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A hero found in translation

Death in Venice Thomas Mann Translated from the German by Michael Henry Heim Ecco: 142 pp., $19.95

June 06, 2004|Michael Cunningham | Michael Cunningham is the author of several novels, including "The Hours" and "A Home at the End of the World." His essay will appear as the introduction to Michael Henry Heim's translation of "Death in Venice," to be published later this month by Ecco.

All novels are translations, even in their original languages. This has been revealed to me over time, as I've worked with the various dedicated (and inevitably underpaid) people who have agreed to translate my own books. When I started working with translators, I couldn't help noticing that many of the problems that vexed them -- questions of nuance, resonance and tone, as well as the rhythms of the sentences themselves -- were familiar to me. I'd worried over the same things when I wrote the book in the first place. It dawned on me, gradually, that I was a translator, too. I had taken the raw material of the book in question and translated it into language.

Every writer of course works differently, but I suspect that most novels begin in their writers' minds as confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations and some vague sort of plot, to name just a few. A novel in its earliest form, before it begins to be rendered into language, is a cloud of sorts that hovers over the writer's head, a mystery born with clues to its own meanings but also, at its heart, insoluble. One hopes -- a novel is inevitably an expression of unreasonable hopes -- that the finished book will contain not only characters and scenes but a certain larger truth, though that truth, whatever it may be, is impossible to express fully in words. It has to do with the fact that writer and reader both know, beneath the level of active consciousness, something about being alive and being mortal, and that that something, when we try to express it, inevitably eludes us. We are creatures whose innate knowledge exceeds that which can be articulated. Although language is enormously powerful, it is concrete, and so it can't help but miniaturize, to a certain extent, that which we simply know. All the writers I respect want to write a book so penetrating and thorough, so compassionate and unrelenting, that it can stand unembarrassed beside the spectacle of life itself. And all writers I respect seem to know (though no one likes to talk about it) that our efforts are doomed from the outset. Life is bigger than literature. We do the best we can. Some of us do better than others.

My own translators, the best ones, seem always to battle a sense of failure -- the conviction that while they've come close they've missed something in the original, some completeness, some aliveness, that refuses to quite come through in French or Italian or Japanese. This, too, is familiar to me. I always feel the same when a novel has finally exhausted me, and I feel compelled to admit that, although it doesn't seem finished, it is as close to completion as I'm capable of getting it. Some wholeness isn't quite there. While I wrote, I felt it hovering around me. I could taste it, I could almost smell it -- the mystery itself. And even if the published novel has turned out fairly well, there is always that sense of having missed the mark.

Fiction is, then, at least to me, an ongoing process of translation (and mistranslation), beginning with the writer's earliest impulses and continuing through its rendering into Icelandic or Korean or Catalan. Writers and translators are engaged in the same effort, at different stages along the line.

For a handful of the greatest writers, Thomas Mann among them, the process of translation continues even further. Occasionally a book like "Death in Venice" speaks so enduringly to readers that it is translated not once but again, and sometimes again and again. This is as it should be. It respects the fundamental nature of literature as a mutable and ever-unresolved business involving writers' and readers' ongoing attempts to get to the heart of the matter, to complete that which can never be completed. A great book is probably, by definition, too complex and layered, too intricately alive, to be translated once and for all.

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