Remember the Van Wagenens.

Ange Mlinko reviews Lydia Davis’s collections Essays One and Essays Two in the latest LRB and has interesting things to say. Mind you, I often find Davis irritating even though she’s clearly a good writer, and I found Mlinko’s versions of classical Arabic poetry irritating a decade ago, but never mind, I’ll quote some chunks that you may or may not find stimulating:

Essays Two places us at the intersection of two pleasures: ‘(1) the pleasure of writing; and (2) the pleasure of solving a puzzle’. This is translation. It all goes back to a first-grade classroom in the Ursuline Cloister School in Graz in 1954, where Davis found herself, aged seven, without a word of German. Her father, an academic, had uprooted the family for a year. ‘I theorise now that I must have gone through a few weeks, at least, of some frustration and bewilderment,’ she writes:

Then, this frustration must have been followed by gradual enlightenment as I became progressively more familiar with the meaning of what I was hearing, and eventually it must have implanted in me a hunger to repeat the experience, or at least a strong desire, at the sight of words that mean nothing to me, to find out what they mean.

As the mongrel child of immigrants who moved to the US less than a decade before my birth, I have also always thought my ‘experiences of incomprehension, of opacity’ led to my obsession with verbal arts (although, perhaps to my shame, it expressed itself in poetry rather than translation). […]

On “trying to translate ‘English into English’”:

She refers to these as experiments – not, she assures us, in the sense of ‘experimental writing’, which subverts literary conventions in a spirit of rebellion, but in the scientific sense of setting controls and not knowing whether she will succeed or fail. Fail she often does. In trying to translate Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century English into 21st-century English, she regrets normalising him, as Kafka was normalised by his early translators (or Emily Dickinson by her editors). ‘Translating Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Grey Dog of Kenmuir’ is a more interesting case. At epic length (the essay is more than sixty pages long), she recounts her experiment with Alfred Ollivant’s 1898 children’s classic, a favourite from her own childhood and ‘one of the great dog stories of all time, if not the greatest’. She thought she might give it new life and save it from obscurity: the style ‘is of an earlier time, with more complex constructions and more sophisticated vocabulary; and the speech of the characters is mostly in Scots and Northern English dialect’. There are other problems with the book: animal cruelty, sexist stereotypes, the unvarnished portrayal of an alcoholic father. But the most immediate obstacles – those which chiefly concern the translator/updater – have to do with language. What do we do with a children’s book that contains Britishisms, dialect, specialised words from defunct professions and bygone rural life?

And where does it end? We must worry that the words élan, epithet, antipathy and wraith also trouble the fluency of the reading experience. As do inversions. It’s not enough to assert that the exotic words are, or should be, part of the pleasure, such as the following features of the Cumbrian landscape: fell, ghyll, tarn, spinney, mere, dell, sea fret (‘a wet mist or haze coming inland from the sea’). It’s not enough to assert that previous generations of children read, enjoyed, and even loved this book across cultural barriers – apparently children once tolerated negative capability. It’s not enough to recall the seven-year-old Davis, uncomprehending in an Austrian classroom, and to find in that experience the seed of her career as a writer and translator.

The question of what is difficult – and to whom, and how much difficulty is too much, and what effect it might have on a hypothetical reader – seems to me unanswerable. I wanted to think Davis’s experiment was silly and misguided, but the essay that results is an odyssey. It is another example of her ‘break it down’ methodology, but it makes a grand sweep into questions about the metaphysics of children’s fiction and leads to an unforeseen conclusion. After all the excogitation, the research – she even contacts Ollivant’s heirs and ends up as a recipient of his granddaughter’s holiday newsletters – Davis is sitting at her typewriter translating the final scenes, and starts weeping. ‘I would say to myself, But this did not really happen, and then feel pained again, as though it had. How powerful is this thing, the suspension of disbelief – how powerful fiction and its illusions!’

This reminder – ‘once the words are written, and read, and imagined in our minds, they are real to us’ – harks back to ‘Remember the Van Wagenens’ in Essays One. It’s an essay about memory, about how memory keeps the dead alive, and in it she emphasises the materiality of thought: ‘The memories exist physically in the brain cells.’ Her own madeleine is the smell of a canvas school bag, the neural receptors for which have lain dormant since childhood. Is it possible that our early reading is a real experience in our brains, which can’t distinguish between sensations we have received first-hand and those we have read about?

This hypothesis suggests a corollary: that the more words we know, the bigger our sensorium, and therefore the sum total of ‘experience’. An addendum to the corollary: the more foreign languages we know, the more words we have for things and the wider we travel. Davis bears this out with impulsive forays into new languages, jumping in at the deep end with a single book and no dictionary. All she needs, she decides, are context and cognates. For Spanish, she picks a book already familiar to her in English, Las aventuras de Tom Sawyer. As a further, more whimsical experiment, she translates part of the Spanish back into English, and compares her translation to Twain’s original.

Mlinko proceeds to the Norwegian family saga by Dag Solstad that we discussed here and various other things; her final paragraph begins “It seems, in the end, that an obsession with words, their proper order and their etymologies, is nothing less than a search for proof that time existed.” Which is overexcited and a bit mad, like much of this stuff (I have no problem thinking Davis’s experiment was “silly and misguided”), but it’s all food for thought. And if you’re wondering about the Van Wagenens, that whole essay is available here; the relevant passage is on page 11.


  1. I was pleased to learn the etymology of “scruple” for the first time from this!

    … and I’m definitely Team Mlinko (she upset some people with the perceived harshness of her recent critical look at Adrienne Rich [also in the LRB]. As someone trying to write more poetry myself these days I now feel obligated to take sides in these polarizing, Byzantine internecine brouhahas – which is all Twitter’s good for anyway).

  2. John Emerson says

    Scruple: 20 grains, or one-third dram, and equivalent to 1.296 grams. More precise than a jot or a tittle

  3. The essay “Remember the Van Wagenens” resonated with me, perhaps because of my being just a bit past 50, with older relatives with memory issues, and looming thoughts of mortality as the same relatives start to die off more quickly, while my friends express those same thoughts back to me.

    Thanks for mentioning it.

  4. Yes, with me as well (being now 70).

Speak Your Mind