Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, June 23, 2008

French Cover Art

Ain't it pretty.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


And in a sweet synchronicity -- I've just found out that Hannes Riffel's German version of VELLUM has been awarded the Kurd Laßwitz Preis for Best Translation 2008. (The original even snuck in at #6 in the Best Foreign Work apparently, which is also well cool.) So a big shout out and tip of the hat to Hannes. Even without reading German I knew just from working with him that the result was gonna be damn fine, so I'm well chuffed that the Powers That Be have recognised the quality of his work.

In short: Hurrahs!

More Translation Questions

... some from Hannes, some from Luis...

page 78: "Wheel Men" as in "wheelsman" ?

This is "Wheel Men" as underworld slang for getaway car drivers.

page 79: "RCC" stands for?

Royal Caledonian Constabulary, on a parallel with RUC, Royal Ulster Constabulary.

169 R-driver -- Well, I don´t think this will change the plot of the book, but I´ve got curiosity about what this R means.

I’ve no idea what the R means, I’m afraid (though it’s “drive” rather than “driver”, as in “hard drive”). I just made it up along with Qube as something that would sorta sound like some new-fangled data-storage device.

128 Stone of Scone -- I´m sorry, is this some kind of set phrase?

Ah, the Stone of Scone is actually a big hunk of rock that used to be kept in the town of Scone (hence the name); would-be kings of Scotland would come to sit on it and be crowned. It was moved to Westminster Abbey centuries ago so English monarchs could be crowned on it. One legend, if I recall correctly, says that it’ll scream whenever the rightful king approaches. It was stolen by Scots nationalists during the 1970s, and although it was returned there are lots of rumours that the stone returned was actually a copy. In the 90s the government decided that it should be stored in Scotland anyway when it wasn’t needed for coronations, so it ended up in Edinburgh.

(Personally, I think it should be ground up into dust and every single Scot given a piece of it as a sort of democratic fuck-you to mediaeval feudalism. The French had the right idea when it comes to inbred, porphyria-ridden, overblown celebrities. If you want tradition then bring back ritual regicide, I say. Give ‘em a year then chop their heads off in a public ceremony outside Buckingham Palace. The tourists’ll fuckin *love it*!

*ahem* Anyway...)

211 Elixir,Accordion, Indo, Autonomy, Thirst, Palomino -- I know all this names came from the Bacchae, but could you please associate each name with the real ones in the play?Znx!

Indo and Autonomy are from Agave’s sisters, Ino and Autonoë, but actually most of those names have snuck across from Virgil’s Eclogues, which I wanted to use to create a sense of archaic idyll to the far-flung fold of the Hinter where the action of the play is taking place for real (or did take place for real), the wilds where Phreedom was roaming when she got suckered in by the angel. So Elixir and Accordion come from Alexis and Corydon (“A Passionate Shepherd to His Love”), while Thirst and Palomino come from Thyrsis and Palaemon (“The Singing Match” and “Are These Meliboeus’s Sheep”).

213 TrynovantiumColosseum -- Some play with Amphitheatrum Flavium and tyrant? Other thing?

Trynovantium is one of the (possibly fictional) ancient Roman names for London. It literally means New Troy and is based on the legend that Britain is named after the exiled Trojan, Brutus.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Interview: Hannes Riffel

Having been posting some of the questions asked by the translators working on Vellum/Ink, I thought it might be cool to turn the tables, and interrogate these guys for a bit. So in the spirit of what's turning out to be Translation Month here at the Geek Show, here's what should be the first of a short series of interviews with the translators of various editions. It's maybe not the most in-depth set of questions ever, but if nothing else, hopefully this'll cast some light on the hard-working people involved in the gnarly process. So without further ado, let's get on with it...

OK, let's start with the basic pimpage -- your name, the language you're translating the book into, which book and for which publisher:

Hi, I'm Hannes Riffel, and I'm trying to transmute Ink into German, after having cut my teeth on Vellum and losing quite a few in the process. It will be published as a paperback by Heyne and before that – hopefully – as a cloth edition in a small print run by Shayol.

Can you give us a little sense of where you live and what it's like. How would you describe it to a would-be visitor from foreign shores?

My wife Sara, an accomplished translator and editor herself, and I live in a 70 year old house in a rural area of East Berlin with a nice garden and way too many books. Sara comes from the countryside a bit further east from here, I come from Freiburg way down south near the border of France and Switzerland. From our kitchen and library windows you can see the tenant building blocks a few streets away to the north, from our studies you can see the garden to the south and not much else. It's nice and quiet most of the time, but not too far from Berlin center (or the centers, as there are quite a few), if it gets too quiet.

What kind of stuff do you get up to when you're not working? Do you write yourself? Any other involvement in the wider scene? Or other scenes, for that matter? Basically, what do you do for kicks?

Well, I have written and published two SF short stories, nothing special, but usually consider myself a craftsman, not an artist. I'll probably stick to translating stuff for the rest of my life, but who knows?

I have been scouting and editing SF for close to ten years now, for different publishers big and small. I moved to Berlin in 1998, am involved with the local fan scene and run a SF small press, Shayol, ( with some friends here. More important to me is the SF/F/H bookshop Otherland ( I run with my best friend Birgit and a bunch of incredibly nice and competent guys who work there mostly for the hell of it. It's good to work on the retail end of things; it keeps you grounded. Oh yeah, and I edit the German SF/F/H magazine Pandora (

Other scenes? I read a lot, lots of mysteries, old Greek dead guys (philosophy, poetry, drama), history, and I try finding some time for that 1500 page Biology text book making up for all the stuff I missed in school. We have lots of friends here in Berlin and like to meet them in bars and pubs. And I try to get back into running regularely, keeping the old body fit for a change.

So, how long have you been translating and how did you get into this line of work?

Close to twenty years now. I first started with the publisher I did my apprenticeship at, translating some juveniles and learning quite a bit in the process. They just needed someone who was better than the guy who had messed up a translation that had to be finished fast, and that, on the surface of things, turned out to be me. When I moved to Berlin I had just quit university the third time and started translating horror stuff to pay the rent (Barker, Lansdale, Brite). The bookshop we opened in Berlin did not make enough money to live on (as we expected), not for two, and so my colleague Birgit and I looked for other work. I was lucky, because smallish publisher Argument was searching for translators for their new SF line, and I got John Shirley and Sean Stewart. Birgit, as it turns out, is now a prize-winning science journalist.

What sort of range of works do you normally translate? Are you mostly focused on English-language genre fiction, or do you translate from other languages, other fields?

English only. I can barely understand a French newspaper and puzzle out letters in ancient Greek. Mostly SF and fantasy, which I try to get out of, just for diversity's sake.

Do you have a specific approach to a project, a daily routine?

I try to do a certain amount of book pages per day – usually ten to fifteen if the book's easy, four to six if it's difficult (like the stuff this Duncan guy writes). Punctuality is more important in this line of work than quality, because publishers spend a lot of money announcing their books to the trade, and if a book is late, especially at a bigger house, that's bad business. So if I do not get my page count done I work on weekends, and that cuts into other, non-paying projects.

I usually start at 9 am, read the stuff I translated the day before and then work away until it's done, usually around 2 to 4 pm. After that I line edit other people's translations or the work of German writers.

What sort of resources do you turn to? What's the handiest thing in your office?

I have the Muret-Sanders on my hard drive, the biggest English-German-English dictionary ever, and there's a great online dictionary called LEO. The Wikipedia is a big help and so are the search engines, because you can check most anything at a moment's notice. Having said that, I own two walls of encyclopedias and other, more specialized reference works plus lots of older lexicons on CD to double check online information. The Britannica, for instance, is still a lot more thorough on a lot of things than Wiki.

How much do you think is lost in translation? Do you think there are stylistic effects, for example, that just don't transfer between languages? Do you ever have to choose a looser translation over a more literal one to convey a better sense of what the author's trying to do?

A lot is lost. I don't want to diss the profession, but it is rare that a translation really comes close to the original. Or maybe that is just me and my constant feeling of inadequacy. Of course much depends on how difficult a text is. You can do a plain old non-fiction text justice, and most fiction is not that impossible either. But with something like Vellum or Ink?

An example: I just finished translating Shriek by Jeff VanderMeer, and that was not an easy book, believe me. But most of the time I got the feeling that my vocabulary and my ability to sling words comes close to what Jeff does. But your work is another matter. There is so much free association and splicing of other texts involved, it's hard to keep up. I would have to be more of an artist and less of a craftsman to really be a match for you. But then who is?

Yes, it's my opinion that you have to depart from the text on a word and syntax level from time to time. Translators discuss and argue over this a lot, and no two of them would agree on a difficult passage. But sometimes you just have to got for that one meaning if you cannot get across the two or three other implications of the original. Or your penchant for alliterations – lose some here, add some somewhere else.

Can a work ever gain something in translation? Let's say you're translating a doorstop blockbuster with dodgy prose; how much freedom do you have to fix bad grammar or clunky dialogue? Do you see translation as creative at all?

Ok, this is one of the few instances where I think the old »high and low« still applies. If the writer really knows what he's doing, stick to the text. If he (or she) is just clunking along, most editors will be very happy if you clean things up.

But real creativity only comes into play with prose (or poetry, but I don't want to get into that) of a higher order. And it's always a walk on the razor's edge – sometimes you fall off in the direction of »not close enough« and sometimes you are too cowardly.

How closely do you generally work with authors whose works you're translating? Without naming any names, have you ever had problems dealing with the writerly ego?

Luckily most writers are just an e-mail away and very happy to be of help. Naturally it is in their best interest to get a good translations. But I sometimes feel I bother a writer like you too much, that I should work harder on finding out stuff on my own. But on the other hand, why don't you write like normal people?

I have had one or two writers telling me to leave them alone or not answering at all, which is their prerogative.

Most writers tend to trust their translators too much, of course. They only see how hard they work and what great questions they ask, without being able to really check the translations. Which is, of course, fine by me. John Shirley once had one of my translations checked by an academic friend; luckily I only heard of this after the fact or I would have been scared out of my mind. And I got no complaints.

Apart, of course, from the work of blinding genius / unmitigated folly by yours truly, which book that you've worked on gave you the most pleasure to translate, and which translation are you most pride of? Is there a difference?

Well, there are quite a few. I have translated half a dozen books by Sean Stewart, and he is a wonderful, vastly underrated writer and a joy to translate. I did the first German translation of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, of which I'm quite proud.

John Clute's Appleseed was hell to do, but John is a great guy and a good friend, and in hindsight I am rather proud of that book (it won me a Kurd Laßwitz award as best SF translation of the year). And Shriek by Jeff VanderMeer, of course. Jeff's an incredible writer and I am proud to know him and his wife Ann.

And on the subject of ego... sorry, I have to ask: as the person who had to translate it, what aspects of VELLUM/INK were a) the biggest problems, and b) the biggest pleasures? Why?

(a) and (b) are mostly the same passages. I love it when you mix and rap ancient and/or classic texts, but I hate you for it as well. Especially since most of those texts don't have German translations that rhyme, so I have to do the rhyming; or I don't, because original and translation refer to a source, and the German source is different.

I totally love the Jack Flash pulp sequences, but it took me a while to get into the groove of those. And what to do about Finnan's dialect and all the damn useless wordplay on every page (which after the first shock turns out not to be useless, but has an intention behind it or at least sounds great)? I hate you, I fucking hate you, and I stand in awe of every sentence you write and love you for it. As you see, (a) and (b) tend to get mixed up a lot.

And to stir things up a little... as a reader of the original, if you were also a reader of the translated text rather than the person who created it, what do you think would be your biggest problems and your biggest pleasures with the translation? Would they be the same as with the original?

The translation of Vellum (let's talk about Ink when I'm through and my editor has ripped my head off) reads easier than the original. I'm a bit sorry about that, but when I feel I have to make a decision in either direction, I opt for clarity most of the time. Which means German readers get at least one meaning straight. But I think all in all the translation conveys what you intended, in terms of story, language, derailing of expectation, the lift-off from mythology et al. I tell people to read the German first and the original after that, use the translation as a stepping stone. But the translation has garnered quite a bit of praise, so I try not to be overly humble.

And a few wider questions to close things off. Ease of reading aside, do you have any preferences between languages? Are there qualities of the languages themselves that you appreciate?

English is a wonderfully flexible language. You have so many multiple meanings and levels of allusions, it's incredible! German on the other hand is very accurate, very useful for operating instructions. And it is one of the great difficulties of translating from English into German to conflate these qualities. To make matters worse, German has lost a lot of its versatility in recent decades. But I try to read some older writers to work against that.

In the spirit of internationalism, what writer in your own language (in whatever genre) are we missing out on in the anglophone world because they haven't been translated into English? Or who should we be reading that has been translated? What is it about them that rocks?

The only genre writer that has been translated recently is Andreas Eschbach, and his Die Haarteppichknüpfer (The Carpet Makers) has been translated. Read it; it is great. There are two incredible younger writers, Dietmar Dath and Tobias O. Meißner, which you are really missing out on. But the English language market is so flooded with native speakers – why translate stuff at all?

Dath and Meißner are both very versatile writers, using genre tropes to feed the story machine and to comment on life and politics etc. Both are now finally finding a wider audience, so there is hope.

And lastly, do you have any upcoming translation projects you're really looking forward to, or novels that you'd really like to work on if you had the chance?

Well, after Ink, I will swear off difficult books for a while. Their is a short novel by Robert Bloch on the horizon, for which I do not have a contract yet, but it looks very promising. I translated a bunch of stories by Joe Hill (last year) and his dad (this year), both of which are writers I'd like to go back to. And, without trying to ingratiate myself, I enjoyed translating your »Chiaroscurist« very much and would love to try my hand on more shorter Duncan stuff – it seems more feasible to concentrate on something of less than 500 pages ...

Thanks, Hannes!

Next: well... wait and see.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Translation and Style

In a recent comment on an one of the older entries here, What is Style?, a correspondant, Colin, asks a couple of questions that I thought I'd bring forward, since translation seems to be the current topic on the Geek Show.

In that entry, as in the Strange Sentences essay, I argue that the packaging/content metaphor of style/substance is bogus. As readers we seek to "extract" insight or entertainment from a work; we conceptualise the text as a "vessel" for theme and/or plot; we imagine that text as a sort of "skin" of prose with theme and/or plot "within"; we imagine theme and/or plot as a sort of deep structure, an articulation of bone and flesh "upon" which, "around" which, that prose is crafted, the "surface" we must "dig under" to get at the Meaning and/or Story. Ultimately, if we conceptualise the surface of prose as a "finish", we may well conceptualise the syntactic and lexical patterns that distinguish it as a largely decorative and superficial "patina".

This is a spatial metaphor. It is only a metaphor. Here's how it really works:

The substance of a work of fiction is the words. These are the stuff from which it is made. At the lowest-level those words are selected and structured into sentences which generally exhibit distinct features of syntax and lexicon, patterns of low-level articulation we commonly refer to as "style". Words are built into sentences, which are built into paragraphs, which are built into scenes, which are built into narratives. The selection and structuring that goes on at this higher-level of articulation leads to distinct features of narrative dynamics, patterns of drama* we might well refer to as "style" but generally do not (regardless of the fact that they are characteristic of a writer's work, maybe even their ouvre, and therefore reproducable by another writer trying to work in a similar "style").

In the act of reading we interpret that articulation, we construct these entirely imaginary things in our head -- character, plot and theme.

The point of this? The very things we label content -- character, plot and theme -- are in fact only superficial glosses of this articulated structure, crude outlines which re-present the complex drama of the text in broad summaries. Words are the cells. Sentences, paragraphs, scenes are the arrangements of those cells into tissues, organs, structures and systems, the very real and perceptible substance of the articulated organism that is a text. Character, plot and theme -- these are stickman drawings of that articulation, sketches which seek to encapsulate and convey a reader's sense of it, an artist's impression. The more detailed they are, the better they function as the representations they are, but they may well be rudimentary and reductionist. A paragraph-long description of a novel's plot may be representing the content of that novel about as well as a child who lays his hand on a piece of paper and draws a single line around it with a purple crayon is representing the anatomical substance of that hand. A description of the theme may be like a stickman drawing of a hand by the same child, a rough circle with five lines sticking out of it for fingers. Even if the representation is detailed and accurate it is only a representation and it is only a representation of the reader's reading, the abstract interpretive experiencing of the text.

Which leads us to the question(s):

Ah - but how do translations work, then? How can we clothe that structure with different cells and produce the same emergent phenomenom?

The anti-style argument is that the text's purpose is to "carry" Meaning and/or Story, that the prose through which plot and/or theme are articulated is only a means to an end. If its key function is as a "vessel", we can judge it according to how well it performs this task -- bearing in mind that "style" is of no real value in this (metaphoric) model other than as a "finish". If the prose is highly patterned but does not enable the easy reconstruction of a clear Meaning and/or Story, the anti-stylists will decry it as badly-wrought, decorative but deficient. In fact, they will see it as deficient because it is decorative, fabricating a How the Writer Went Wrong story in which a concentration on "style" led to a neglect of "substance".

This argument takes for granted that a different articulation could be substituted, that a different "vessel" could be crafted to "carry" the same Meaning and/or Story. As far as the anti-stylists are concerned, this prose "vessel" should all but eschew syntactic and lexical patterning for the sake of clarity. Hence we arrive at the term "transparent prose" as an extrapolation of that spatial metaphor. If prose is only a "packaging" of the "content", that "packaging" can be made "transparent" so it does not "obscure" the "content".

I call bullshit on this. Obviously a writer can minimise syntactic and lexical patterning in their prose, and obviously this is a good strategy for making the prose more instantly parseable. And the more instantly parseable the prose, the easier it is to integrate into the ongoing interpretative process, the easier it is for the reader to construct those abstract artifices of character, plot and theme. The result is, however, an entirely different articulation. The words are different, the sentences are different, the paragraphs are different, the scenes are different and therefore, inevitably and unquestionably, the narrative is different. Indeed, if we appreciate that the drama of the text is wholly a matter of the higher-level patterns of articulation, that these are features of the text itself, that to summarise the manifest complexities of that drama is to reduce it to vague generalities, then ultimately we must admit that the very plot and theme are different. Which is to say, if we construct these summary representations in enough detail, the process of interpretative reconstruction eventually leads us to the low-level syntax and lexicon of the text itself. One subtle detail, a single word-choice, may change the drama of the narrative radically.

And a translator has to deal with that.

In a very real sense, any translation is a different narrative because it is inevitably a different text. Different languages have different syntaxes and lexicons, which is bound to fuck with any low-level patterning based on poetical/rhetorical repetitions of sounds and structures. Where that sort of patterning is a matter of voice -- sentence-level style used as a way of subtly reinforcing point-of-view by mimicking a character's manner of articulation in the narrative itself, or by imbuing an absent narrator with their own distinct manner of articulation -- this is going to alter the drama of the narrative profoundly and pervasively.

But a good translator is going to do their best to replicate that voice in so far as it's possible. The opening of VELLUM has one character, Jack, describing the sort of scene you get in old Hollywood epics, where an old parchment map is seen "getting darker and darker in the centre, crisping, crinkling until suddenly it just... fwoom." In the German edition, translator Hannes Riffel renders this as "schwärzer und schwärzer wird, knittert und knautscht, bis sie plötzlich einfach... wuuusch!" If there's a loss here of the acoustic qualities of the "cr" alliteration on "crisping, crinkling" -- the hint of an onomatopeic crackle of flame -- Jack's relish of that image is nevertheless captured, I think, in the substitute alliteration of "knittert und knautscht". And there's actually an extra assonance added in the "sch" and "w" of "schwärzer" echoed (and reversed) in the "w" and "sch" of "wuuusch".


Do translations, actually, work...?

I can't imagine a perfect translation. The best translation, it seems to me, can replicate the narrative pretty damn well, translating the literal meaning but also doing its best to translate the low-level and high-level articulation in which voice and drama are grounded and out of which the "emergent phenomen" of character, plot and theme are constructed. I'm not sure, in fact, that as a writer I wouldn't prefer a translator of VELLUM or INK to be willing to sacrifice accuracy now and then if a less literal translation on the sentence-for-sentence level would result in a better articulation in terms of voice and drama.

What's kind of interesting to me, actually, is the idea that where a strictly direct translation may be impoverished in proportion to its failure to replicate the qualities of voice and drama manifest in the patterning of the text, a more ambitious translation which seeks to reproduce these in another language may, in the end, result in a narrative that is no less rich as a work but is nonetheless different, subtly so in some respects, radically so in others. As someone who likes the idea of "translating" ancient myths and classical plays or poetry into different idioms, not as a superficial rearticulation of the basic plot and theme -- as if the original text were only a vessel for Meaning and/or Story -- but as a sort of... palimpsest of permutations, I find that whole idea deeply appealing. Hell, THE BOOK OF ALL HOURS ought to exist in multiple variants.

Could one say that the more similar the emergent product of a translation (i.e. the structure it builds in a reader's head) the less the so-called epithet "stylist" (in the pejorative sense) could be applied to a particular author?

The simple answer, it seems to me, is yes. Allowing for the subtle/radical differences in voice and drama that may be inevitable in the shift from one language to another, there's a point here: that if a translation has to replicate the "style" of a work, to the best of their ability, in order to achieve the same reading experience, in order for a reader to reconstruct, from the voice and the drama manifest in this entirely different set of words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes, a narrative that works in the same way, then that "style" is far from superfluous and superficial.

Naturally, if the original is written in that strictly referential style we call "transparent prose", if there is little or no patterning in the prose that actually manifests voice and drama, only a straight recitation of a sequence of events, the point is moot; the translation would simply be another straight recitation of the same sequence of events, and the emergent product would probably (one expects) be fairly similar... but the writer would not be called a "stylist" anyway in this case.

In fact, if the strict referentiality of "transparent prose" makes it easier to create a translation that results in the same reading experience, if a reader of the German edition is able to construct the same Meaning and/or Story as a reader of the French edition largely because the prose is designed with no function other than the delivery of its denotative "content", this is precisely because a straight recitation is a flat recitation.

I mean, if the prose is only a means to an end, if it's only purpose is to enable the reader to construct this... outline drawing of a child's hand in purple crayon, it's not like the prose actually has to have any depth. Depth is only required if you want the reader to appreciate the work as an actual textual articulation -- as a static composition of a narrative and as the dynamic process of that narrative being played through. In that latter case, the very enjoyment resides in the word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence (re)creation of the text in the imagination.

It comes from seeing the 3D image develop layer by layer, moment by moment, like an image on a scanner morphing from cross-section to cross-section. You see a dot that grows to become the circle of a fingertip, flattened and edged at the top with the thin line of a nail. Another circle appears to one side of it, then a third circle on the other side. You don't know that these are fingers yet; you don't put the image together in your head even as the bone becomes visible at the centre of each circle, still don't realise what's going on as the pinky comes in. The vertical cross-section moves on over joints though, towards the knuckles, and you start to suspect. A fifth circle comes in way off to one side -- the thumb. Suddenly you're over the knuckles and these four circles have joined together, fused by the flesh of the hand, but still with the distinct bone structure. The thumb is getting closer now, the last piece of the puzzle moving into place. When it all comes together, when the scan is complete, when you have the last cross-section where the hand ends and the wrist begins, you can switch view, look at the model of the hand in three dimensions, turn it this way and that. Look at it from one angle, from above, as if it was laid flat on a piece of paper, and what you see is the general outline of it, the plot.

With transparent prose that process of articulation is not the point. The only point is to give the reader all they need to construct that outline and no more. And all they actually need is a single horizontal section slicing through the hand about halfway down, between back and palm. All you need is that two-dimensional image printed out line by line on a dot matrix printer. First the curve of one finger appears, then another, then another. You don't see the nails because they're not in this cross-section, but who cares? That's just superfluous detail. The image of flesh and bone is built up in rough dots of black ink on white paper. It's kinda fuzzy, but who cares? It's the end result that matters. And in the end you have your blurred black-and-white image of a hand, with enough internal detail to satisfy the undemanding reader. Hey, at least the plot is blindingly obvious. You could pick up a crayon and draw over the outline of that hand right there and then.

Or you could redraw that image in another colour, blue ink instead of black, or in another medium entirely, paint on canvass, chalk and charcoal, scan it and email it for a reader in another language to print out on their full-colour laser printer. That translation will in all likelihood create the same emergent product as it is rattled out of the printer line by line in another edition, in another country, for another reader. Hell, the handiwork (no pun intended) of the translator might actually tidy up some of the blotchy fuzziness born of the writer's disregard for the subtleties of prose. I wonder how many translations of THE DA VINCI CODE correct that glaring inconsistency on the first page or so where, in the same line, at the same time, a character "freezes" while "turning his head". This is bad prose rather than transparent prose, strictly speaking, but it is born of the functionalist aesthetic at its most pragmatic, a "that'll do" attitude in which the writer may well know those two things can't happen simultaneously, but, hey, the reader will get what I mean, right? They'll understand what I'm trying to say, and that's all you need with prose that is only a means to an end. No point spending time looking for a more apt word than "freezes" or a grammatical construction that actually relates those actions sensibly; the prose doesn't have to be polished, doesn't have to do the job well, just has to get it done.

This is superficiality in writing if anything is. Those low-level details of syntax and lexicon are all about adding an extra dimension to the prose, giving the reader a series of 2D cross-sections to reconstruct rather than a series of 1D lines of printed dots. Imagine each line of printed dots appearing in the rapid sweep off the printer's head from left to right, each dot a word, each line a sentence. This is the linear experience of reading transparent prose. Now imagine each cross-section appearing on the screen in a similar way, the image manifesting in the left-right sweep of a sentence being read -- except each word is not a dot but a vertical line of pixels. The experience is still linear but each word has an added dimension of meaning, a dimension that reveals more structure, more substance.

A fingertip in transparent prose: space; flesh; bone; flesh; space. A fingertip written with "style": space; flesh; a column of flesh topped with keratin; bone with flesh below and above topped with keratin; a column of flesh topped with keratin; flesh; space. The first image is rudimentary, lacking in detail. The second, with its extra dimension, tells us that the flesh before the bone is joined to the flesh after the bone, encases the bone above and below, surrounds it, and that there's a thin line of keratin running along the top of this fleshy thing.

By giving us the flesh above and below the bone the cross-section tells us the whole thing is one unified structure... just as stylistic choices of lexicon and syntax unify parts of sentence by giving the whole thing features that are persistent throughout it, textual characteristics as signifiers of consistency, markers of the voice in which it is all being articulated. It's the difference between a sentence like "The woman was very attractive," versus a sentence like, "The babe was frickin hot."

By adding that depth, the cross-section even adds the detail of the fingernail that is completely absent in the first representation... just as additional meanings are generated by selecting words with specific connotations and acoustic consonances in place of words which simply carry out a basic denotative function. It's the difference between a phrase like "dog with mange" and "mange-ridden mutt".

There's nothing wrong with transparent prose, of course, in so far as it's the writer's choice what they want to write and the reader's choice what they want to read. The prose is just a means to an end for some. All they actually want is that dot matrix print-out that does the job for them. The whole 3D imaging malarky? Hell, that's actually a bit over-complicated for their liking. Reconstructing those cross-sections into a form in their imagination is too much hassle. That extra dimension only makes it more confusing. They're not sure which angle you're meant to look at it to find that all-important plot. For some of them, in fact, that extra dimension means it doesn't have a plot at all... because it doesn't have an outline clearly delineated in black ink. And that's fair enough. It's not my bag; hell, I think it makes for an intrinsically shallower form of literature. But each to their own; there's nothing wrong with wanting pure entertainment. Just don't spin me some bullshit about how the work you don't get is "style over substance"

In fact, if we imagine theme as the skeletal structure of the hand as revealed in that dot-matrix print-out, I'd say (partly just for the mischief of it) that the philosophers are worse than the philistines in some respects, when they fall into the old "style over substance" hokum. When one reads a work for the "content" of theme, for Meaning, seeking "substance" in a skeletal substructure, this is just as reductionist as reading a work for the "content" of plot, for Story. If plot is an outline in purple crayon around that dot-matrix print-out of the hand, theme is only the bones of the narrative, sliced horizontally on that flat print-out, and filled in with a pink highlighter. And any intellectualism that loses it when you add the third dimension, that can't deal with the ligaments and sinews, cartilage and muscle, all that "style" that makes the underlying skeleton harder to make out... well, that's kind of a shallow intellectualism. I mean, there's nothing wrong with wanting a bit of insight. Just don't spin me some bullshit about how the work you don't get is "style over substance".

Admittedly, I'm kind of thrawn in this respect. The whole "style over substance" argument just makes me want to write some mad shit that can't be made sense if you don't allow for that third dimension. Like a 3D image of a hand only with the fingers curled into a fist, so it's just a big fricking knuckly lump if you're looking at the outline and a ball of bones all folded over one another if you're looking at the skeleton.

Or maybe with one finger left sticking out. The middle finger, obviously.


*A definition of "drama" as technical and precise as those of "syntax" and "lexicon" is, I think, possible within a model of narrative dynamics grounding Todorov's theory of equilibrium (and disruption) in a system which models the interplay of subjunctivity levels and modalities (boulomaic, deontic and epistemic). Notions of plot and theme would not feature in this definition. Characters and settings would, but only in so far as these function as textually-delimited agencies and environments to which those subjunctivity levels and modalities are attached.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

More Lost in Translation

So here's some more questions, this time from Luis Gallego, the Spanish translator, who's also kindly agreed to let me post 'em.

Pg 33: CAVOR-REICHS. mmmm... mmmmm... don´t know why.

Ahhh. That would be from Professor Cavor and Cavorite (H.G. Wells) and Wilhelm Reich, the mad scientist behind the theory of orgone energy.

Pg 37: HELLION. Is there a reason for that, some allusion I can´t see? I tell you that because I´ve discovered birdman last week and I wonder if you use 'birdman' in your book for that reason and if hellion have similar allusions.

I used it as a pun on “Hellene”, meaning “hellraiser / troublemaker” ( but with the idea that it suggests “inhabitant of Hell”. I didn’t think of the comics reference at all, to be honest. The “Birdman” cartoon, however, I remember with great fondness from a childhood spent watching this:

Though the main idea there was just to have Finnan use the word to trivialise the unkin that see themselves as “angels”.

pg 40: SOOTH-SIMILE. I´ve the same doubts with those names.

There’s a vague theme of the puns in this part of the book relating to myth, drama, literature and such – I was going for a hint of a metafictiony thing, I guess. So Thebes becomes Themes, Zeus becomes Sooth (as in soothsayer) and Semele becomes Simile. I’ve *no* idea how that could be translated. If there are puns in Spanish that might work in place of these, nouns that sound similar to the names, I kinda think that would work better than literal translations of the puns I use. Even if they have a different meaning, well, I was kinda trying to use the randomness of similar sounds to find new meaning in the chance associations... if that makes sense. So if there was a way to do something similar in Spanish, that would be cool. I kinda like the idea of different translations being subtly different in that respect.

But this is where my way of writing becomes a bastard to translate, isn’t it? Sorry.

pg 58: BOSCH. Dutch???

[ORIGINAL RESPONSE:]“Bosch” was British WW1 slang for the Germans. I don’t know where it came from and it might well have been a totally idiotic thing to call them, but it was pretty common. Feel free to just use “the German(s)” where appropriate or whatever Spanish term would be apt – assuming there is one.

[REVISED RESPONSE COURTESY OF HANNES*:] Turns out I was talking nonsense about “Bosch”. The proper spelling is “Boche”. I’d got the word confused with the chemical company because they had a big factory near where I grew up. So I heard it as a kid and always assumed it was the same spelling as the chemical company.

[*One of the good things about the translation process is finding out about all the little gaffes that slipped through. So when I shared my responses with Hannes he picked up on the Bosch/Boche gaff and clued me up on it. Oh well, says I. May as well expose my ignorance for all the world to see. You may now point and laugh.]