Murray Bail Considers European vs Anglo-American Novels

Murray Bail, author of Eucaluptus, ponders the differences between European novels in translation, and their Anglo-American cousins. "When first opening a work in translation there is an extra feeling of anticipation. The reader here is allowed to enter a strange area of the world, where people are similar yet appear to behave differently, and all in a foreign tongue. Mystery has to be interesting. Other questions can come later."

I'm always curious as to whether I'm actually getting a taste of the original author's voice or just a version of the translator's. Occasionally it is possible to read novels in translation by one author, over a short period, which have been translated by different people. I've done this recently with Henning Mankell and his Kurt Wallander novels from Sweden: Faceless Killers was translated by Steven T. Murray, The Dogs of Riga by Laurie Thompson, and One Step Behind by Ebba Seberberg. Of these I'd say that The Dogs of Riga reads flat, as if the translation didn't work as well as the other two. And yet, Thompson also translated another of Menkell's novels, The Return of the Dancing Master, which I thought was excellent, and which did not feature Wallander. So what does that tell me? Not a lot I suspect. There are just too many factors at play affecting the final outcome of the novel to be able to determine which has the greatest influence.

Now that does not mean to imply that we should neglect novels in translation. On the contrary, we should seek them out for their strangeness. As Bail puts it: "European literature is recognisably different from English-English or American-English. For one thing, it is much less saddled with the good sense of Protestant empiricism that brings with it the decencies, along with a certain plainness. It has been explained how this rarefied commonsense is behind the solid foundations of Anglo-Saxon philosophy, in verifiable results in medicine and engineering, in law and the stability of institutions; and in the novel it has resulted in a stubborn underlying realism." Which might be making too wide a generalisation.

I'm sure there are European novels we do not get to see that are full to the brim with stubborn realism. And by the same token it seems hard to describe the work of, say, J.G. Ballard as dropping into the same slot. But this is picking nits. Bail's premise is that we should all read more translated works. And it's hard to argue with that.

[Thanks to Conversational Reading for the notice.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on September 13, 2005 11:00 AM.

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