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Far Territories

Published 31st May, 2016 in MRP Guest Blogger

 Let us take it that the bridge is built and crossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind the territory in which we were. We are in the far territory; where we want to be. – J.M. Coetzee

Every time we read, we cross a bridge to another territory. For me, this is one of the key pleasures of reading, this sense of being transported into another world. I’ve always enjoyed reading stories written by authors who are from countries other than my own, countries such as Chile, Russia, Italy, India. Yet, in spite of this, over the years, I’d found myself developing somewhat of a suspicion when it came to reading translated works.

This suspicion didn’t come to me straight away. For our Year Twelve English class in Darwin, we were given the task of choosing two books – any two books – to read and closely analyse. I chose Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Nabokov’s Lolita. Despite their high-brow status, both of these books were genuinely entertaining, and their dark and anti-authoritarian qualities appealed to my angsty teen self. When I read these books I became utterly absorbed in their worlds and in their idiosyncratic uses of language. Yet for some reason, I didn’t give much thought to the fact that one book was a translated work, and the other wasn’t.

I didn’t read Dostoevsky again until about three years later, at university. In a bid to enliven my law degree, I undertook some elective subjects in literature. One of these, Great Books, was taught by a wonderful American / Australian academic who regaled us with anecdotes of the New York art scene in the 1960s, when a night out at the theatre could consist of sitting down and staring at a brick wall for two hours. (‘By the end of the night, you got to know every inch of that wall!’ she told us jovially.) One of the books she set us was Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, the cheery tale of a misanthropic Russian who lives in squalor and drinks too much. Our teacher had a background in drama, as well as literature, and liked to get us to take turns in reading our books out loud in class. We did this exercise with Notes From Underground, with one person reading aloud and the rest of us following along in our books. I found I was having difficulty keeping up with the reading – the reader seemed to be getting some of the words wrong. At the end of the reading, someone else put their hand up and said, ‘I think I’ve got the wrong book.’ They held up a paperback titled, The Underground Man. ‘Mine’s totally different,’ they said, waving around their copy. ‘Mine’s different too,’ said another person, whose version of the book was titled, Letters from the Underworld. The students in the class were distressed. Which book was the ‘real’ copy we wanted to know. Our teacher responded with delight. ‘Look how many stories we have,’ she said. She got us to read aloud the ‘same’ passages from different versions of the books for the sake of comparison. ‘You see how much depends on translation?’ she said.

I did. But rather than seeing it as a creative act, as did my teacher, it unsettled me. How did we know which English-language words conveyed Dostoevsky’s intent, and which ones conveyed the intent of the translator? That is, which version of the book was ‘correct’? I didn’t like this type of ambiguity. The solution, it seemed, was to either learn Russian, or give up Dostoevsky – and, indeed, all those other great books that have been translated into English.

Over the years, I tried to put aside my qualms regarding translated works, and just enjoy the stories as they’re put down on the page. I’ve come to love reading books that, although translated, retain a sprinkling of words in the original language to give you a flavour of another culture, an insight into how the characters really sound when they speak. Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits did this superbly. The version I read was both lively and accessible – the words flowed as smoothly as though Allende herself had written them directly. Yet there’s no denying that the Spanish title of the book, La Casa de los Espíritus, is far more beautiful than its English counterpart, and I can only wonder what it would be like to read the book in its original form.

More recently, I fell in love – as so many around the world have done – with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Others have written in depth about the virtues of these gorgeous and addictive books, so I won’t do so here. For our purposes, it’s interesting to note that the Neapolitan novels are unusual in several respects. It’s rare for non-English language literary works to receive worldwide acclaim, as these novels have done. And it’s even rarer for a translator to share in the limelight with the author.

Perhaps because of the mystery surrounding Elena Ferrante’s identity and her refusal to do anything but the bare minimum of interviews, the English-language translator of the Neapolitan novels, Ann Goldstein, has become somewhat of a proxy for the author. Ann Goldstein has welcomed the spotlight, saying that:

Translated books get so little attention, and I think the idea that this book is a translated book—I think it’s kind of important for the translator to be a presence… It’s a good advertisement for translated literature, or for literature in translation, of which there is a surprising amount. [1]

Goldstein insists that she has not ‘reinterpreted’ Ferrante’s fiction, and that reading a translated book is in no way an inferior experience to reading a book in its original language. This view is promoted by the recently reconfigured Man Booker Prize, which has become the Man Booker International Prize. The prize now recognises both the authors and translators of creative works. Elena Ferrante (and, therefore, Ann Goldstein) were nominated for the 2016 prize, as were novelists from Turkey, China, Angola and Austria. The winner of the prize was South Korean author Han Kang for her novel, The Vegetarian, which was translated by Deborah Smith. The £50,000 prize money was divided equally between the author and translator.

The reconfiguration of the Man Booker prize has been celebrated for bringing ‘global literature’ to the attention of the (Western) world. As Daniel Hahn says:

All too often we translators discuss ‘translated fiction’ as though it appeals only to a discerning but limited readership. A niche interest. Yet what we’re really talking about is every book from all of continental Europe and Latin America, from much of Africa and most of Asia. That’s quite some niche. [2]

The new prize is a reminder that, without translators, most readers would be confined to the familiar side of the bridge. This is a comfortable place to be, of course, but this comfort can come at a cost; the risk is that our reading materials, rather than expanding our horizons, do little more than confirm our pre-existing worldviews.

Perhaps then, it’s time to get comfortable with discomfort. To accept that when we read a translated work, we cannot wholly inhabit the worldview that is encompassed in the original language. Rather, we inhabit a space somewhere between that foreign territory and our own. Venturing out into this in-between space requires us to accept the ambiguity that comes with translation, but also its creative possibilities.

[1] Weiss-Meyer, Amy ‘The Story of a New Language: Elena Ferrante’s American Translator’, The Atlantic, 2 September 2015, available at

[2] Hahn, Daniel ‘The Man Booker International Prize: A Celebration of Translation’ The Guardian, 16 May 2016 available at

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