Sunday, April 22, 2012

On translating DFW

This afternoon at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, a dozen or so people (of which I was one) sat in on a discussion panel with author and translator Edoardo Nesi (winner of this year's Strega Prize, Italy's most prestigious literary award) and literary critic Scott Esposito (Conversational Reading), moderated by Juliet Waters, on the difficulties involved in translating the works of David Foster Wallace. Nothing particularly revelatory here to anyone familiar with DFW's work or who's given the problems of translation the slightest bit of thought, but interesting nonetheless.

Nesi very neatly summarized Infinite Jest as a book of weakness, where everyone is incapable of doing the right thing, everyone is recovering from something.

It's agreed that Infinite Jest is a very American novel. When Nesi first urged Italian publishers to take it on, they saw it as a too expensive proposition. It is long, its use of language is intricate, and there's a lot of tennis in it. Nesi, who played tennis as a youth, was well poised to complete the Italian translation that was started by somebody else.

A translation constraint: Since IJ already has copious footnotes, a layer of translation notes wasn't practical, so the translated text really did need to speak for itself, without further explanation.

It's a book a lot of people talk about it Italy, but not so many people have actually read it, daunted by its size (and I'd venture to say that's true among English speakers as as well).

Esposito characterized IJ as positively Dickensian, in how it plays with language (may I add — even revels in it), and the scope of the story — hundreds of pages go by before the strands come together and the connections become clear.

DFW is a unique voice; no one compares to him. Nesi gives the example of Pynchon (with whom DFW is often thrown into the group of American postmodernists), whose Vineland was translated as if it had been written by an "old master." The language of DFW, on the other hand, demands that it be treated fresh.

Waters asked if there was anyone writing in Italian today who might compare. She suggested Umberto Eco — (apart from the footnotes in Foucault's Pendulum, I don't really see it, but) she contends there's something monastic and arcane (and therefore Eco-like?) about The Pale King (which I have not yet read).

To write like DFW, with the "foolish idea" of explaining youth, says Nesi, is too high an ambition for Italians, who have lost the ability to explain their own country.

There is no French translation of Infinite Jest. The conversation touched briefly on whether and how to preserve the grammatical errors and misspellings in DFW's French (given his meticulousness, it's hard to imagine these weren't deliberate, no matter his rationale for them). Also, how it might be politically touchy.

I had assumed a French translation would be rendered in Quebec French. I think the language allows for an Americanness of spirit, and with more registers, than France French. But I didn't think to ask about this. Also, I missed the chance to ask if someone could enlighten me on Gilles Duceppe's role in endnote 304.

On a side note, I know what this summer's big read is. I'm in, and I'm psyched.
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