Further Thoughts on Universal Translation

[This post is a continuation of a short essay I did for Asymptote Journal’s blog]

Learning a language is difficult, mediating between languages even more so. Not everyone has the time to think about these processes, much less represent them in a rigorous way. These are rather banal observations, but they should be taken into consideration discussing translation and its fictional representation. Not being gifted with much linguistic talent myself, having instantaneous translation is marvelously for keeping up-to-date on books and culture around the world.

I suppose that gets to the heart of why “universal translation” is such an appealing trope. We can just avoid the intricacies of translation entirely. Linguists and other scholars with a professional can devote time in analyzing language as language—others not so much. Outside of novels specifically on that subject, fussing with the ins-and-outs of contacting an alien civilization tends to bog narratives down, especially in longer works.

While I found Lem’s His Master’s Voice intellectually compelling, the dry, essayistic style made it difficult to sustain interest. Alien languages don’t have to be boring. But it takes an ear for style as well as a technical mind to make the subject come to life. Borges, especially, in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” treats linguistic subjects with appropriate concision, and much more vividly as well.


A World Collapsing Endlessly (Beckett)

Nebensonne“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I listen and the voice is of a world collapsing endlessly, a frozen world, under a faint untroubled sky, enough to see by, yes, and frozen too. And I hear it murmur that all wilts and yields, as if loaded down, but here there are no loads, and the ground too, unfit for loads, and the light too, down towards an end it seems can never come. For what possible end to these wastes where true light never was, nor any upright thing, nor any true foundation, but only these leaning things, forever lapsing and crumbling away, beneath a sky without memory of morning or hope of night. These things, what things, come from where, made of what? And it says that here nothing stirs, has ever stirred, will ever stir, except myself, who do not sir either, when I am there, but see and am seen.

From Molloy by Samuel Beckett

Rodeo novel fiction?

Answer by Matthew Spencer:

Winterkill by Craig Leslie. The protagonist is Danny Kachiah, a Nez Perce rodeo clown living on a reservation in the Pacific Northwest. The story follows Danny as he confronts a declining career and family traumas after taking custody young son, whose mother has died in a car accent.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about the book. Like a lot of students growing up in Oregon and Washington during the 90s and  2000s, I read it as part of the English curriculum in high school. From what I recall, the prose was well crafted but the pacing slow. The flashbacks felt contrived.

But if you’re reading strictly for the subject matter, you should give Winterkill a try. The bits about rodeo life struck me as being quite realistic, and they were by far the most interesting sections of the novel.

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Nocturnal Travels (Proust)


Moonrise by Stanislaw Maslowski,1884

A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in a  second the point of the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed before his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken. If toward morning, after a bout of insomnia, sleep overcomes him as he is reading, in a position quite different from the one in which he usually sleeps, his raised arm alone is enough to stop the sun and make it retreat, and, in the first minute of his waking, he will no longer know what time it is, he will think he has only just gone to bed. If he dozes off in a position still more displaced and divergent, after dinner sitting in an armchair for instance, then the magic armchair will send him traveling at top speed through time and space, and, at the moment of opening his eyelids, he will believe he went to bed several months earlier in another country.

From Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (trans Lydia Davis)

What are the differences between historical fiction and realistic fiction?

Answer by Matthew Spencer:

Realistic fiction portrays fictional events and characters that can plausibly occur within a commonly accepted model of objective reality. Literary critics, especially of the postmodern variety, will argue whether it is possible to represent reality. But that’s a whole other argument,

Historical fiction is closely related to realistic fiction in that the past needs to be plausibly if not accurately represented, especially if the story is not only set in a historical period but the characters and events within that story have analogs within the actual historical record. In other words,  Winston Churchill the character needs to resemble Winston Churchill the man, or at least one of many different accounts of Winston Churchill. Even if a writer is positing an alternate history, those counter-historical events still need to have origins within some commonly accepted view of the past.

So the two categories are not mutually exclusive. Much realistic fiction, including works by classic 19th Century realist authors such as Tolstoy or Balzac, could be considered historical, since they were set in a time period preceding their composition. But neither are the two categories wholly inclusive. Some works of historical fiction, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy immediately comes to mind, have elements of the fantastic that place those works outside realistic narrative strictly speaking, even though actual historic events and people are represented within them.

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Desert Island List: Books, 2014

Roget’s International Thesaurus (desert islands tend not to have WiFi)
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence
Samuel Beckett, Molloy
Roberto Bolaño, 2666
Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions
Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees
Willa Cather, Death Comes to the Archbishop
Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
Henry Fowler, Modern English Usage
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust
Emile Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou
Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard
Franz Kafka, Collected Short Stories
Herman Melville, Moby Dick (“Bartleby the Scrivener” will do in a pinch)
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (about a metaphysical desert island, if you will)
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (really anything, but desert islands aren’t known for their abundant shelf space )
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

What are some of the best historical fiction novels?

Answer by Matthew Spencer:

My personal favorite is The Leopard, the only novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. The book tells the story of Prince Fabrizio, a Sicilian nobleman who struggles to adapt to a changing society during the Risorgimento, or the period of Italian unification which took place during the mid-19th century. Prince Fabrizio is an intelligent, open minded man who sees plainly how the aristocracy is slowly losing ground in the new political order. He faces difficult decisions on how to continue the family name and its ancient privileges despite the surrounding society, which is doing its best to thwart those efforts.

Not to give too much away, but things don’t turn out as planned. Those looking for happy endings and virtue rewarded will, in all likelihood, not enjoy the ending of the book. Nevertheless, I think the novel has a vital message: enduring, both on a personal and cultural level, means changing with the times, even though there’s no guarantee of any reward for the effort. This message was something deeply felt by the author, who saw his own aristocratic family dwindle to extinction and his ancestral home destroyed during the Second World War. He wrote the novel while dying of cancer, with the knowledge that he had largely squandered his life. If there’s any lesson in all of this, it’s seize the moment.

Other contenders for best historical novel:

I Claudius by Robert Graves

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

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