Multiples: 12 Stories in 18 Languages by 61 Authors - stories are told and retold from English into other languages and back, leading to happy accidents to both amuse and confuse’

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Multiples: 12 Stories in 18 Languages by 61 Authors, Adam Thirlwell, ed., Portobello Books, 2013.

Like Chinese whispers, the rules of this literary game are simple: the first writer translates an unknown story into English, which a second writer then translates into a different language, and a third translates back into English, and so on, down the line. As the stories are told and retold, out of English and in again, they are transformed, twisted and turned into something new. Featuring an all-star international line-up of writers from Zadie Smith to Alejandro Zambra, via Jeffrey Eugenides, Laurent Binet, Javier Marias, David Mitchell, Colm Toibin, Etgar Keret and Sheila Heti, this collection is pure literary entertainment. Playful, provocative and wilfully inventive, Multiples asks fascinating questions about the relationship between a translation and a version, about the art of storytelling, and about the way that our individual linguistic choices reflect our shared cultural prejudices. Here, we see not so much what is lost in translation, but what is found.

‘A mischievous sortie into linguistic mutability... There's plenty of fun to be had here’ James Urquhart

‘Enjoy-able for both the self-echoing whole and the cunning individual performances... Rewarding’ Michael Caines

‘Fascinating... There is something exhilarating about the brio and virtuosity on display... Diverting [and] breathtaking’
‘I can imagine dipping into this delightful compendium for years to come... For all its parlour-game charms, it is subversive at heart, challenging just about everything we hold true about authenticity, originality and creative genius... Brilliant’ - Maureen Freely

‘Interesting... a clever concept’
‘Playful... stories are told and retold from English into other languages and back, leading to happy accidents to both amuse and confuse’

‘Somehow manages to be simultaneously profoundly fun literary entertainment and profoundly serious literary/philosophical investigation... This is the best game of Chinese whispers we've ever seen in print’ - Stuart Hammond

‘The fun in comparing the first translated version with the last is considerable... Fascinating’ - Anne Harvey

‘There is a moving case of translation loss in the book, but it involves history as much as literature, and the book is also full of gains’ - Michael Wood

‘You don't need to be a polyglot to take pleasure from Multiples. The minimum requirement is a curiosity about language and the writing craft’ - Sophie Hughes

Multiples, a new book edited by the novelist and critic Adam Thirlwell, seeks to undermine the idea of the original in literary translation. As Thirlwell states in the introduction, he wants to "politely frazzle" the "whole category of the original". This echoes his previous views on translation. In his 2007 book Miss Herbert, he sketched out a ludic novelistic tradition including Laurence Sterne, Denis Diderot and Vladimir Nabokov. His study concluded that, in novelistic terms, style transcended language and that therefore "it is possible to translate a story whose language the translator does not speak".
First published in McSweeney's in 2012, Multiples tests the elasticity of that principle. Thirlwell has selected 12 stories whose originals (which are not printed) are variously written in Danish, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, German, Arabic, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Italian, Hungarian, English and Italian again. Ten stories are first translated into English, the other two into German and Spanish. The first translation is translated, and then the subsequent translation is translated again. The translators only see the preceding version of the story. The longest chains contain six translations, though every other version is in English. Thirlwell has corralled an illustrious international group of 60 novelist-translators into taking part and we end up with an intriguing literary version of Chinese whispers.
Multiples occasionally risks reading like a vanity project but the quality of several initial translations justifies the enterprise. Zadie Smith's English translation of Giuseppe Pontiggia's "Incontrarsi", a shimmering narrative of wasted life, is wonderfully supple. David Mitchell's rendering of Kenji Miyazawa's fabulist love triangle between a jealous Earth god, a seductive birch tree and a mendacious fox is similarly exquisite.  
But the real test of the project is how intelligently subsequent translations can riff off their antecedents. Sheila Heti furnishes us with a twangy, Bellovian translation of Søren Kierkegaard's "Writing Sampler" from a conservative French conversion by Jean-Christophe Valtat. She undermines her predecessors by turning "je peux reprendre mon souffle" (literally: "I can catch my breath") into "I must slip away to reprimand my souffle", whipping up Kierkegaard's ironic assault on literary culture with satirical levity.
Conversely, Heidi Julavits's slapdash version of Yannick Haenel's second-string French translation of AL Snijders's Dutch story about two lovers shows up the venture's limitations. Julavits insouciantly writes that if you have no idea "what a word means… suddenly it can mean anything", but her mistranslation of "sous les combles" ("under the rafters") as "under a grape arbour" only muddies the tale's concise clarity.
The distortions of Rawi Hage's English translation of Youssef Habchi el-Achkar's muted Arabic tale set during the 1975 Lebanese civil war highlight the contradictions of Multiples. After Hage, Tristan Garcia faithfully translates the story into French before Joe Dunthorne, trusting his "own instincts as a writer" over his wafer-thin French, ditches Beirut for the 2011 London riots. Dunthorne's fiction is sharp, yet only El-Achkar's final image of a woman whose "nails are all broken" remains. We're left with inspired impromptu rather than translation, literal or otherwise, and El-Achkar's historical resonances are lost.Thirlwell describes Multiples as "some throwback to the modernist days" of multilingual games, and these modernist pretentions are revealing. In his 1931 essay on Proust, Samuel Beckett, a pre-eminent modernist novelist-translator, quoted and translated a remark from Proust's Le temps retrouvé, adding his own comments in parentheses: "The duty and the task of a writer (not an artist, a writer) are those of a translator." Beckett's brackets assert that translation is a demanding craft rather than an art form that one can invent freestyle. Multiples shows us that the most innovative translations are still crafted rather than invented from scratch. -

Too often translation is discussed in terms of loss. What hasn't come through? How is the translation inferior to the original? Multiples, refreshingly, does the opposite: it asks, instead, what is it that survives? And in particular, can something like "style", which we attach so closely to the specificities of linguistic activity, survive being wrenched out of a language entirely and remade in another? Novelist Adam Thirlwell devised an experiment to put these questions to the test. The outcome is this impossible, fascinating book.
The idea in brief: get a story translated several times in series (Russian to French, to English, to Dutch …) and as the distance from the original increases, watch what changes and what remains. To put extra strain on the original's integrity, Thirlwell invited novelists to do the translating. Many hadn't translated before. Some possessed – it transpired – only the ropiest understanding of the source language. And novelists are expected to have styles of their own (unlike us translators, who aren't allowed), so might struggle to avoid incorporating their particular stylistic distortions. How could an original survive?
Eventually the experiment would grow to comprise 12 stories, from Kharms to Kierkegaard, Vila-Matas to Miyazawa, Middleton to Kiš, each translated serially between four and six times (usually via English at alternate stages), featuring 18 languages and the translating talents/failings of 61 novelists. Each novelist was given only the (provisional) original they were to translate, but didn't see what had happened further upstream. The whole thing is big, preposterously ambitious and pleasingly silly. But meaningful, too, if you look closely enough. The devil, as every translator knows, is in the details.
Part of the pleasure of the translations being undertaken serially, rather than in parallel, comes from watching a little distortion or imprecision being compounded, or amplified, as the series progresses. A Lebanese story by Youssef Habchi El-Achkar features a setting rendered by Rawi Hage as a "coffee shop". Tristan Garcia's French translation calls it "le café" – not quite the same thing. In English, under Joe Dunthorne, this becomes a "cafe-bar". In Francesco Pacifico's Italian, next, "il bar". So we're now, apparently, in a bar. And it's in London. Which is absolutely not where we started.
Any translation is a new text built of a thousand tiny choices. But in Multiples a reader often won't know who's responsible for those choices. Who, after all, can read 18 languages? Being Anglophone, I can read Zadie Smith's English translation of a story by Giuseppe Pontiggia, and Tash Aw's English translation two steps further down – by which time the story is no longer set in Tuscany but in Guangzhou and has shifted to the present tense; but how can I know whether the relocation was Aw's, or from Ma Jian's in-between version in a Chinese I cannot read? A reader with Hebrew will find some things; a reader with access to Portuguese others.
Some writers are more anxious than others not to leave fingerprints. JM Coetzee and AS Byatt try for something close to what most professional translators aim to achieve: a story that's identical to the original, only with all the words changed; with no visible interference by one's own style. Personal style is a difficult habit to kick, however. In the note on her translation, Byatt refers to a moment that was just "too far from any sentence I myself would ever have written".
Other writers, of course, are more delinquent, deliberately perpetrating versions that don't aim to preserve or to replicate. Those who are more interested in deploying their own linguistic flashes and flourishes inevitably blur the picture. Lawrence Norfolk and his villanelle are quite seductive and very clever, but knowingly succumbing to the lure of infidelity leads to stories that, however interesting individually (or sometimes not), by disregarding essential links to their ancestry lose significance in this experiment. (Certain more intimidating originals absolutely insist on greater fidelity, naturally. "I'm not one to mess with Kierkegaard," says Jean-Christophe Valtat, reining himself back.)
Translation demands stylistic humility. And so the Spanish used in the translations by Javier Marías or Álvaro Enrigue isn't quite their own; it doesn't have their usual distinctive pulse or tone – their (in other words) style. Whereas the story by Florian Zeller is simply a story by Florian Zeller. Sometimes what's missing is just sympathy with the original, so the writer injects something new. Zeller's two-word sentence, "Enterré vivant." is revoiced by Wyatt Mason: "Buried alive, like a miner, in a mine, a deep, dark, dank, and – in all likelihood – Chilean mine."
There's no such thing as a perfect translation, and all these writers have produced translations of sorts. So is Multiples designed to fail? If it is, then it fails in multiple different ways – stories change, or resist, they shift in essential or merely cosmetic ways; some survive the process, others detach themselves entirely. By one measure, every translated story must be inadequate, yet each is still a distinct piece of writing that recently didn't exist. To anyone interested in translation – or perhaps more pertinently, in the effects of style – each failure is something new, something fascinating, that is gained. -  Daniel Hahn

Now published in the UK, following last year’s American edition courtesy of McSweeney’s, Multiples: 12 stories in 18 languages by 61 authors is a paradox: it is full of copies that are also originals. The volume’s editor, Adam Thirlwell, presents himself, in a thoroughly Thirlwellian introduction (“You, dear reader, can therefore decide how you think the biscotti should crumble”), as an “impresario” overseeing a “giant exercise in cajoling . . . international novelists to work”. The task he sets them is to translate a story – only the story, unless the translator happens to be the first in line, will itself be a translation, and, if the translator is at the back of the queue, will likely be a translation of a translation of a translation.
Multiples contains just twelve “original” stories, but it presents those stories “in 18 languages by 61 authors”. A sequence of translations runs its course; another, with a new point of origin and new set of translators, then sets off. They see only the story immediately preceding their own in the sequence, and few are professional translators. Their notes say as much. “Traduttore, traditore”, Frédéric Beigbeder shrugs: “Please forgive me”. Julie Orringer acknowledges her reliance on her Hungarian editor and the internet. Laurent Binet proclaims his love of speaking English. Chloe Hooper boasts of “schoolgirl French, but that of a very dumb schoolgirl”. Illustrators play along, too, to more arbitrary (because wordless) effect. With a single exception, each sequence alternates English with another (living) language.
“Literature is one of those strange arts where the original is often experienced as a multiple”, Thirwell observes in his opening address. Novelists attempt to write something “as singular as possible”, aspiring to uniqueness – but does this uniqueness lie beyond the reach of translation? The “general bookstore mode”, we are told, in a shunting of the blame down the supply chain, “is to treat translations as so many transparencies, so many invisibilities”. Why the embarrassment? Rather than pretend it didn’t exist, would it not be better to find out if a novel’s style was indeed “entirely transportable”, as Thirlwell initially proposes?
How to test this hypothesis? Well, why not have, say, John Wray put “Das Tier in der Synagoge” by Kafka into English (the German original is not included), then Etgar Keret put Wray’s “In Our Synagogue” into Hebrew? These non-identical twins stand on facing pages, making it relatively easy to compare them line by line – if you can read Hebrew. If you can’t, move on to Nathan Englander’s re-Englishing of the story as “The Creature in Our Shul” and its partner, “Los Murmullos” by Alejandro Zambra. Most of the original stories in Multiples undergo six transformations, but this one ends on the fifth, “The Animal of the Church”, translated from Zambra’s Spanish by Dave Eggers, that stands alone.
Such a sequence might threaten to work as does, for example, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, or a set of musical variations on a theme, in which a basic narrative armature or a consistent, underlying harmonic progression supports a series of integumentary novelties. Only here the net effect, if you don’t find it too fiddly to flip backwards and forwards between Eggers and Wray, goes deeper, as the structure of the story warps.
Wray has it that the creature is about the size of a weasel and of indefinite colour. It is essentially “unthreatening”, but women may fear it; men are indifferent. It is the “pet of the synagogue”. Prayers during a service startle it into the open, where it slithers down the brass rod that supports the curtain of the Ark of the Covenant, to stare not at the congregation but “simply . . . toward those forces by which it feels itself to be at risk”. This perennial disquiet is itself disquieting. The official line is that the creature should be driven away and the synagogue re-consecrated. We are not told why this turns out to be impossible.
In Eggers’s hands, the synagogue is a church, and the creature’s preferred spot a confessional (with Eggers oddly using the word “confessor” to mean both priest and parishioner). It is still weasel-size but has acquired a “blue-back” coat of fur, and provokes female shrieks and male “barks of disapproval”. Multiple translations have promoted it from pet to “lord of the vermin”. It can behave nonchalantly, and the clergy, rather than being indifferent, have grown “used” to its “nightmarish” face. Ultimately, however, the disquiet persists, as in the narrator’s own conclusive visit to the confessional booth:
“It regarded me with the casual curiosity of a child waking up in the late evening to find his parents entertaining a friend . . . [and] slithered under the wall to visit, I presumed, with the priest on the other side. It returned moments later, as if it had received a message from my confessor meant for me. That message, delivered by an animal like this, carried a musty scent but was nonetheless clear. It said, Look away, look away, look away.”
Thirlwell reflects “sadly” on the result of his experiment: “A gracious sense of fidelity to the dead overlaps with an ungracious glee in infidelity”; some originals emerge “unscathed”, while others are “gruesomely demolished”. Changing “one key word” in otherwise “almost identical” versions could be the making or undoing, depending on your perspective, of its successors.
Yet the pleasure of reading Multiples does not stand or fall on following the experiment absolutely. Thirlwell affably invites readers to “loop through” the book, or to “more sternly” follow each sequence, as they wish. And it can be rewarding to plunge into the middle of a sequence with a story such as “The Fox and the Earth God”, in which Jonathan Lethem and Mara Faye Lethem wheel freely around a moral tale by the wonderful Japanese Buddhist writer Kenji Miyazawa, then leaf back to Valeria Luiselli’s “El dios terrestre y el zorro” and spot the phrase “El Zorro . . . nunca metía la nariz donde no se le requería” – an idiomatic expansion of David Mitchell’s straight, economic line about the fox, that he “rarely interfered with anyone”. Perhaps the phrase is also there in Nadeem Aslam’s Urdu adaptation.
As for reading sternly – or at least reading Kierkegaard six times over, as far as some linguistic guesswork allows – this has a similar effect. The first four iterations of “Skrift-Prøver” seem to strive for clarity and fidelity. Clancy Martin’s “preface to a preface”, in which a young writer butters up his public, becomes Cees Nooteboom’s “voorwoord bij een voorwoord”; Kierkegaard’s author loses a few of his many initials, and gains a surname; Jean-Christophe Valtat follows J. M. Coetzee closely, from the “salles de billard” to the final comic gambit of offering “un tariff réduit à salon de coiffure”. The fifth story in the sequence, “What I Would Like To Say” by Sheila Heti, then cheerfully gives up on the word-for-word approach for the sake of interjections such as “The public loooves this!” and a cheekily literal misreading: “Now that I have your attention, I must slip away for a moment to reprimand my soufflé”, for Valtat’s “Maintenant que j’ai attiré votre attention, je peux reprendre mon souffle”. Jonas Hassen Khemiri turns his subsequent floundering after Heti into the story of “a translator who has been assigned a task, but who never manages to get past the translation of the author’s name”.
Winter Journeys is of a similar size and collaborative structure to Multiples. The authors are credited as Georges Perec and the Oulipo, the “Workshop for Potential Literature”, founded in 1960 by Queneau and François Le Lionnais; it opens with a typically sharp burst of ingenuity from Perec: Le Voyage d’hiver, first published in 1979, three years before his death, and here translated by John Sturrock.
You sometimes hear that writing is a solitary business. Thank goodness for such shows of solidarity
Perec’s story looks back in turn to the end of summer forty years earlier, when Vincent Degraël, a young teacher of literature, stumbles across a slim volume called The Winter Journey by the mysterious Hugo Vernier. Recognizing the book’s rarity, and the extent of Vernier’s quotation of other French poets from the end of the nineteenth century, who happen to be Degraël’s specialist subject, he reads on, discovering Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Corbière and all, “jumbled together” in a “parading of influence”, a “mosaic almost every piece of which was the work of someone else”. Then he checks the date of publication: 1864. Vernier predates Rimbaud et al. They are the copyists, Vernier the original. Naturally, the war intervenes and fate moves to obscure the past once more.
Thirteen years later, Perec’s fellow Oulipians initiated a chain of sequels, sometimes under apposite assumed names, tracing inventive courses around his secret history of French literature. Jacques Roubaud came first with Yesterday’s Journey (Le Voyage d’hier, with the “v”/vie of Vernier subtracted). Roubaud’s game is to extend the conceit, to make it fit history and the previously delineated “facts” of the matter. He brings on Perec himself, to encounter somebody who knew Vernier slightly in Brisbane, where they go on a search for kangaroos: “Perec claimed these animals did not really exist but had been invented by naturalists and then marketed by travel agents”. Roubaud also gives Vernier a wife and a connection with Théophile Gautier.
And so on, from Perec and Roubaud to The Obscure Journey by Daniel Levin Becker, written this year and “yet to appear in the Bibliothèque oulipienne”. (In the group’s “research papers”, that is; the introduction states that there is no equivalent collected edition in French, and that this Atlas Press collection in English builds on their earlier limited edition, of about half the size, published in 2001.) Further revelations include the recovery of Vernier’s journal (in Various JourneysVoyages divers – by Étienne Lécroart) and Reine Haugure’s account of Henry James’s story “The Figure in the Carpet” as an “anticipatory plagiary of the Oulipo” in H . . . V . . .’s Journey. In A Journey Amidst Glasses, Harry Mathews, the “token cowboy” of the group, pulls the Jamesian carpet from under everyone’s feet by reframing the Vernier story as a hoax (“Not the whole story. Just the important parts”), only for Mikhaïl Gorliouk to revive it, by way of Italo Calvino, in If on a Night a Winter’s Traveller (sic). By the time it is Michèle Audin’s turn, in IV-R-16, Gautier is still on the scene, as the name of a street, and the “hyper-novel” has acquired a number of frustrating constraints. Others have ventured, après Perec, to Key West or Marathon, and cherry-picked the most interesting authors to draw into the conspiracy:
“Even two-bit provincial poets had now been called in. Of course, I’d have loved to write something about Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch . . . . But it had already been done . . . . The worst part of all was If on a Winter’s Night. That book was mine, that was all there was to it, Calvino had written it for me. I am the reader in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. And they had now succeeded in introducing my book into their stories.”
Like Multiples, Winter Journeys is enjoy­able for both the self-echoing whole and the cunning individual performances. This is original copying of a high order, seriously playful in its adoption of pseudo-scholarly footnotes and typographical devices, its creative repetitions and reinventions, and its conjuring of Vernier, a semi-invisible proto-Oulipian writing potential literature a century before the group’s foundation. You sometimes hear that writing is a solitary business. Thank goodness for such shows of solidarity. -  Michael Caines


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