation is—and some of the thinking behind it—below, but first, here are a series of quotes from the two books, sometimes with the Titley coming first, sometimes the Iomaire and Robinson. As you read these, see if you can figure out which ones are from the same translation, and, more to the larger point of this post, see if there’s one that you’d prefer to read over the other.

Just to give you a quick bit of background, this novel takes place among the dead in a graveyard. Caitriona—a grumpy gossip—has just died, and spends most of the book complaining about her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law’s mother, about her own sister, about how it’s taking so long for her son to put a fancy cross on her grave, about everyone’s gossip about her, about whatever she can seize on. Her rants are surrounded by the gossip and wild stories of a dozen other characters, which come to the reader in bits and pieces, rarely in a straightforward, linear fashion. This really is a cacophony of voices, and, appropriately enough, given the setting, is incredibly claustrophobic. Voices pile on voices, there are few markers as to who is speaking, and the various motifs that drift in and out can be tricky to parse.

Anyway, here are some random snippets that capture the spirit of the book—and the approach of the two translations:

The children are no help to him, Muraed, apart from the eldest scamp, who’s a blackguard . . . Why wouldn’t he be! Taking after his grandfather, his namesake Big Brian, the ugly streak of misery.

He can’t do anything for the kids, Maggie, except for the eldest fucker and he’s a bollocks . . . that might be the case alright . . . Like his grandfather, same name Big Blotchy Brian, a total asshole.

—I hope he lies and never rises! I hope he gets the thirty-seven diseases of the Ark! I hope all his tubes get glutted and his bunghole stuffed! That he gets a clubfoot and a twisted gut! The Ulster flies! The yellow bellies! The plague of Lazarus! Job’s jitters! Swine snots! Lock arse! Drippy disease, flatulent farts, wobbly warbles, wriggly wireworm, slanty eyes, and the shitty scutters! May he get the death rattle of Slimwaist Big Bum! The decrepit diseases of the Hag of Beare! May he be blinded without a glimmer and be gouged like Oisín after that! The Itch of the Women of the Prophet! His knees explode! His rump redden with rubenescence! Be lanced by lice! . . .

—May his lying be long and without relief! The thirty-seven diseases of the Ark on him! Hardening of the tubes and stoppage on him! Graveyard club-foot and crossed bowel on him! May the pangs of labour consume him! May the Yellow Plague consume him! May the Plague of Lazarus consume him! May the Lamentations of Job consume him! May swine-fever consume him! May his arse be knotted! May cattle-pine, bog lameness1, warbles, wireworm, haw and stagger consume him! May the squelching of Keelin daughter of Olltár consume him! May the Hag of Beare’s diseases of old age consume him! Blinding without light on him, and the blinding of Ossian on top of that! May the itch of the Prophet’s women consume him! Swelling of knees on him! The red tracks of a tail-band2 on him! The sting of fleas on him! . . .

—May you be seven thousand times cursed tonight and tomorrow and a year from tomorrow, you Communist you, you Fascist, Nazi, atheist, spawn of the red Antichrists, you perfect pustule of the plebeian pricks, you dirty dregs of the dingy damned, you fester of fever, you fly’s fart, you maggot’s mickey, you earthworm’s slime, you belching bollocks that even frightened death himself so he had to send you a disease in the end, you muck muppet, you clap of crap, you rusty wreck of a useless git! . . .

—My seven cries of curses on you, tonight and tomorrow and a year from tomorrow, you Communist, you Fascist, you Nazi, you heretic, you red-haired Antichrist, you right mouthful of vulgar-blood, you putrid dregs of rustic table attendants, you remnant of disease, you leavings of fly, maggot and earthworm, you lifeless wretch who frightened death himself till he had to put a bad sickness on you, you worthless creature, you useless boor, you red ruffian . . .

I am the Trump of the Graveyard. Let my voice be heard! It must be heard . . .

Here in the Graveyard the spectre of Insensibility is violating coffins, grubbing up corpses and kneading the decayed flesh in his cold earth-oven. He cares nothing for cheek of sunlight, fairness of complexion or the pearly teeth that are the maiden’s pride.

I am the Trumpet of the Graveyard. Hearken unto me! Hearken to what I have to say . . .

Here in the graveyard the monster of Unfeeling is chewing coffins, hacking cadavers, and kneading the refined flesh into one great oven of cold earth. He cares not for the sunlit cheek, or for blonde beauty, or for the flashy smile which is the pride of a young woman.

“I wouldn’t marry you, you rotten poop, even if cobwebs grew out of me for want of a man,” I said.

“I wouldn’t marry you, you ugly streak of misery, if I was covered in green scum for the want of a man,” says I . . .

I’m pretty sure that if you read these carefully, you can figure out which ones are from the same translation. For those keeping score, numbers 2, 1, 1, 2, 1 are all from Titley, and 1, 2, 2, 1, 2 are from Iomaire and Robinson. The Titley snippets are marked by vulgarity (“rotten poop,” “eldest fucker”), a lot more alliteration (“you perfect pustule of the plebeian pricks, you dirty dregs of the dingy damned, you fester of fever, you fly’s fart, you maggot’s mickey”), a slightly more manic style within the various lists (“The yellow bellies! The plague of Lazarus! Job’s jitters! Swine snots! Lock arse!”), and, in general, a more colloquial feel (“a total asshole” vs. “the ugly streak of misery”). In the words of Yale University Press director John Donatich, Titley translated with an eye to capturing the energy of the novel, whereas Iomaire and Robinson treated the original text with more reverence.

What’s even more interesting is just how aware the different translators were of their approach. Here’s Titley in his introduction:

The challenge was to get some of the tone and vivacity of the original across without seeming too bizarre. English is a much standarised language with a wonderful and buzzing demotic lurking beneath. I tried to match the original Irish common speech with the familiar versions of demotic English that we know, mixing and mashing as necessary, and even inventing when required. But slang is always a trap. The more hip you are, the sooner you die. [. . .]

Ultimately, as we know, there is no easy equivalence between languages. It is not the meaning itself which is the problem but the tone, and feel, and echo. I have no idea whether this works or not in this translation. It may do so for some, and not for others. [. . .]

I have taken some liberties with this translation, but not many. [. . .] There was always a tradition in translation in Ireland of taking some freedoms, and it would have been untraditional of me not to do likewise.

That approach is a long way from what Iomaire and Robinson proclaim in their intro:

Our aim in this translation is modest: to give the Anglophone reader the most accurate answer we can provide to the question, What is in this book? There is ample space in the shadow of Ó Cadhain for “versions,” subjective interpretations, radical transpositions into other settings and periods, even parodies; these things will follow. But, be faithful to Ó Cadhain has been our first commandment. This of course involves much more than word-for-word equivalence. In English the words are often lacking. [. . .]

Hence the basis of our translation was produced by Liam [Mac Con Iomaire], and then the two of us worked through it repeatedly, almost phrase by phrase. In searching for the English words that would most clearly convey Ó Cadhain’s meaning, we have tried to avoid flattening out his extravagances, his anarchic wit, his otherness, his sheer strangeness.

In case you have any questions about how Iomaire and Robinson feel about the Titley translation, they also include this little dig:

The Dirty Dust is Alan Titley’s version of Cré na Cille, published by Yale University Press in 2015 in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series, which treats especially of previously overlooked works of cultural and artistic significance. Initial enthusiasm regarding access to the narrative may ultimately be tempered by a more guarded analysis of the translation’s “free-wheeling” nature in general and a markedly creative interpretation of the text’s “rich and savage demotic base” in particular.

Before going any further into the differences between these translations, why a reader might prefer one version over the other, and the translation of humor and translation (or non translation) of humourous books, it’s worth taking a second to talk about why Yale published two versions of the same book in the first place.


Always level-headed, always thoughtful, John Donatich told my World Literature and Translation class a bunch of interesting things about this book when he Skyped in with us last week. In no particular order:

  • He first heard about this book decades ago when he was working for a corporate publisher who wanted to get the rights to Cré na Cille. Although the book had the reputation of being an “untranslatable masterpiece,” the real stumbling block to producing an English version was that the Irish publisher was a hardcore nationalist and didn’t want it to be translated. If you wanted to experience this great piece of literature, you had to learn Irish.3
  • Yale hosted a couple events featuring the three translators—and let them argue it out. That’s admirable and sounds so much more interesting that a normal reading. If recordings of these exist, I’ll post them as soon as I find them.
  • He was only willing to publish both translations of the book because they were so different. Had they not taken such different approaches—with such different results—it’s highly unlikely Yale would’ve gone ahead with this experiment.
  • The two editions of this book are the second and third best-selling titles in the Margellos series behind Patrick Modiano’s Suspended Sentences.4
  • The Titley version was published first to introduce readers to the energy and voice of the novel, whereas the Iomaire and Robinson is more intended for academics.

That last point gets to the heart of some of this, but again, before getting to that, getting to humor, getting to jokes and rants and energetic prose, I want to take a minute to talk about competing editions.


It’s difficult to overstate how radical and unusual Yale’s decision to publish two translations of the same book really is. This is not the norm. The norm is for one of the Big Five presses to commission a new translation (of a book that’s likely in public domain) and brand it as “definitive.” Or as more “faithful,” or “accurate,” “complete.” The new translation is generally done by a translator who has received a ton of plaudits, who is “known.”5

Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote is the “definitive translation of the Spanish masterpiece.” “Pevear and Volokhonsky have produced a translation true to [Tolstoy’s] powerful voice” with their rendition of Anna Karenina. In her “landmark translation” of Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis “honors the nuances and particulars of a style that has long beguiled readers of French, giving new life in English to the book that redefined the novel as an art form.” According to the publisher, by working with the author, scholarship, new reference works, etc., Breon Mitchell’s translation of The Tin Drum results in a work that is “more faithful to Grass’s style and rhythm, restores omissions, and reflects more fully the complexity of the original work.”

This should be obvious, but the basic marketing strategy of a publisher bringing out a new translation is to eliminate all competing editions by declaring that their version is the best/closest to the original/vastly superior/most accurate. You want your edition to be the only one available in bookstores. You want your edition to be the only one that professors are willing to teach.6

When I first heard that Yale was actually bringing out two versions of this novel, I figured the sales would tank. Readers already have myriad issues with the idea of reading works in translation—“it’s not the real book, so much is lost in translation!”—that forcing them, immediately, with no time for critics to pick apart the existent, first, translation, to choose version A or version B seems like it’s begging for readers to choose neither.

This was sort of what happened when I asked people on Facebook if they had an opinion about the two translations.7 Almost every person who responded said that they started reading the Titley, then felt like it was “too removed” from the original book, and then tried to read the Iomaire and Robinson, but then mostly didn’t.


Generally speaking, humans are pretty bad at making decisions. I’m a long time reader of books on behavioral economics, and if you’re not, I highly recommend checking out Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project. In a way, this is a spiritual follow-up to Moneyball, recounting the life and works of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—the two foremost chroniclers of fallacies in the way humans think.

I don’t want to summarize this book or recap the findings of behavioral economists as a whole (check out Priceless if you’re curious), but basically, Kahneman and Tversky research and write about the traps we fall into while making decisions. Things like heuristics and “confirmation bias,” which is all the post-Trump rage, and depicts the ways in which we overvalue data that supports our pre-existing ideas. They were also the first to write about “anchoring”—the way in which we are given a random number that shades future assumptions—and assumption dangers that come when you ignore the concept of “regressing to the mean.”

This is way oversimplifying and, again, future post, more material, but I only really wanted to bring this idea up now, in this particular post in this series, for one specific quote from Lewis’s book:

But these stories people told themselves were biased by the availability of the material used to construct them. “Images of the future are shaped by experience of the past,” they wrote, turning on its head Santayana’s famous lines about the importance of history: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. What people remember about the past, they suggested, is likely to warp their judgement of the future. “We often decide that an outcome is extremely unlikely or impossible, because we are unable to imagine any chain of events that could cause it to occur. The defect, often, is in our imaginations.”


As I told John Donatich, I prefer the Titley translation. It’s not perfect, and I frequently switched over to the Iomaire and Robinson for clarification, but I love vulgarity. Give me a book loaded with four-lettered insults and I’m generally in. Does that mean that the Titley is the objectively better translation? Well, no, probably not.

Going back to our conversation one last time, John mentioned how his relationship to various art works tended to evolve over time, implying—at least to me—that if one was to read both of these translations several times over a life, one might vacillate between the two. At one point, you might want wild; at a different point, reverence.

And this is the lesson that’s hard for people to swallow: your preferences are always present. We may use terminology about the “more faithful” translation, the one that captures the “style of the original” in a better way, but to be honest, that’s mostly bullshit and biases.

I acknowledge that this viewpoint is based in a sort of never-ending whirlwind of subjectivity, but a) I have doubts about how objective we are in our analyses, especially in terms of style and fiction, b) the worship of the “original text” is inherently flawed, and finally, c) we craft stories about why something is “good” based on how it fits into things we’ve liked in the past.


I have always liked humor. Generally the crass kind—and the ranting kind—but as an overall philosophy, I’ve felt like life is too short, too meaningless, not to enjoy it by laughing.

That doesn’t mean that I like shit like Friends.8 There are personalized ideas of humor . . . or comedy. Which is actually a worthy distinction—one that Julio Cortázar lays out in the forthcoming (in English translation at least) Literature Class:

For starters, as is the case with music in literature, nobody knows what humor is; there is often a somewhat dangerous confusion between humor and simple comicality. There are things that are comical but don’t contain what is inexpressible, indefinable, which real humor does. To give you a very simple example from movies by two very well-known actors of our times: someone like Jerry Lewis is, for me, a comic, and someone like Woody Allen is a humorist. The difference is that Jerry Lewis is trying only to create situations that will make the audience laugh for a moment but will have no subsequent impact. Comics end with a joke, which are closed-circuit systems, very brief, and though this can be very beautiful and we’re fortunate they exist, in literature I don’t think they’ve had any important consequences. On the other hand, the comic effects that Woody Allen achieves at his best moments are full of a sensibility that goes way beyond the joke or the situation itself: they contain a critique, a satire, or a reference that can even be very dramatic, as can begin to be seen in his more recent movies. [. . .]

If we analyze the text containing that element of humor, the intention is almost always to desacralize, take something down a notch from some importance it might have, some prestige, take it off its pedestal. Humor is constantly swinging the scythe under all pedestals, all pedantry, all those words that are capitalized.

I’m down with this. When I think of the idea of “comedy,” I think of bad stand up, or sit-coms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Works that are meant to just be funny tend to be more staged, more focused on set-up and delivery. Works that are richer, of which the goal isn’t just a few laughs—maybe The Onion, or, in Cortázar’s case, Cronopios and Famas—tend to incorporate humor as one element within a larger scope.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is comic, is situational comedy, (minus the bits that include Jason Mantzoukas), is a bit with sort of tone, but not something you’ll ponder decades later while you’re peacefully dying at the age of 95.

Why are so few translations actually funny?

A couple of years ago, I tried to shit on the concept of the year-end list by creating a million of them. Best Books by European Women, Funniest Books, Best Books that Deserve a Second Read, Ten Books Flavorwire Won’t Feature, Fourteen Books that Received Zero Reviews, etc. The only list I had trouble creating was the one about humorous translations—those books are hard to come by.

I’ve heard people talk about the difficulties of translating humor before, generally focusing on the challenges of rendering jokes in English that are based in cultural stereotypes or references. The general thought is that the humor will get lost because the target audience has no clear understanding of what’s at play in the original. We don’t quite get French jokes about Belgians because we don’t have any pre-existing stereotypes about Belgians. (Well, not as many as the French?) As a result, a lot of jokes that play with specific stereotypes or cultural norms fall flat, and a book that’s supposed to be funny just sounds wooden.

David Bellos writes against this in his wonderful Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, arguing that you can frequently find good matches for jokes across cultures. That a translator can figure out the conditions at work in the joke that make it funny, and then reconstruct them in a way that retains those conditions, even if the specific targets of the joke have changed.

In reference to a “jump for Stalin” joke9, he has this to say

Provided the two general conditions given above can be met [the idea that “thinking about your family” means both provide support and provide protection, and that evil rulers punish disobedient people through their families], the jump-for-Stalin joke can be rejiggered to fit a wide variety of other historical and geographical locales in the same language or any other, and still be the same joke. There are very many transportable, rewritable joke patterns of that kind—including those politically incorrect ethnic disparagements of near neighbors that you hear in structurally identical form when the French talk about Belgians, Swedes about Finns, the English about the Irish, and so on.

Translating these kinds of circulating jokes means matching the pattern made by the interplay of presupposition and meaning that constitutes the point, and then rewriting all the rest to suit. An ability to recognize the match is not rare, and may be almost universal. But the the ability to find a good match is one that only some people have.

That’s one type of humor, and one approach to resolving it. But there are a lot of other types of funny: puns and wordplay, invective lists, a character’s strange and silly delusions about their self or the world, etc. Bellos defends the ability of translators to capture this sort of humor as well, but to be honest, I’ve never had any doubts as to the possibility of translating a funny book from whatever language into English. I’m personally more interested in why publishers don’t try to publishing more explicitly funny books.


This essay is getting long and unwieldy, so I’m going to try and pull together a few threads here and just lay them out without a ton of digressions, examples, caveats, etc.

Before writing this section, I tried to find some sort of proof that there really are a lack of funny translations coming out in English. I feel like this is true—anecdotally—but even though I enter hundreds of titles a year into the Translation Database, I don’t necessarily read every book, or even look at them all that carefully. That said, it feels like for every César Aira, there are twenty serious books about World War II.

So I did a couple Google searches. “Funniest books of 2016” leads to a ton of lists, including this list of the top ten humorous novels of the year, which lists ten books all written in English.

By contrast, a search for “funniest translations of 2016” leads to 7 Big Translation Fails of 2016. “Funniest international fiction of 2016” isn’t any better, nor was any other combination I could come up with. (Although I did find this list of funny Arabic works in translation on the Arabic Literature (in English) blog.)

If we accept that humor can be translated, then there must be another reason for this weird lack. Sales would be an obvious sort of explanation, but I’ve never actually heard a publisher say, “funny books just don’t sell” in the same way that they’re quick to dismiss poetry or short stories as unsalable categories of books.

But even if they don’t explicitly state it, I do think that there is an underlying belief that humorous books in translation just won’t find an audience. Not because they’re funny, or not funny, or too culturally specific, or too hard to translate, but because we’ve created a framework within which translations are meant to be serious.

From a reader’s standpoint, most of the early exposure to international works of literature takes the form of large, ambitious, serious novels. Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. Proust. There are funnier novels that readers are exposed to in high school or college—Candide for example, or Don Quixote—but these are still treated with a sort of reverence that can temper the sheer joy of reading them. We’re frequently taught that translations should be Great, Important Books.

Publishers tend to build upon this idea in their selection of books to translate, and, more importantly, how they’re marketed. There’s the ever-present idea that one should read literature in translation to “better understand a foreign culture.” Reading translations is like taking your medicine—you might not thoroughly enjoy it, but it’s good for you. (This idea even comes up in Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters.)

This is especially true when it comes to smaller houses—the ones who are doing the bulk of literature in translation. If they’re not doing genre books, they tend to look for high minded works of literary fiction that gather up a sort of importance by addressing societal or historical ills. This isn’t to fault publishers—if you’re going to invest the money and time into doing a book in translation, you want to do something that’s lasting, and more than just entertaining. And this ends up being reflected in the marketing of translations, with jacket copy emphasizing how a novel provides essential insight to a foreign culture, or represents that culture in a meaningful way. The books aren’t necessarily fun, but instead are great learning opportunities.

Because we’ve been conditioned to think this way, we expect translations to be serious and thoughtful, foreign in a way that’s complicated, cultured, and challenging. There’s a reason that Yale believe Graveyard Clay with its footnotes, its Irish names, its lengthy critical introduction, and its assertion that it is more “faithful” to the original, is the version of this book that will be more widely adopted by academics. That’s what a translation should be: deferent to the original text, which it treats seriously, allowing a bit of insight into a different literary culture.

That’s what we expect from foreign books. I can’t count the number of times this sort of impression has come up in conversation: “I would bring the new Krasznahorkai with me on my trip, but I can only read things that are fun while traveling.” “I need to find the time to dig into the new Open Letter title—these books require more concentration.” Because of all this, I think the industry has created a self-fulfilling prophecy that favors “serious” works of translation, and that, as a result, we read translations with this in mind, reframing them to fit our pre-existing belief that these sorts of books are somehow more meaningful and staid. Or, another way to put it, we don’t value the humor found in international literature to the same degree that we tend to value the insights into other lives and cultures that we seek out in these books.

One last note: Dalkey Archive has traditionally done a great job of publishing books in translation that contain a lot of humor.10 These books tend to be of the very dark, self-deprecating, my-life-didn’t-turn-out-how-I-wanted variety, but also includes a lot of works whose humor is based in the voice of the characters, the strange turns of phrase that unveil the odd inner workings of a character’s mind. It would be interesting to trace how these books are received, and how often the humor is downplayed in favor of discussing the book’s cultural significance.

1 This is footnoted in the actual book with: “Aphosphorosis. Phosphate deficiency causing lameness in cattle.”

2 Also footnoted in the original: “A strap passing under a horse’s or donkey’s tail.”

3 Even as a translation advocate, there’s something about this viewpoint that inherently appeals to me. Admittedly, it’s rare for me to come across a “fuck you” that I don’t like.

4 Open Letter has yet to have a book sell as many copies as either version of Cré na Cille. In fact, our total sales for all our books combined, is just barely more than the number of copies Yale sold of the Modiano. Hearing other publisher’s sales can really put one’s life into perspective. To be completely honest, I don’t know of a single press our size/reputation that doesn’t have at least one book that far outpaces our top selling books. This is why I drink and write rambling essays about humor. Because if you can’t laugh, right?

5 How these translators build their reputation and how their translations are evaluated after their reputation is solidified are questions for another post.

6 The how and why this happens is, again, material for another post. One that can probably be summed up by saying: money + reputation + penetration = victory. Whether or not a new translation is objectively “better” is so irrelevant. As long as you can force something down the consumer’s throat—like Sam Tanenhaus did with the Pevear and Volokhonsky version of War and Peace—you’re fine. To be honest, the general reader won’t notice the difference between a translation that’s a 4 out of 10 in quality, and one that’s a 8 out of 10. At least in terms of sales. Again, material. Another post.

7 Yes, I know that a Facebook poll of 14 people is not statistically significant, or even just significant. But this anecdote makes sense within the context of the title of this post, which I will get to, I promise.

8 I recently tried rewatching the episode with the stoned Jon Lovitz, which, in my memory, was one of the only hysterical episodes of Friends, and felt like the whole thing was torture. How was this ever popular? Don’t answer that.

9 The joke: Stalin and Roosevelt had an argument about whose bodyguards were more loyal and ordered them to jump out of the window on the fifteenth floor. Roosevelt’s bodyguard flatly refused to jump, saying, “I’m thinking about the future of my family.” Stalin’s bodyguard, however, jumped out of the window and fell to his death. Roosevelt was taken aback.

“Tell me, why did your man do that?” he asked.

Stalin lit his pipe and replied: “He was thinking about the future of his family, too.”

10 A short list of funny authors from Dalkey: Svetislav Basara, Lydie Salvayre, Louis Paul Boon, Jean Echenoz, Gert Jonke, Raymond Queneau, Stig Sæterbakken, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Dubrakva Ugresic, and Boris Vian.

In terms of funny authors we’ve published, Quim Monzo, Ilf and Petrov, Jerzy Pilch, Bragi Ólafsson, and Ror Wolf all come to mind.

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