Tim Parks has a piece on NYRblog [archived] suggesting that since the days of “the experimental writing of the 1960s and 1970s,” when there was “a mining of linguistic richness … that tended to exclude, or simply wasn’t concerned about, the question of having the text travel the world,” there has been a change:

It was when I was invited to review in the same article a translation of Hugo Claus’s Wonder (1962) alongside Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (2003), and Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (2006) that it occurred to me that over the forty years between Claus and the others an important change had occurred. These more recent novels had, yes, been translated, from Norwegian and Dutch into English, but it was nothing like the far more arduous task of translating Claus and many of his peers. Rather, it seemed that the contemporary writers had already performed a translation within their own languages; they had discovered a lingua franca within their own vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about things. Naturally, there was an impoverishment. Neither of these authors have the mad fertility of Claus; but there was also a huge gain in communicability, particularly in translation where the rhythm of delivery and the immediacy of expression were free from any sense of obstacle.

Was it possible, I asked myself, that there was now a skeleton lingua franca beneath the flesh of these vernaculars, and that it was basically an English skeleton?

I have no idea whether he’s right or it’s just confirmation bias, but it’s an interesting (and dispiriting) idea.


  1. Bathrobe says

    I find myself nodding vaguely in agreement. To be honest, I’ve never seriously read Murakami in Japanese, but his translatability into English is surely many degrees better than, say, Kawabata or Mishima.

  2. It’s an intriguing theory, and I too have been impressed by how accessible of translations of Murakami — but I think it’s more a matter of a common cultural background than a linguistic shift. When I read Kawabata, a generation ago, I was reading someone from a very foreign culture. When I read Murakami — we have the Beatles and the fall of the Berlin Wall in common; we have the aftermath of the sexual revolution, we have all the angst of picking up the pieces after all our ideologies have been exploded. The post cold war first world all feels very much alike: the atomized social world, the deep spiritual uncertainties in the midst of material plenty — I think that explains the ease of translation better than morphing linguistic skeletons. It’s not the language, it’s just that what we have to say is so familiar.

  3. Jonathan Mayhew says

    Didn’t we have this discussion before on this blog, apropos of a writer or translator who claimed that some writers wrote with translation into English in mind, whereas others didn’t? Maybe 6 months ago?

  4. I was thinking of this post: http://languagehat.com/archives/004076.php

  5. I knew it sounded familiar. But I notice somebody cited Murakami for exactly the opposite reason that I did.

  6. Bathrobe says

    From the LanguageHat point of view, Sheldon Pollock’s article on Cosmopolitanism and the Vernacular in History is also a very interesting read. It touches on a lot of things that relate to the philosophy of the LH blog, in particular LH’s non-nationalist views on the coexistence of languages.

  7. des von bladet says

    I wish to claim there are at least two(2) distinct kinds of untranslatability; the Villon/King kind of intense particularity (As Unca Ez said, “Technically speaking, translation of Villon is extremely difficult because he rhymes on the exact word, on a word meaning sausages, for example.”), and the Joyce/Claus kind of a record of a struggle with language.
    But I still want to know how Parks came to be so confident of the difficulties of Claus’s Dutch.

  8. Trond Engen says

    I haven’t read Hugo Claus’ or Gerbrand Bakker’s books — let alone in the original — but Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses definitely isn’t “pre-translated” on an English skeleton. Petterson writes “Radical Bokmål” (on the Norwegian language axis), close to the Eastern Norwegian colloquial, and this adds to a voice (on behalf of his 1st person characters) that comes through as personal, even insisting. Back when it was winning prizes everywhere I remember teading that this tone was a dilemma for translators; the American translator to English chose to be unusually colloquial, the French and German (if I remember correctly) to follow a mainstream, slightly conservative language, as usual for translations. Big caveat: I haven’t seen any of the translations.

  9. Surely this is not a new thing. 19th century Russian literature often seems to me to have “French/German bones” (especially Turgenev), a writer like Remizov was trying to consciously “re-Russify” the language. I was always told that early Latin literature has “Greek bones”, although I cannot judge for myself.

  10. I was hoping there would be some good discussion here because I read the article and had no idea what it meant. It seems it could mean several different things: that cosmopolitan intellectuals now share more in common than they do with people in their own societies, that the “voice” of the English novel has become so ubiquitous that writers tend to share a certain way of telling stories regardless of their language, or that the English language itself has influenced how people write. (An example from Mandarin Chinese would be that people used to greet each other with a phrase that translates to “Have you eaten?” but now are more likely to say “Hello.”) Perhaps all three are at work? Or perhaps only certain types of writers are chosen for translation?

  11. Since the discussion in December 2010 about whether some writers kept one eye on possible English translations as they wrote, I happened to come across a remark to that effect in the diary of Jan Lechon, a Polish poet who came to the US after WW2 and committed suicide in New York in 1956, i.e. that he could no longer write in Polish completely free of the consideration of how it would come across translated into English.

  12. Trond Engen says

    In case I wasn’t clear enough: There’s no English skeleton in Petterson’s writing. It’s plain, contemporary Norwegian, beautiful in its simplicity, poetic in a way that I don’t think has been matched since Hamsun, and if it comes through as equally plain, contemporary, simple and poetic in English, that’s a big achievement of the translator.
    This is Language Hat, where just about everybody is a translator, and the actual translators of the books may well pop in to set the records straight, so I’ll phrase the following as a question: Couldn’t it be more important for the apparent ease of the translation that sale of publication rights has become increasingly professionalized, with prepared material and consultants offering explanations for translators on anything from cultural references to obscure linguistic forms? Also, modern European writers themselves are often familiar with English in all its varieties and may offer cooperation and suggestions for the translator in choice of tone and words. Per Petterson himself used to work as a translator from English to Norwegian. And then there’s the Internet…

  13. Surely it’s relevant that both dutch and the nordic languages are close to English and that English is widely known and read in those countries. Many current Nordic authors are also translators from English and this is bound to affect the things they write, though not necessarily in a predictable way.
    I wrote more about the earlier LH discussion here (see the note), in relation to ultra-translatable poetry:

  14. I forgot to say that I was thinking of the Norwegian poet Hanne Bramness and the slightly “American” styling of her poems in Salt on the Eye (2006).

  15. Even ultra-translatable poetry is sometimes difficult to translate…

  16. In English churches the Latin of old inscriptions uses the word order of English. If you were taught Classical Latin at school the contrast is sharp.
    (P.S. this observation is utterly amateur but I assume that it’s a well known phenomenon to the pros.)

  17. “cosmopolitan intellectuals now share more in common than they do with people in their own societies”
    But as vanya suggested, this isn’t anything new. There will always be writers like that. And though I didn’t read the article, the whole idea sounds rather patronizing to me.

  18. And though I didn’t read the article, the whole idea sounds rather patronizing to me.
    You might want to read the article; it’s not at all patronizing. And he doesn’t say or imply that it’s unprecedented, just interesting.

  19. Ok, I read it. He is saying it’s new. Right in what you quoted he says: “an important change had occurred.” Claus, in the 60s, is how things used to be; things are different now. Otherwise, if there hasn’t been a change, I’m not sure what the point of the artice would be.
    Here’s another change he describes. Unfotunately, it totally describes the experimental writers of the Latin American Boom in the 60s, who I thought belonged to the old way of doing things?
    “Yet at the same time, neither readers nor writers are happy any longer with the idea that a literary text’s nation or language of origin should in any way define or limit the area in which it moves, or indeed that a national audience be the first and perhaps only arbiter of a book’s destiny. We feel far too linked, and linked in the immediate present, not to want to see immediately what books are changing or at least entertaining the whole world. And if we are writers, of course, we want our own books to travel as widely as possible.”
    The only reason the Boom occurred was because the Boom writers found an eagerness in foreign publishing houses (in Spain) who would publish their novels and help them to “travel as widely as possible.”

  20. And I’ll just add why I said “sounds rather patronizing,” admittedly, before having read the article.
    How are we to understand post-Boom literature? Well, it was certainly a reaction against the Boom. And one could point to McOndo writers as an example of the internationalism and Americanization of these writers. Edmundo Paz Soldán’s recent novel, Los vivos y los muertos (2009) is about a white, American town in Massachusetts. NOTHING Latin American about it, except that he gave one of he cheerleaders a Latino background.
    But then there are writers like Horacio Castellanos Moya who write politically-charged books about recent historic atrocities in his homeland, Central America. So, what exactly might a novel like Insensatez (2004) have in common with McOndo novels?
    And then there is Bolaño. Is he an internationalist or a regionalist? He has written a novel about the Pinochet dictatorship in his own country of Chile, after all (Nocturno de Chile, 2000).
    So, I see the post-Boom as being complicated, with no simple solutions. Why do we need to bring in “oh, they wanna make it big in the US” into the picture all of the sudden?

  21. He is saying it’s new. Right in what you quoted he says: “an important change had occurred.”
    But to say a change has occurred is not the same as saying it’s new. Lots of things change back and forth as the years pass, the changes forever making old things new again. And while I understand your point about Latin American literature, I think you’re reading him rather uncharitably.

  22. Spanish speakers have told me that there seems to be a drift to English over the past few generations — not just wholesale adoptions of anglicisms, but shifts in meanings of cognates, closer to English usage, and even shifts in syntax closer to English. This might be a prejudice on their part — they are unhappy with innovations in their language, they are unhappy with the influence of English (which at least in terms of anglicisms is undeniable), and they are conflating the two trends. On the other hand, maybe we are seeing the development of a new international Sprachbund.

  23. Hat, I didn’t quite understand your comment when I read it this afternoon, but now I’m wondering if there might be a misunderstanding based on my first comment.
    The article is about literature after 1960. So, you are right, he’s not saying there is something new for the first time in history. But he is saying that since the 60s, there is the old (60s writers like Claus) and the new. Using his own quote against him to show how it just about perfectly describes the 60s Boom writers shows, imo, how ridiculous his statement is. So, yeah, I think I was being rather kind to the the author.
    Well, at least this might get me to finally read Claus’s Het Jaar van de Kreeft, which I’ve been meaning to do for some years now. I’m looking at my copy now, and, well, language-wise at least, it seems rather easy to me. Another thing that Parks maybe got wrong?

  24. @Evan: No, your suspicions are right. Nothing is going on with Spanish that isn’t happening with any other language. Unless your Spanish speakers were talking about Spanish in the USA, then maybe.
    One of the nicest things for a Spanish-language-learner about the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, Mexico, is that, for all extents and purposes, NO ONE can speak English, at least geographically from Mexico City on down south (don’t know about the north). So, yeah, unlike Spain, they may say “email” and “computadora” instead of “correo electrónico” and “ordinador,” but otherwise, yeah, they are basically clueless about English.
    And this ties in to why I called the article “patronizing.” The author says, speaking of the present:
    “We feel far too linked, and linked in the immediate present, not to want to see immediately what books are changing or at least entertaining the whole world.”
    What a joke. He’s obviously never lived in a Third World country for any decent amount of time. My intellectual friends in southern Mexico do indeed have internet. But the connection is horribly slow. So, yes, linked, but hardly “far too linked.”
    It’s even worse. I once saw a Peter Handke novel in translation in the house of a friend of mine (a theater director, teacher, and actor). I asked him if he had read anything else by Handke. He said, “No, that’s the only book of his I could get.” In other words, that’s the only book of Handke he could find on a trip to Mexico City. Well why not get it from Amazon, Tim Parks might ask. Uh, because they steal your mail in Mexico; you’ll never get the book you ordered via the internet. Even though you are supposedly “far too linked.”

  25. What a joke. He’s obviously never lived in a Third World country
    For heaven’s sake, by “we” he obviously doesn’t mean “everyone on earth”; he’s addressing the likely readers of his piece, who presumably don’t include your intellectual friends in southern Mexico. Man, people sure want to strafe Parks; he’s not writing a manifesto or an all-encompassing academic treatise, he’s just passing along some thoughts he’s had, and doing so in what seems to me a very modest and unassuming way.

  26. Odds are that Italy, where Parks lives, will lose the #10 spot in world economies to Mexico in the next few years.

  27. Hat, he specifically mentions India in his piece. I thought that meant he was talking about a world-wide trend. And people above mentioned Murakami.
    I dunno, each time you defend him, it seems like you empty the article of meaning/importance. So, now I’m not really sure what to make of it.
    But I’ll shut up.

  28. Sorry, I was in a bad mood (it may be relevant that our house is having the siding replaced and they discovered a whole section of rotten wood that needs to be replaced). Please don’t shut up!

  29. And I promise not to say another word in defense of Tim Parks. He can come here and stand up for his own damn ideas if he wants.

  30. *Ding-dong* Paging Mr Parks! Will Mr Tim Parks please report to the Language Hat reception desk …

  31. Thanks, Hat.
    I don’t comment here much at all, but just wanted to say that this is probably my favorite blog on all the internets. When I first discovered it a few years ago, I went back into the archives and read just about every single post. So, keep up the great work!

  32. BTW, for those maybe unfamiliar with the post-Boom authors I mentioned, all have been translated into English.
    If the Castellanos-Moya novel, Senslessness, about the recent genocide against the indiginous people in Guatemala sounds interesting to you, I would HIGHLY recommend it. It is a slim tome, only 155 pages in the Spanish edition. And, like Günther Grass’s The Tin Drum, he basically decided: “How can you write about such horrendous atrocities except from the narrative point of view of total weirdo outsider?” So, pop culture references to Demi Moore and lots of totally funny scenes…yet the novel is horrific.
    In all my life, only two novels have made my skin shiver when I finally got to the very, very last page: Harry Mulisch’s De Aanslag (The Assult) and Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness.

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