Sunday, October 17, 2004


Amis vs. Updike Redux

If there hasn't been a book that has lost its place on my bookshelf despite having the last 70 pages drenched in coffee it's Martin Amis' The War Against Cliche collection of essays (1971-2000), filled with his take on Updike and Bellow. For the last twenty years it looks as though Updike has not relaxed his insistence on reviewing translations. Amis' 1976 piece on Updike's book reviews reads as if it were written yesterday:

"Updike can keep a straight face while noting the linguistic tang of translated 'Arab and Bantu exclamations'; and he is perfectly capable of talking about the style of a novel translated from the French translation of the Polish--which is like analysing the brushstrokes of a Brownie."

Updike's last two reviews have such musings.

From José Saramago's (Portugese) The Double:

The proof that the universe was not as well-thought-out as it should have been lies in the fact that the Creator ordered the star that illumines us to be called the sun. Had the king of the stars borne the name Common Sense, imagine how enlightened the human spirit would be now.

Updike's response:

One wonders. “Common sense” in Portuguese is surprisingly similar to the English: comum senso or bom senso. Nevertheless, some spirit-altering connotations may be lost in translation. Is common sense really a cure-all?

From Orhan Pamuk's Snow:

“….You’re here this evening, aren’t you?”
“Because I want to read you my poem again,” said Ka, as he put his notebook into his pocket. “Do you think it’s beautiful?”
“Yes, really, it’s beautiful.”
“What’s beautiful about it?”
“I don’t know, it’s just beautiful,” said Ipek. She opened the door to leave.
Ka threw his arms around her and kissed her on the mouth.

Updike's Response: reads better in Turkish.

Clearly, books that rely on too many cultural cues usually do not fair well in translation. Novels that do exploit cultural cues, however, are usually popular nationally because their cues can act as a cover for an otherwise obvious lack of depth. Their mediocrity is unearthed with another language. In cases where novels that first wallow in cultural debris but then transcend it, it’s more of a tragedy because the actual transcendence is what is absent in the translation, and the cultural debris all the more present. There are those that can avoid this, and at least Updike is out in front leading the search.

Meanwhile, his collection of short stories (in untranslated English) came to my library.
The thing, unsurprisingly, is huge. If you happen to like Updike and step aerobics, it’s your lucky day cause this doubles as both.

"The reckless aggression of his first term moderated into the diplomatic 'hardball' of his second."
--Amis on Reagan circa '88


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?