The Delighted States

October 28, 2008

I don’t know how I missed Adam Thirlwell’s book, “The Delighted States,” which came out this summer with FSG (“Ms. Herbert” in the UK). It has the precious subtitle:

A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes

It has been described as “monumentally annoying” (The Guardian) and “the most dazzlingly tedious book of the summer” (Washington Post). However, others disagree (New York Times, Bookforum). The book also includes Thirwell’s translation of a Nabokov short story “Mademoiselle O,” which gets considerably less attention in the reviews. Regardless I’d like to think that mere existence of this book, in all of its hybrid, translated glory, in mainstream publishing is something to be excited about. Wyatt Mason, who I happen to love, interviews Thirlwell in Harpers. (the interview interests me for its specific talk on the practice of translation. It also includes Thirlwell’s proposal for a translation of Macedonio Fernandez, which our very own Margaret Schwartz has published in eXchanges and has an edition forthcoming with Open Letter Press). If you’d like a sampling of Thirlwell’s prose, the New York Times link has a sample chapter, and the October issue of the Believer (which is where I saw all of this in the first place) has an essay adapted from the book and delivered at Princeton this May (for their “translation program” it says…)

from the Believer: “Every theory of translation is a theory of style.” Thirlwell looks at Nabokov, Pavese, Kafka (their invented americas, their roles as translators), Borges, Pushkin, and Flaubert but also draws parallels to pretty much anything you can imagine, and has a weird obsession here with music of the 20th century in as much as it relates to aesthetic statements and theories of style: Adorno’s takes on Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and Berio’s lectures at Harvard (points taken). Thirlwell ends with the gorgeous statement: “The history of translation, like the history of the novel and the history of the world, is the history of mistakes. It has to do with imprecision, and imperfection. Even if the aim is always the perfect work: invulnerable, and incorruptible.” Turn the page and you’ll see a wonderful map entitled: “an approximate time line of twisted translations” showing, for instance, how baudelaire and mallarme each translated “the raven” into french, and how machado de assis translated Baudelaire’s french translation of the Raven into Portuguese.

I’m hoping that Thirlwell’s Tristam Shandyesque prose won’t turn too many people off from the fascinating subject matter, which, judging from his assessment of Pavese and translation, something I’ve studied pretty thoroughly, is interesting and nuanced. Regardless, I’m still pleased that the words “the history of translation” are on the cover of the Believer this month in all caps.



One Response to “The Delighted States”

  1. Andrea Says:

    I bought this a couple months ago and can’t wait for school to calm down so I can actually read it! Thanks for keeping my appetite whetted!

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