April 11, 2013

Ode to IMPAC Dublin and Translations


Five out of ten of this year’s shortlist nominees for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award are published in translation.

Five out of ten of this year’s shortlist nominees for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, often billed as “the world’s richest literary award,” but more precisely the world’s richest literary award for a single novel published in English, which richness must set the hearts of the authors announced on the award’s website to pounding, are published in translation.

Fans of the delayed gratification offered by German verbs at the ends of long sentences might enjoy that lede, but few others will. That’s because it’s badly written. I tried to make it seem like a good hearty German sentence, like the first sentence of The Metamorphosis: “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.” The punch comes at the end, with that transformative word “verwandelt.” It’s notoriously difficult to translate. English and German (like other languages) have each their separate and subtle magics, and replicating the magic is a challenge that’s difficult to surmount.

That’s perhaps why it’s so rare that any major literary prize, attempting to honor the best literature published in a given year, will recognize a work in translation, especially in so signal a way as to select a shortlist half of whose titles were translated.

But the IMPAC Dublin award has long been a stanch supporter of works in translation. A look at the names of past judges hints at why, peppered as it is with unorthodox letter pairings and exotic (to American eyes, at least) diacritics. And perhaps the quirky public librarians who nominate titles for the extensive longlist have something to do with it. But this year takes the cake. As Dublin City Librarian Margaret Hayes notes in the shortlist announcement, “this is the highest number of books in translation on the shortlist since the award began.”

Given that the IMPAC’s shortlist has historically represented works in translation well, that’s already notable (and not just on the shortlists, either; about 40 percent of the winning titles over the prize’s lifespan weren’t originally written in English).

This is a welcome turn after the past two years. In 2011 not a single translated title made it to the shortlist, as John Self grieved in The Guardian, and in 2012 only two shortlistees were translations (neither won). Now there’s even odds that a translated book will win the prize.

I’m a fan of translation.

Gustav Mahler is my favorite composer. While he was rehearsing his Eighth Symphony for its premiere in Munich, he told a young assistant by the name of Otto Klemperer, “If, after my death, something doesn’t sound right, then change it. You have not only a right but a duty to do so.” What a philosophy! An author saying his work can be fixed once he’s gone. That’s why I love Mahler (also, you know, because of his Eighth Symphony).

That philosophy is present in the relationship between Marcel Proust’s first poem and its translation by Richard Howard, which we posted about a few weeks ago. Proust’s original begins,

Si j’avais un gros sac d’argent d’or ou de cuivre / Avec un peu de nerf aux reins lèvres ou mains / Laissant ma vanité—cheval, sénat ou livre, / Je m’enfuirais là-bas, hier, ce soir ou demain….

The poem’s sentiments were, then, fresh and dangerous, but the language plain, the rhymes constraining, and everything repeats in threes. Howard’s translation gives the poem liberty:

If I had money from a boundless mint / and sinew enough in hands, lips, loins, / I’d shun the vanity of politics and print, / and leave—tomorrow? No, tonight!—for lawns / luminous with artificial green / (without the rustic flaws of frost and vermin), / where I’d forever be sleeping with one / warm child or other: François? Firmin? . . .

Even if I could really read the French well, in this case I’m not sure I’d want to, the translation exceeds the original, in part because it’s unbound from it.

And that’s a final reason why I love translation, and why it’s so remarkable that the 2013 IMPAC judges are loving it in this way too. Translations are not just about extending a reader’s capacity to experience other cultures (though that’s important), and not just about giving expression to a planet’s less imperial voices (also important), but about giving art a life of its own, releasing even novels—that intimate form—from the limited perspectives of their original creators.

It might be true that no translation can improve on some originals, for Franz Kafka or James Joyce or J.K. Rowling’s (how to translate “Dumbledore,” with its consummately clumsy phonemes and its far off hints at the humble, humming bee?); some will argue that a translation will tear a faultless house of words apart. And yet, I’d bet (with Izumi Shikibu and her translator Jane Hirshfield) that

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

As a reader, I am glad the IMPAC Dublin award is bold enough to honor translations. I don’t care so much if any of the translations end up winning high prestige or 100,000 euros; making the shortlist means they’ll find more readers. “Compared to this, all honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.”


Jay McNair is an intern at Melville House.