The Lydia Davis Symposium, Spring 2014
Lydia Davis in conversation with Dan Gunn
Dan Gunn: There is a passage in Proust’s novel that I’ve always enjoyed and admired; whenever I re-read it, I’m made to think of your work. The narrator has boarded the train for Balbec (in Noms de pays: le pays / Place-Names: The Place), and because he is so anxious he has been given some alcohol to soothe his nerves. This causes him to experience the journey through the perception of one who is tipsy for the first time. He writes, summarizing this experience but summarizing also what he will learn from the artist Elstir and from Impressionism more generally when he reaches Balbec, that he has had to learn to present events “in the order of our perception of them, instead of first explaining them in relation to their several causes.” I find that this recommendation seems to have been followed in a lot of your work. To take just two examples, of stories that are quotable in their entirety because they are so short, first, “Insomnia”:
My body aches so—
It must be this heavy bed pressing up against me.
And then “Hand” (both stories come from your 2007 collection Varieties of Disturbance):
Beyond the hand holding this book that I’m reading, I see another hand lying idle and slightly out of focus—my extra hand.
LD: Yes, I do like to confront an object, an experience, directly and immediately, often accepting my first impression, as in your examples above, and allowing that to remain the explanation or statement about the thing, rather than labeling that impression, explaining it away, rejecting it. The impression itself has a certain validity, even if it isn’t “true.” It also has a certain naive purity—unclouded by prior knowledge or subsequent reasoning. I don’t mind if it is somewhat absurd—I like to be able to look at things in a different way.
But since you start by quoting Proust, whom I’ve translated, it occurs to me that you are also describing the way I translate—certain texts, anyway. I read the text a little at a time and translate that little bit very directly, as I read it, sometimes almost simultaneously. I do not pull back and consider the whole work, interpret the whole, “contextualize” it (I don’t like jargon, but that word is useful), form a prior opinion of “how” it should be translated, and certainly I don’t recast or rearrange the sentence more than necessary. I’m not saying this method of translating would work with all texts—it wouldn’t with most poetry, for instance, which needs a lot of reinvention in translation—but I think it works well for many works of fiction.
DG: Proust’s narrator deduces that, to convey the priority of sense-impressions over pre-formulated conclusions, he needs to write à la Dostoevsky. When I read your work I am, in fact, made to think less of Dostoevsky than of Kafka, and of the way in which the familiar becomes strange in his work—his story “Hands” for example, where his narrator’s two hands appear suddenly to be alien and potentially at war with one another. If one may provisionally call such writing “phenomenal,” do you feel that part of your own work which is “phenomenal” to be working within a tradition? Or is it rather something that you developed privately and intuitively?
LD: I think influence is a complicated thing. I am influenced by a kind of writing because I am drawn to it, open to it. I am drawn to it because there is already an affinity between my own sensibility and sense of formal structure and those of the author I am reading or studying. I would not be influenced by a writer alien to me. I really see an ongoing process that starts in earliest childhood. The very first picture books and nursery rhymes have their effect, as do songs and the lyrics of songs. My sensibility as a child is affected by these and then my changing sensibility and sense of structure show in my writings, even the stories written as assignments in grade school. And of course the influences of interactions with family and friends and teachers continue to have their effect.
I certainly read Kafka very closely and constantly for a few years—though I was reading many others at the same time, of course, like Hawthorne, Melville, Evelyn Waugh, R.L. Stevenson, Malamud, Dickens, Mary McCarthy, Poe, Emily Dickinson, James, and slews of mysteries. Something drew me to Kafka’s work, and in turn I’m sure I absorbed something of his sensibility and style. Clearly something drew me to Kafka more than to James, for instance—the spareness, the humility (whether assumed or real, or a combination), the bizarre imagination. He was interested in the possibility of two hands suddenly alien to each other; James’s interests lay elsewhere. For years I found James hard to read; I found that his prose left me no breathing room. Now I admire him. But the affinity still is not there.
DG: Several of the writers you mention, including Kafka of course, enjoy foregrounding in their work the obsessive workings of the psyche. One finds this in Beckett too: in his characters’ laborious use of mental arithmetic; in Molloy’s attempts to find an ideal way of rotating his sucking-stones. Several of your stories—I’m thinking for example of the title story of your first collection, “Break It Down,” or of “20 Sculptures in One Hour”—dramatize how the mind finds little satisfaction when it turns to systems to try to grasp experience. Could you talk about how obsessionality and perhaps the psychological more generally make their way into your stories, even though your stories do not deal in “characters” in the conventional sense?
LD: Well, the stories do all have characters, and in many of the stories the only events are unfolding inside a character’s mind, in fact. I suppose the way obsessionality works is—well, now I’ll start defining it, but the obsessive character simply goes farther than someone else might, in pursuit of an object, whether that object is understanding the mind of another character or, as in the stories you mention, calculating the expense of a love affair or calculating the time spent looking at each sculpture in an exhibit.
There is a joy in mathematical calculation, in itself—to use the examples of the stories you mentioned. I’ve always taking pleasure in math –math that I can do successfully, that is. I know that difficult math is frustrating. In my own school days, I did well in math—in fact, I’ve been looking at old school reports, and I did much better, consistently, in math than in English, even though an individual piece of writing might earn a high grade. Then I came up against a bad math teacher—so I’m told by my classmates, anyway; I thought I had reached the limit of my own ability—and could no longer understand what was being taught.
And to extrapolate from math itself and its pleasures, a precise and unambiguous answer being one of them, there is the beauty of pattern itself, that is, structure itself—symmetry, recurrence—whether in a piece of music, or in a piece of writing, or in an activity of daily life, such as the repeated motions of doing the dishes or folding the laundry. Musical structure can be mirrored in a piece of writing—a writer and editor friend, discussing an assigned piece of writing recently, suggested the sonata form: ABA, he said.
And yet, as you say, ultimately the obsessive pursuit of a system may not yield a satisfactory result for the character in a story. It is the pursuit itself that yields some satisfaction, but the supposed goal is still out of reach: reality is still intractable.
DG: Yes indeed. As Molloy concludes after pages of agonizing over how to distribute his sixteen sucking-stones through his four greatcoat pockets: “Deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end of time. For they all tasted exactly the same.”
What we’re terming here “obsessionality” seems, in the writers you’ve mentioned—in Beckett perhaps most obviously—to serve to keep the characters company. Do you think something similar is going on in your stories? I find that your characters are often painfully, humorously, at times beautifully divided, or plural, in their solitude or singularity. Among many other examples, I’m thinking of the story “Companion” (from Samuel Johnson is Indignant), which is again short enough for me to cite it in its entirety:
We are sitting here together, my digestion and I. I am reading a book and it is working away at the lunch I ate a little while ago.
And I’m thinking also of one of my very favorite of your stories, “Head, Heart” (from Varieties of Disturbance) in which the character is urgently—and in a manner that does put me in mind of Emily Dickinson whom you mention—trying to convince his/her head to help her/his heart.
LD: What an interesting observation—that obsessionality could be a form of company. I never thought of that. Or that regarding the different parts of one’s body as individual entities could create a group, which would provide a certain sort of (strange) companionship!
It is true that I tend to personify objects, and that this habit extends very naturally to regarding (not all the time, thank goodness, but some of the time) my hands as separate beings, or my feet, anything else that for a moment appears to be acting on its own initiative, even rebelling against me. I have another story about hands, in the forthcoming book, that is short enough to quote. It’s called “England” and it reads as follows:
My left hand keeps trying to type another e into the word “acknowledgment”—the British spelling—while my right hand keeps deleting it. Maybe my left hand grew up in England.
I also tend to personify things outside myself. My son pokes fun at me for that, though he also finds it contagious. I’ve done this since I was quite young—I remember walking in the woods by myself and feeling that the trees were conscious beings. I probably still feel that they are. This way of thinking may have been a result of the deep impression that certain children’s books made on me, for instance The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. Nowadays, I may even personify an inanimate object. But one result of this tendency is that in the case of a sentient creature, like an ant or even the dreaded mosquito, I can’t help feeling respect and compassion for it.
DG. It is precisely this dialogue between your protagonists and their parts and part-objects that is often so moving in your stories, I find; moving not least because the more a story advances the less clear it is who—or what—is exercising agency or (a semblance of) control. For me it is this tension between the immensity of your underlying subject—who or what in any individual is receptive to that individual’s will—and the extreme delicacy or fragility of the means of the subject’s conveyance that is at times breath-taking. The tension is palpable in the story about insomnia with which I began my questions, and it is present again in the final line of the wonderful “Head, Heart,” a line which runs: “Help, head. Help heart.” The entire story hangs (or falls) on the comma that infects the plea while revealing its limitations. I imagine that like any translator from French, which has a punctuation system deceptively similar to English—deceptive because superficially very similar, while being in fact governed by rather different rules and conventions—you have given a lot of thought to punctuation. Could I ask you to talk about punctuation in translation but also in and of your stories?
LD: Yes, I certainly have given a lot of thought to punctuation—not so much as I write, but as I read. It always amazes me that that little mark, almost the smallest we have—the comma—can change meaning so utterly. The period—the smallest—doesn’t have the same versatility. And with changes of meaning come changes of emotional burden and impact. As for the particular line which you quote, throughout the piece I’m working with quite a limited vocabulary anyway, and the whole is short. To me, it sounds as though it is influenced by Old English poetry, given the Anglo-Saxon words and the heavy alliteration. The first sentence in that last line—“Help, head”—is grammatically a command, and the comma signals that the speaker is addressing “head.” The removal of the comma, in the almost identical sentence that follows—“Help heart”—magically turns the second word into a direct object, while the first word is still a command. Because of the first sentence, we know that the speaker is still addressing “head.”
This was actually written as a poem—rarely the case, for me. It was also difficult for me, emotionally, and I chose to keep it private for a long time. I worked on it and then put it away.
As for punctuation in translation, the interesting problem for me was the punctuation, or lack of it, in Proust. When I was translating Swann’s Way, I did read a book about his style—an excellent one, in French, by Jean Milly—to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, but as I remember, it did not directly address punctuation per se. (I could be wrong about that.) At first, I punctuated my English version instinctively, not deliberately or consciously, as I always do, whether writing or translating. If I “feel” a comma or semi-colon or dash is called for, I put it down on the page, though I may well change it later. If I “feel” that a lot of punctuation is called for, or very little, I act on those feelings. But after a while, in translating Proust, I noticed how sparing he was with his punctuation and with his commas in particular. Since my aim already was to do a very close translation, I decided to see if I could match his punctuation as well, and omit commas that I might at first have thought were necessary, or that I would instinctively have included. This was an enjoyable exercise as well as informative. There is a definite difference in effect, of course, between retaining and omitting “optional” commas, for example. More generally, I would say that some writers are inclined to slow down the reading of a text by multiple delaying tactics (think of the almost constrictive semi-colons in Henry James; or the various disorienting and delaying punctuation in the prose of Mallarmé). But Proust tended to do the opposite, in this book anyway. I noticed, reading his letters at the time I was translating, that he would even omit the final period from a letter—as though he did not want to stop writing, or did not want to contain the material but allow it to fly out . . .
DG: I wonder if that missing full stop might be working a little like the umbrella one leaves behind in a psychoanalyst’s office, holding out the promise of something unfinished, of more to come . . . ?
I’d like to ask you more about the detailed texture of your stories, or more precisely about the way in which—and this seems to me to characterize your work—what for most writers remains as texture, for you steps into the foreground as substance or theme or problem. An example is the use you make of tenses. All writers have to work hard to use the right tense, of course, and translators know that there is no strict correspondence between one language’s use of tenses and another’s—French is a case in point. But rare is the writer who explores the way in which tenses and life (and death) are bound up with one another (an exception being Proust, again, not least in his marvelous essay on Flaubert’s use of tenses). Let me cite in its entirety a story (from Varieties of Disturbance) whose title, “Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room,” is longer than the story itself:
Your housekeeper has been Shelly.
There is something awfully tawdry in the commercial pretentions that hang behind this (presumed) quotation; but there is also a heart-wrenching pathos, when the sentence is slowed down as you require us to do with it. This reminds me of the pathos that you explore to such powerful effect in “Grammar Questions,” where the narrator wonders which pronoun to use of her dying—then dead—father, and of his body; which tense to use of the father’s final moments and his remains—
I will still say “my father,” but maybe I will say it only as long as he looks like my father, or approximately like my father. Then, when he is in the form of ashes, will I point to the ashes and say, “This is my father”? Or will I say, “That was my father”? Or “Those ashes were my father” Or “Those ashes are what was my father”?
Could I ask you to expand a little on how you view, as writer and as translator, the relation between grammar and being; and on how you learned to dare—I say “dare”because I do think it is a very risky procedure for a writer—to take the grammatical background and bring it into the foreground?
LD: To start with the last part of your question, I would say that I don’t really associate the ideas of risk and daring with what I do in my writing. I’ll have to think about whether in some larger sense there is risk involved in such a choice as to bring the grammar into the foreground. For me, the way the story came into being was fairly simple: I found myself questioning certain language choices in regard to the difficult emotional situation of a parent dying and then gone. Really, of course, what I was wrestling with was the age-old questions and quandaries: is this person, as he dies, really still a person? Are these ashes still a person? What happened to my father?
But I did not say to myself: I’ll write about these age-old questions obliquely, by questioning the grammar choices . . . although that is maybe what I was doing. I will always follow an impulse to write explicitly about a thing if it interests me, without asking myself “What are you really writing about?” or “Should you write about this?” In fact, it is dangerous to stop and ask much of anything at all, in the beginning of the process of writing a piece.
As I write a story, I am watching to see what my idea or impulse turns into, how it develops. Some pieces of writing that I embark on don’t succeed, of course. I haven’t been able to fulfill or develop the idea properly, or the idea itself was not interesting enough.
To get back to the continuing past tense in the hotel room, you are right that it is a quotation. It amused me because of the careful choice of tenses: it wasn’t that the “housekeeper” (a carefully chosen euphemism) was Shelly or is Shelly, but that she has been Shelly—she was in the past and continues to be in the present of the writing, in the present of her writing this sentence, which consisted actually of just filling in her name. And then, I liked her name—it’s one I don’t hear much, it isn’t exactly beautiful, but it’s nice as an adjective for a kind of beach, for instance. As for the pathos, yes, Shelly is a person in her own right—especially, I feel, because she was not made up.
The title was devised to provide just enough information to lead into or prepare for the text of the story, but I later realized more consciously what I was probably aware of unconsciously earlier on, that the associations of “past tense” and “hotel room” when taken together can be quite powerful. Many things happen and did happen in hotel rooms. As spaces of transitoriness they can be magical or devastating. They can be witness to despair or loneliness. One is away from home, and in neutral surroundings. And then Shelly becomes a sort of presiding spirit, herself also transitory, no doubt, over this space of temporary inhabitation. Now I’m conceptualizing freely—I would be paralyzed in my writing if I ever thought this way before I wrote something.
DG: When I spoke of risk, I was thinking about how a story, an object in language, when it takes language as its subject, can quickly become involuted, or else arch in a glibly “postmodern-playful” way; and of how your stories never do that. Rather, when I sense you quoting, as in the note about Shelly, I feel the world being revealed to me, rather as an objet trouvé can reveal. At times—and this is what I was aiming at in my opening question—this can lead almost to the sort of animism that fascinated Proust (whereby memory can be locked in an object that seems to have its own independent life). I find hints of this in several of the stories in your new collection, Can’t and Won’t. Here is one of them I particularly enjoyed, entitled “The Cornmeal”:
This morning, the bowl of hot cooked cornmeal set under a transparent plate and left there, has covered the underside of the plate with droplets of condensation: it, too, is taking action in its own little way.
I wonder if this wish to reveal the world acting “in its own little way,” untrammelled as it were by the narrator’s preconceptions, is linked to your propensity to withhold information that other writers would feel obliged to give. Take the example of places and place names. Sometimes you do summon a place by a proper name—“Brooklyn” for example, or “Los Angeles”—but often you seem purposefully not to designate a place or space. In the long story “The Walk” (from Varieties of Disturbance), the name of the setting is barely mentioned at the outset, yet the setting remains crucial.
LD: Whether I name or don’t name a place, to begin with your last example of specificity, depends, really, on whether the place, identified by name, is pertinent to the story or whether New York, say, could be any large city in the East, or even in the U.S. In the case of “The Walk,” in an earlier draft the town was not named. Then I began to feel that I was simply being coy, that the identity of the town would become obvious, if only because of references to the editor of the O.E.D., who had lived there and compiled a great part of the dictionary there, in his back yard. So I named it in the first sentence. I think naming or not naming is closely connected, for me, with my sense of the reader’s attention and the reader’s associations. Not naming Oxford would have become merely a distraction and an annoyance if it was very obvious what the place was—or at least it would have become a factor in a reader’s reaction to the story. But often, naming a place feels to me arbitrary and irrelevant, and in some cases it brings a reader’s associations into the story when I might not want them there. To name Los Angeles was necessary because it was important to the person who was dreaming the dream I was recounting.
But to go back to the first part of your question, I was glad to see that you used the word “animism” because I had just this morning read that word in connection with Swinburne, which made me think of another story in my new collection, one called “The Language of Things in the House,” which is a catalogue of the words or phrases that can be detected in the noises made by, say, a knife scraping a cutting board or the agitation of the washing machine. In that story, the domestic things all around one (along with a few birds outside the window) are speaking, are having a voice “in their own little ways.”
DG: So far we’ve been talking mostly about your stories that deal with what I might call—borrowing a term from Georges Perec—the “infraordinary.” But in all your five collections these stories are interspersed with others that could surely be called “extraordinary.” I’m thinking, for example, of “The Rape of the Tanuk Women,” or “My Husband and I” (which begins “My husband and I are Siamese twins”), or the long story “In a Northern Country” or the even longer “Lord Royston’s Tour.” Is it fair to ask if these stories of high adventure or fantastic deeds come from the same source (whether within you or not), and if they point in somewhat the same direction as those dealing with domesticity, with how best to use the minutes in an hour, or—it’s one of my favorites of the new collection, not least as I’m currently staring at a stack of unopened TLSs sitting on my floor—with “How I Read as Quickly as Possible through My Back Issues of the TLS”?
LD: I like this division you bring up between infraordinary and extraordinary. It’s true that my stories fall roughly into even further categories, subsets of the ones you mention. In the new book, there are stories created from dreams, whether mine or other people’s; there are stories created from material found in Flaubert’s letters; there are the letters of complaint, written by a person who is a sort of hyper version of myself; there are the very shortest stories of a line or two or three. The first three stories you mention belong to a very early period of my writing, when I was influenced by Kafka’s shortest stories in the direction of the fantastic, the impossible, animal tales, philosophical conundrums. There is something of the fairytale in some of them. To me, they seem quite different from the exoticism and historical fiction of “Lord Royston’s Tour,” which was a later story, and then different again from the stories most rooted in everyday, often domestic life—the “infraordinary.” “Lord Royston’s Tour” was created using material from the letters home of an actual Lord Royston, who lived in the early 1800s, who traveled to exotic places after leaving university, and whose tour ended in shipwreck and death by drowning. Nothing in the story was invented, but I did a lot of rearranging and combining or condensing of his material. That material was in his day-to-day life—though admittedly during a tour, and tours to foreign places in those days were more overtly exotic than most of ours today.
I could say, though, that some of the “infraordinary” stories also point to the richness and even exoticism of the world we witness without leaving home—particularly the TLS story, which is one of the few in which I am almost—though not quite—speaking in my own voice. The cataloguing of what interests me and what doesn’t, incidentally points to all the possible subjects there are to write or talk about in the world, from bumblebees to Ronald Reagan, to a history of the accordion, to a lawnmower museum, to T.S. Eliot’s fountain pen. Similarly, the long piece called “Local Obits,” which consists of, usually, one-sentence excerpts from obituaries published in one of my local papers, though it started with my interest in the different quirks, hobbies, allegiances, of the folks in my area, has the larger effect—on me, anyway—of saying over and over again that each person manages to create him- or herself in a particular way, with individual interests and an individual life: we’re born in a certain area, grow up, most of us manage to find a mate and make a family, we acquire certain interests, we sicken and die, or die by accident or by our own hand, and that’s that.
DG: If I’m reading you right, you’re suggesting that—as for Perec—within the “infra,” if it is inspected patiently and carefully enough, lies the “extra.” (I still remember my astonishment the first time I looked, as a child, into a magnifying glass.) There’s another distinction I might venture as to two ways of viewing the stories in your collections, a distinction that may have less to do with what is within them than what I sense behind them. In the case of most of your “infra” stories (though “Examples of the Continuing Past Tense . . .” would be an exception, where behind the story is a piece of writing) I sense a real-world experience lived by you or by someone close to you; while behind most of the “extra” stories I sense a text, rather, often a text by someone other than yourself. And this leads us back to where we started, since what I suppose I am suggesting is that many of the stories that are most fantastic or adventurous—“Lord Royston’s Tour” is a good example—come across as some form of translation. From the latest volume the amazing stories taken from Flaubert would be examples—though here you make it clear up front that these are translations (both from Flaubert’s letters and from French). More typical might of what I’m trying to describe might be the wonderful “The Dreadful Mucamas” (also from Can’t and Won’t)where I guess that the story is some sort of translation, without really having a clue as to what sort of translation it is. It may be a bit of a cliché, but when reading such stories I really do feel that the gap between Lydia Davis the story-writer and Lydia Davis the translator is very fine indeed . . .
LD: I’m not sure the rule or pattern will hold, though, because there was no text behind the first “extraordinary” stories you mentioned: “The Rape of the Tanuk Women,” etc. Those were purely from my imagination. But let me see how the other stories that you mention in this question work: it is true that “Examples of the Continuing Past Tense . . .” started from a piece of text, but I can posit, also, that my experience of a text is not so very different from my experience of a non-textual event in the world. Let me think about that. The stories from Flaubert are really not straight translations, of course, but are translated and adapted or shaped, reworked. I give myself much more freedom than I would with a straight translation. I can cut and combine sentences, and even combine material from different letters. “The Dreadful Mucamas,” about the sinister maid and cook who lived behind the kitchen of a sublet apartment, and the boss lady who has such trouble with them, did start from a file of letters and other documents concerning the situation. A lot of arranging goes on in these cases.
Yes, there is a sort of continuum between pure invention of a story at one end and pure translation at the other—along the way there are stories with more or less invention, there are stories using other texts, whether in English or another language, there are free translations with minimal rearrangement. And speaking of translation, my latest project has been the “modernization” or “standardization” of a novel for children published in 1898 called Bob, Son of Battle by Alfred Ollivant. My aim has been to keep all the color and force of the original, wonderful story, but convert the Cumbrian and Scottish dialect—of which there is a huge amount—into clear standard English and to tinker throughout with the narrative passages so that the prose is less difficult. I wanted the book to have another chance—not to be so formidable that no one would read it. We’ll see what happens.
DG: I’m sure you’re right: any attempt to draw a clear distinction between stories that have a text behind them and others that have an “experience” behind them is bound to lead rapidly to a dead-end. Yet I don’t think it’s just the translator in me that seeks to hold on to a distinction between stories you have “written” and others you have “translated”—hold on to the distinction if only in order to show how the your oeuvre sets out to abolish it. Before asking you something more about Bob, Son of Battle—an example of what I believe the specialists term “intra-lingual” translation—could I ask you to say a word or two about that other sort of story that appears in Can’t and Won’t and which you have mentioned already: the dream stories.
When you just said that “The Rape of the Tanuk Women” emerged “purely from your imagination,” I instinctively responded to myself with a question: “You mean, from your dream-life?” Do you think that your dream-tales—and you’ve mentioned that not all the tales you tell are of your own dreams—are “purely from the imagination”? Or do they come from somewhere even more ungovernable and less singular or personal than the solitary imagination? Freud used to consider dreams as translations of a sort, with what he called the “dream work” turning the dream wish into narrative or images. Even if your dream tales (or stories like “The Rape of the Tanuk Women”) are not translations to quite the extent that your stories after Flaubert are, am I wrong to wish to go on thinking of them as translations, where the source does not (as it were) have your name on it; where it is not—or not quite—purely your own imagination?
LD: Yes, as soon as I wrote “purely from my imagination” I began to argue with myself, since “purely” would always be out of place in this conversation, and even “imagination” is questionable. I well remember a high school English teacher of mine making the statement in class that (not his exact words) “nothing is absolutely new: everything is in some way derived from previously existing things.” I remember rebelling against this statement, wanting to deny it, believing he was probably right, and yet straining my mind to imagine the possibility of something absolutely new, or at least the situation in which something absolutely new could be invented.
The “Rape” story was in fact probably inspired by some anthropology texts that I was translating at the time—the story as it is now did not appear in one of those texts, but probably I did make use of some of the names of tribes and the idea of the north and the snowy wilderness. It was not derived from a dream, as far as I know.
I used to write down my dreams; then, many years went by in which I thought I had no interest in dreams. But I had Michel Leiris’s collection of dreams in the house. It is called (in Richard Sieburth’s translation into English) “Nights as Day, Days as Night.” It consists mostly of night dreams, but there are, mixed in, a few accounts of waking experiences that were like dreams. That was what interested me—the possibility that a waking experience could be selectively told so as to sound like a dream. What also interested me was the challenge of getting away from the long, tediously over-detailed account of the dream—and also away from the psychological analysis of the dream—to something more concise, vivid, and engaging.
But to get back to the complexity of the “imagination”—the mind certainly is a hodgepodge, a wild mix of things, there is nothing pure about it, and what comes out in the form of a dream, or my version of someone else’s dream, or any other sort of creation, is in part quite inexplicable.
DG: There may be another way of my asking you same question: it’s a question that I’m sure most translators who are writers—and would it not be true to say that all translators are also writers—pose themselves, but which is hard to talk about without sounding either defensive or hopelessly abstract. By way of further context, a quotation from an essay I once translated (from French) by the great essayist and translator, Simon Leys:
As a temporary or permanent substitute for creation, translation is closely allied to creation, and yet is of a different nature, for it offers an artificial inspiration . . . One can sit down at one’s table every morning at the same hour , assured of giving birth to something. Of course, the quality and the quantity of daily production can vary, but the nightmare of the blank page is, for its part, definitively exorcised. It is, besides, this very reassuring guarantee which fundamentally places translation in the domain of the artisan rather than in that of the artist. However difficult translation may sometimes be, as distinct from creation it is fundamentally risk-free.
Do you agree? And do you actually feel substantially different when sitting down to write one of your stories, from how you feel when sitting down to “translate” another chapter of Bob, Son of Battle?
LD: Yes, I do agree with Simon Leys, with just a slight hesitation at eliminating the idea of art from translation, at calling the translator an artisan or craftsperson rather than an artist. I say hesitation, not absolute refusal, because I generally have a twofold reaction to the question of which exactly the translator is: first I want to say that the translator is more a highly skilled craftsperson than an artist, but then immediately think twice about it and feel that there are moments when real artistry is involved in translation.
But—to return to your question—it is true that the work to be done is already there in front of me when I sit down to translate; and that there is not the same risk involved as there is in creating a work of my own; and yes, I do feel different sitting down to a translation—whether from the French, or from the Dutch, or from Bob, Son of Battle—than I do sitting down to a story of my own.
The risk that Simon Leys talks about is very palpable: when I embark on a piece of writing, I do feel as though I’m walking along the top of a narrow fence, for instance, trying to keep my balance. A false step would be very easy to make, or a false distribution of weight, and with one false step I might well tumble down, and not be able to get back up on the fence again. Is that the best metaphor? There is no danger in walking a line on the ground, though it might be just as difficult; walking a tightrope is much too difficult, and can’t be done by most of us at all; the metaphor of walking makes sense because one is progressing forward. One is not climbing or descending.
I feel the risk; I am almost holding my breath; one interruption—a knock at the door or atelephone call—could destroy either the whole piece or at least the nice sentence that was just then forming. This is because, as you write one sentence, you are at the same time forming the next, and even, more approximately, several more in your head, and at the same time holding the door open for more sentences or approximate ideas to come flowing in from that mysterious place that sentences and ideas come from. This is a very delicate state of mind. You try to maintain it for as long as you can, or need to. Then, you are relieved to have gotten through this stage of the work without losing or missing what you wanted to write down. You are relatively safe, once this stage is done, or rather the work you have done is relatively safe.
The state of mind when translating is very different. As we have said, the text is there in front of me, to be worked on. I need to concentrate, certainly, I can’t work with distractions, and there are solutions to translation problems that can also be lost by a knock at the door at the wrong moment. But it is much more possible, even after that knock, to return to a problem and find a solution. Translation requires great skill in all sorts of areas, and it requires all sorts of human and intellectual capacities—I won’t go into all of that, since countless discussions on paper and in translation panels have explored it pretty thoroughly—but the same risk is not there.
So what remains as a question in my mind is where we divide art from artfulness and craft, in translation.
DG: At the risk of aiming for an explicitness that may be neither desirable nor possible, can I ask, then: when you are writing a story that is (also) a translation, such as your Flaubert stories in Can’t and Won’t, which side of Simon Leys’s equation do your find yourself on? Or do these stories reveal that the very idea of “sides” is ultimately irrelevant?
And, perhaps to close our conversation, may I ask you also to speak of what you find to be the pleasures and the frustrations of that particular sort of work that you are currently doing, with your modernizing of Bob, Son of Battle? What happens when a highly localized narrative that depends a lot on accent and demotic gets turned into a more broadly standard—or deterritorialized—English? If something is inevitably lost, do you find yourself looking for ways of compensating for that loss? Or are the interest and drive of the narrative sufficient to allow you to leave aside such worries? Would it be going to far to see your role in such a case as being a curator,almost as much as being a translator?
LD: There is certainly much less anxiety for me in converting the “found” material in Flaubert’s letters into self-contained and complete stories, even though that conversion is more radical than any straight translation would be, so I’d have to say that that work comes down on the “translation” side of the equation—and I do think it’s perfectly valid to make that division. In a straight translation, I feel bound by a contract—not one on paper, but one that exists in my own code of ethics of translation—to reproduce as closely and faithfully as I can the work as the author wrote it, complete with mistakes (there are a couple in Proust, for instance) and awkward or slightly absurd sentences or images (there are some in Jouve, for instance). Whereas when I happened upon the little stories in Flaubert’s letters, it was like discovering some precious metal in the earth, which I could then shape into something with a form that I would determine. But the material was already there, with its limits or boundaries–this was what I had to work with.
The case of Bob, Son of Battle (which I think will probably be called The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir: Bob, Son of Battle—I am trying to combine the original titles of both the American and the British editions) is an interesting one. I haven’t tried to do this before. I chose to do it so that the book wouldn’t disappear from people’s shelves and reading lists. I thought originally that I would just “translate” the dialect into standard English, but I’ve ended up making the narrative passages easier too, in both vocabulary and syntax. I was sorry to lose the dialect, which is wonderful. But I felt that the choice was between losing the dialect and losing the book itself. And one can always hope that people who like the book will seek out the original. The fact was that as I read it over in the last draft, it seemed to me that despite the changes to the text and the loss of the dialect, the story remains moving and compelling, as do the setting and the characters, and a great deal of the original quality of the book survives. I was a little worried that others who had loved the book when they were young might feel I had betrayed it by this new version, and so I was very pleased to receive a letter, in response to an article I wrote about the project, from a retired Oxford don who, in his schooldays, had listened to the book read aloud Sunday evenings by his headmaster, and who thanked me for giving it a new life. That was a wonderful imprimatur.
Dan Gunn is professor of Comparative Literature and English at the American University of Paris, where he is also director of the Center for Writers and Translators. He is the author of Wool-Gathering or How I Ended Analysis, and of the novels Almost You and Body Language. He is co-editor of the multi-volume The Letters of Samuel Beckett and editor of the Cahiers Series. His novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream will be published by Seagull Books in December 2014.
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