Nobody Writes to the Fat Man
Holding a pair of darned socks and a hot water bottle, Albtraum stood outside the fat man’s room. The elf nudged the door open and peeked inside. By candle light, he saw his old friend, wearing nothing but his y-fronts, seated by the frosted window.
‘Leave everything on the bed, Albtraum.’
The elf placed the things down with deliberate slowness and then, light of foot, stepped just outside the door and watched as Santa continued to trace, on each of the frosted panes, the names of all the children, who no longer wrote him letters.
His sleigh alighted upon her roof. Despite the years, his descent down her chimney still sent butterflies up inside him. The rooms of the house, though changed, remained familiar. He placed his gloves on the bare marble mantelpiece, where once he’d have found a plate of gingerbread and a picture she’d drawn, her name written in crayon, always brick red, the letters becoming smaller over time.
Inside her room, she no longer needed a nightlight; instead a reading lamp shone above her, asleep, her cheek resting on an open book: her quivering eyelashes scratched at the pages. A pair of silk stockings hung from the bedpost.
She’d believed longer than anyone. But nothing lasted. He came closer, switched off the light, reached for her stockings.
Illustrations by Hannes Pasqualini
There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.
I believe – I know that writers need solitude, and seek alienation of a kind every day of their working lives. Powers of observation heightened beyond the normal imply extraordinary disinvolvement ; or rather the double process, excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others, and at the same time a monstrous detachment… The tension between standing apart and being fully involved, that is what makes a writer.
I steal into their dreams, he said. I steal into their most shameful thoughts, I’m in every shiver, every spasm of their souls, I steal into their hearts, I scrutinize their most fundamental beliefs, I scan their irrational impulses, their unspeakable emotions, I sleep in their lungs during the summer and their muscles during the winter, and all this I do without the least effort, without intending to, without asking or seeking it out, without constraints, driven only by love and devotion. Roberto Bolaño, 2666
When a man’s breast feels like a cage from which all the dark birds have flown – he is free, he is light. And he longs to have his vultures back again. He wants his customary struggles, his nameless, empty works, his anger, his afflictions and his sins.
Saul Bellow, Herzog
Kafka endevoured to be honest in his writing, in his profession and his love. At the same time he realized, or at least suspected, that a person who wants to live honestly chooses torture and renunciation, a monastic life devoted to a single god, and his sacrifices everything for it. He could not, at the same time be and honest writer and an honest lover, let alone a husband, even though he longed to be both. For a very brief instant he was deluded into believing that he could manage both, and that was he wrote most of his works. Every time, however, he saw through the illusion, he froze up, and stopped motionless in torment. He’d then either lay his manuscript aside and never return to it, or sever all his ties and ask his lovers to leave him.
Only fools – with whom our revolutionary and non-monastic age abounds – believe they can combine anything with anything else, have a little of everything, take a small step back and still create something, experience something complete. These fools reassure each other, they even reward each other with decorations which are just as dishonest as they are themselves.
I too have behaved foolishly in my life in order to relieve my own torture. I have been unable either to love honestly or to walk away or to devote myself entirely to my work. Perhaps I have wasted everything I’ve ever longed for in my life, and on top of it I have betrayed the people I wanted to love.
The expression lost in translation holds true for many people living in a multilingual society where what one means to say and what one actually says are often worlds apart. Speaking a foreign language can sometimes be a process of cut and paste whereby one lifts familiar phrases from one’s own language, translates them directly, and then offers them around like a host sending out the hors d’oeuvres at a G8 dinner, hoping that they will be to everybody’s taste. Yes, in many cases, such linguistic faux pas do lead to interesting discoveries that enrich a language. Indeed, writers who choose to adopt a foreign language, such as Nabokov, bring new life to literature: rummaging through the lexical attics, they dust of the old words, shine them up and set them newly upon the shelf.
Much then can be said for the creativity of crossovers in literature, where things are found rather than lost in translation.
However, I would argue that this pertains only to freshly baked literature, those first time recipes of a serendipitous nature, and not to a literature that, in the altering, requires a surgeon’s unwavering hand, and a mirror, too.
I would once read the stories of Marquez or the poems of Paz without a thought as to how the English versions might differ from the Spanish originals. It was only in the role of translator that I really began to question the nature of equivalency in books. An unsuspecting reader might assume when picking up Murakami’s 1Q84, that the book they were about to read was the equivalent of the original. However, Jay Rubin, the longtime translator of Murakami’s work, suggests that the opposite is true. In a recent interview with The New Yorker Magazine, Rubin said: ‘I strongly advise people not to read literature in translation because I know what happens in the process […] Everything they’re reading has been filtered through the brain of the translator. And it’s his words they’re reading.’
Most readers would find Rubin’s comment unsettling: a poststructuralist nightmare whereby all the great works of literature from Cervantes to Dostoevsky to Bolaño are only as good as their translators. A bona fide translator may endeavour to transcribe exactly the text of the original author, but inevitably he brings his own interpretation and own language system to that work. In terms of the 1976 Barthes essay, ‘The Death of the Author’, the translated text then is no longer the same text simply because the author is no longer the same author.
The translator is also a reader, albeit one who attempts to step into an author’s shoes – wishing to replace him in Borgesian fashion or at least to imitate him. But the nature of language does not allow for such singular activities and so all that the translator can do is interpret, as best he can, the designs of language, aware of the changes made upon it by time and space. It may seem like a truism to say that translation is determined by language, yet the translator does face the difficult task of interpreting a language governed by the influences of social, historical and cultural constraints, based upon the underlying currents of language itself.
How then should we as readers approach this idea that what we want is not exactly what we are going to get? The work of a translator is one of making ‘choices’ within given perimeters, and as lovers of world literature it is a return to Babel; we must simply trust that the choices are the right ones.
Sounds of a San Juan night, drifting across the city through layers of humid air; sounds of life and movement, people getting ready and people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing in the long Caribbean night.
Hunter S. Thompson