Adam Thirlwell takes us through the utopian goals and surprising results of Multiples, an experiment in translation. Charting dozens of countries, languages and authors, this anthology is playful yet subversive, questioning the purpose of translation, the idea of style and the future of the novel

I don’t think it’s so wrong to be utopian. And one form my utopian instincts take is to imagine some kind of ideal world history of the novel, no longer divided into minute splintered languages. According to this ideal, translation would no longer be treated as invisible, or an inevitable failure: no, instead translation would be seen as one more playful form in which a novel could exist.  It would be regarded with a sunny kind of optimism…

That, in a very brief way, is how I try to explain to myself why it was I ended up inventing a gargantuan project with McSweeney’s Quarterly – an experiment in putting this utopia into action. Or, to put it upside-down, it was an experiment designed to try to prove that some of the obstacles to my utopian ideal could be tested and then dismantled – those obstacles being theories of style as the ultimate untranslatable element, or that all translations should be done from the original, by a trained and responsible translator.

And so the mechanics of this experiment seemed relatively simple… The principle was to choose a story, then submit it to a sequence of translations by novelists, that would zigzag in and out of English. So that a story by Franz Kafka, for example, would be translated into English by John Wray, whose English version would be translated into Hebrew by Etgar Keret, whose Hebrew would be translated back into English by Nathan Englander, then once more poor Kafka would be metamorphosed, this time into Spanish by Alejandro Zambra, until finally returning to English once again, in a version of Alejandro Zambra by Dave Eggers. And then that process was repeated, with a new original and new novelists – until we ended up with around 12 stories, multiplied via 61 novelists, in a total of 17 languages.

You see? This utopia turned into madness. To make things worse, the rule was that there would be no rules – that each novelist in the series could translate the story in any way they wanted: for some, that meant what most people think of as a translation – fluent knowledge of the original’s language, and a meticulous attempt to reproduce the words and syntax. For others, it meant an entirely new story. It was simply left to each novelist’s conscience as to how they wanted to interpret the single instruction: to create an equivalent story in their own language.

And now that it exists, this giant anthology, I’m left wondering what it was we in the end precisely proved. Because yes, I think in its way it does manage to dismantle a certain rhetoric of what an original might mean, or what a translation might mean, too. But at the same time, the dismantling went maybe further than I even expected. After all, this project had begun with a basic assumption that style was something we all understand. A style is the unique pattern a writer imposes on a language. The development of such a style was one of the essential aspects of a novelist’s talent. But since in each case a story’s style was both buffeted in the force fields of each translator’s style, and yet somehow also retained its own identity, I’ve been left with a kind of dread or worry – that in fact this basic assumption of the project might need revising as well. Maybe style, in other words, shouldn’t necessarily be a novelist’s ideal – or at least, not the mythic purity of a single style. What was wrong with inventing multiple styles? Why should it always be a single style for a single novelist?

For as I looked over this anthology it occurred to me suddenly that as you read each story in its various mutations, it became no longer quite possible to tell where a certain novelist’s style ended, and where another began. A story was being written that was in more than one style at once – or a single style made up of multiple elements. And so it was as if suddenly a novel could emerge as a giant collective art… But that’s another problem, entirely. And my era of experiments is, for the moment, definitely over.  

Copyright © Adam Thirlwell 2013

About the author

Adam Thirlwell was born in London in 1978. He is the author of Politics, The Escape and Kapow!, as well as Miss Herbert, a book about translated and international novels, which won a Somerset Maugham award. His work has been translated into 30 languages.


Additional information

Multiples: 12 Stories in 18 Languages by 61 Authors, edited by Adam Thirlwell

An ingenious international literary relay race in which stories pass from hand to hand, from language to language, with surprising, thought-provoking and frequently funny results.

To read more about Multiples, please click here.

Adam Thirlwell will be appearing at the LRB Bookshop in conversation with authors from the anthology, on 11/09/2013 at 7pm. There will also be events at the Small Wonders Festival and the Royal Society of Literature. To find out more about these events, please see here.