Saturday, March 16, 2013

McSweeney's 42

Edited by Adam Thirlwell

I'm not often let down by an edition of McSweeney's - while there are often stories or other pieces that I don't like, there are always just as many, if not more, that I enjoy.

This latest volume, Issue 42, is one of the more experimental editions of the long-running literary quarterly.  The premise behind it is that twelve stories, originally all written in languages other than English, have been translated and translated again.  The original is sent to one translator, who writes his or her translation in one language.  That story is now sent to another writer/translator, to be put into another language (English more often than not - every second translation is always in English), with the end result being a story that is both markedly different, and remarkably similar, once it's reached the end of the chain.

It's a good idea.  I've often wondered, when reading favourite authors like Kafka, Borges, or Bolaño, how much of what I'm reading is provided by the translator, and how much is original (I speak no other language well enough to read books outside of English).  I think the problem with this book was threefold though.

Firstly, reading a couple of versions of the same story in quick succession, or in proximity to one another made faithful translations rather dull.  Sometimes it really felt like reading the same story twice in a row.  When drastic changes were made, there was a sense of liberty that wouldn't have been there without the other, less thrilling translations being slogged through, but still.

Secondly, I see some fault with the choices of original stories.  I get it that editor Adam Thirlwell needed stories from established and well-known writers that weren't themselves well-known, and that were short, but a lot of the originals were a little too pensive, philosophical, and kind of dry.  I would have loved to have seen this type of experiment performed on a short crime story, or something with a little more drama to it.

Thirdly, I hated the design of the book.  A big part of the thrill of each new issue of McSweeney's is seeing how the book itself is constructed, but this one had some problems.  When you look at the picture above, it's important to note that the blue parts of the cover are constructed out of standard matte cover stock.  The yellow or buff part of the book is constructed out of a sturdy textured cardstock.  The white, final third of the cover is just interior paper, fully exposed to the elements, fingertips, and prone to folding, especially on the back.  I like to keep these books neat, and this, coupled with the extra-wide format, difficult.

Anyway, I don't want to completely trash this book.  It was an interesting experiment, and I enjoyed reading some of the translators' notes about how they approached the task.  I especially like the Icelandic writer, Sjón, who doesn't speak any English, who had his high-school aged son read the story, and then tell him about it many days later.  He just transcribed that story from memory, making it very different from the original (or so I assume, not speaking Icelandic).  In the final analysis, this type of project is deserving of thought and praise, if not really a complete reading.

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