That Pleasant Prison Dream

Posted by lapata on February 16, 2010 · 10 mins read

No, I doubt I'd be that kind of father
not rural not snow no quiet window
but hot smelly New York City
seven flights up, roaches and rats in the walls
a fat Reichian wife screeching over potatoes Get a job!
And five nose running brats in love with Batman
And the neighbors all toothless and dry haired
like those hag masses of the 18th century
all wanting to come in and watch TV
The landlord wants his rent
Grocery store Blue Cross Gas & Electric Knights of Columbus
Impossible to lie back and dream Telephone snow, ghost parking--
No! I should not get married and I should never get married!
But--imagine if I were to marry a beautiful sophisticated woman
tall and pale wearing an elegant black dress and long black gloves
holding a cigarette holder in one hand and highball in the other
and we lived high up a penthouse with a huge window
from which we could see all of New York and even farther on clearer days
No I can't imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream--

-- From "Marriage," by Gregory Corso

A Hindi poet I knew in Allahabad was, like many writers in his generation, very taken with the Beatnik poets. He had a particular desire to translate into Hindi the poem "Marriage" by Gregory Corso, but he was stuck on the line "...Blue Cross Gas & Electric Knights of Columbus." We explained to him what each term meant, but in the end we had to agree that it would be pretty much impossible to translate that part elegantly. It would possibly take at least two or three footnotes, and as AK Ramanujan always used to say, in translation, "every footnote is a confession of failure."

In the shiny future of globalized literary production, in which writers and translators can work hand-in-hand to produce smoothly realized publications for the international market, such conundrums are becoming extinct, according to Tim Parks in his a post at The New York Review of Books (h/t AK). Parks explains that not only do writers the world over hope to gain success by reaching the Goliath-like global English-language readership and prize pool by writing works that are easily translatable, but now many authors are finding that they can't quite get the respect they deserve within their own literary/language milieux if they have not found a global audience. This formula, and certain literary styles, especially magical realism, have created a certain blandness in contemporary international literature. Parks mentions as a primary example of this that Kazuo Ishiguro, who, he says, has spoken about the importance of writing in such a manner that translators are not given too hard a time by references or language that is overly culturally specific. The fact that Ishiguro writes in English and grew up in the UK makes this example slightly confusing for his argument.

Murakami, who is known to work closely with translators to make sure his work comes out smoothly in English, would have been a better example to use. He. The omnipresence of Western and especially American food, music and sundry popular culture references in Murakami's novels has been widely noted and makes for a smooth ride-- the reader is asked to wrap her head around challenging and surreal situations and narrative loops-- but the characters are all eating KFC. Recently I found myself startled when the protagonist in Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World cooks up an endless meal of Japanese dishes for a preternaturally ravenous librarian. I found myself thinking, "I have no idea if that's a lot of food or just a long list of light snacks." I realized I was totally unaccustomed to thinking very hard about anything Japanese when I read Murakami.

Indian literature in English is, of course, written in English. I see how this example fits into Parks' argument better than the work of Ishiguro, but it also serves to underscore the fact that he is eliding translated works with works that feel translated; not in the unfelicitous footnoted fashion of Gregory Corso translated into Hindi, but in the more digestible flavorings of Rushdie and his successors. Cultural references, Indian words and pidgin dialogue are sprinkled liberally throughout, like so much chaat powder. It often seems that many of these sprinklings are superfluous and merely serve to give writing an 'Indian' flavor. Perhaps it is a device which serves, in part, to make readers like Tim Parks feel as though they are reading a novel translated from an Indian language, when, in actuality, they'd never even find such a thing unless they were willing to go to the back of a bookshop in India, crouch down so they could see the lower shelves, and work their way through the poorly lit non-alphabetized Rupa, Katha and non-Shobha Dé and Khushwant Singh Penguin India section.

An echo of the problem of blandness and uniformity in international literature can be found in the art world. In an article on the current exhibitions in New York's modern art museums in the NYT this Sunday, Roberta Smith complains of a similar problem of sameness. After listing off all the big shows currently up, she goes on to lament, "After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand." Her conclusions as to how this problem has come about sound startlingly similar to the pressures that dominate the production of global literature:

But a combination of forces threatens to herd all of our major art institutions into the same aesthetic pen. The need to raise and make money sends curators hunting for artists with international star power who work big at least some of the time, deploy multiple entertaining mediums and make for good ad campaigns.... The small show devoted to an artist who doesn't have an immense reputation and worldwide market becomes rarer and rarer.

The international commercial success of high art, high brow literature, blockbuster cinema and fast food are all driven by a streamlining impulse that knocks down any idiosyncrasies it finds in its path. Perhaps we can hope for a movement in the creative arts similar to the localvore movement in the world of food production and consumption. But getting people to buy books, tickets to art exhibitions and even music is, by its nature, a totally different enterprise. And, of course, the stakes are too exaggerated to really imagine any change in this trend. Here we have Sir Salman Rushdie staring down at humanity from his pleasant prison dream, and over here, the hopelessly local writers, toiling away to try to pay rent, gas & electric, Blue Cross.

On the other hand, maybe the problem is much simpler than that. One should never underestimate the profound provincialism of the Metropole. Maybe when we talk about 'global trends' and 'international art,' and we (I) cite critics writing for the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, we are really just talking about New York. Yes, New York is a global power center for publishing and art, but notice how Roberta Smith, in her review, mentions offhandedly that non-New York American artists showing at the New York museums were, not too long ago, referred to by the slightly insulting term “regional artists.” And maybe when we talk about the demands of global readerships and patrons of the arts, we are really talking about the demands of the publishers and curators of New York City. And maybe if New York publishers wanted to publish things that were more demanding to translate, they would be able to market them for mass consumption just as easily. Some things may be impossible to translate, and the translators may be forced to confess their failure in the form of a footnote or a glossary, but Ramanujan's point was always that when necessary, the confessions must be made, not avoided.


sepoy | February 16, 2010

Lapata, this is a rich post with much to discuss: NY's global local, Murakami's local global, and Rushdie's loco. I want to focus on the market impulse which demands, "to make readers like Tim Parks feel as though they are reading a novel translated from an Indian language". Ain't that at the center of the Rushdie chaat powder. The question is whether this is restrained only to India(n) texts? Or (brown) ones? Does the Serbian novel written in English demonstrate its authenticity through the same hoops or are their different ones? I ask.

lapata | February 16, 2010

...and is there a rich literature of Serbian novels written in English?

Jonathan Dresner | February 16, 2010

Murakami Haruki writes in Japanese, but he's thoroughly fluent in English: he got his start as a literary translator, especially the works of Raymond Chandler and the recently departed Salinger. He spent years in the US, coming back to Japan after the '95 disasters. Interestingly, in addition to being very picky about his translations, there are several works which he has been extremely reluctant to translate -- the recently translated very early work Norweigan Wood among them. Reading Murakami in Japanese is actually kind of an odd experience for an English speaker: it really has a very different rhythm from a lot of other Japanese writing, much easier to follow, and a friend of mine described it as "stinking of butter" (bataa-kusai), i.e. sounding like a foreigner's version of Japanese.

raver | February 16, 2010

Well done lapata. We certainly live in a bland world over here, thanks largely to our strange need to look primarily to new york for our cultural cues. Placing that side by side with the notion of english-language writing that aims to leave the reader with the impression of reading in translation reveals a sort of sad attitude coming to/from us from/to new york. One of these day's we'll get a less myopic culture, right?

Qalandar | February 16, 2010

I think it is the "blandness" of so much "global" literature that made me avidly devour the two large Bolano novels I (along with one-third of the NYC subway population) discovered last year; perhaps not coincidentally, Bolano seemed to live at a great remove from the "main currents" of the contemporary writers' market...

doktor haroun | February 16, 2010

but its my greed for roberto bolaño more than anything else that makes me worry that i'm little better than an enabler of the bland global fiction marketplace. where did i learn about him? that NYRB article two summers or so ago called "the great bolaño" with a cool picture of him smoking a cigarette. how did i know that monsieur pain came out? by scanning the table of contents of the NYT book review...i am guilty as charged!

doktor haroun | February 16, 2010

i guess what i mean is how else does one (meaning me) learn about these things? my life was clearly enriched when either myself or my travelling companion (fyi, that would be the author of this post) found on a dusty shelf a so so at best rupa translation of raat ka reporter; there is a dusty, vacant delhi and torture marks on a journalist's back that are seared into my brain forever. but that's the exception. are there better or worse ways of learning about the existence of good stuff, assuming that when presented with good stuff, one can for example tell that kazuo ishiguro is not an example of a bland translator friendly prose but rather an example of a remarkably subtle and controlled style? and sepoy, maybe you didn't mean it literally about serbian writers in particular, but off the top of my head i can only come up with charles simic, a regular contributor to various metropole-RBs, who generally does not have to jump through any hoops to prove his authenticity. so let the confessions of failure continue!

sepoy | February 17, 2010

works in translation ≠ works that make it feel they translated and NYRB ≠ NY Publishers. And Sarah Palin ≠ Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

M. | February 17, 2010

I suggest harnessing the internet as you would a pair of garden shears used to exercise the amputation of a finger. More clearly stated: choose an author or work that is rare enough for your tastes. Bruno Schulz for instance; not Franz Kafka. Type the author's name or the title of the work into a Google search bar. Feel free to use quotation marks around the word(s). Search. Next, at the top of the page in the middle there is a category called More. Press this and then press the word Blogs. Now, you should be presented with a list of blogs in which somewhere inside the key word you entered is contained allowing you access to, perhaps, like-minded people who, once you have digested a smattering of content, may divulge corners of the universe that previously existed, for you, in shadows. I suggest under no circumstance visiting the Gray Lady. Allow her in to your home only on the rarest of occasion and treat it as such, offering her wine and cheeses, and perhaps making love, all the more saccharine for the time spent apart. Blogs are the modern equivalent of diatribes presented by intellectuals, misanthropes, the deranged, the debased, the earnest, et al. Once, they would have had small enigmatic circles or they would have stood against brick walls spewing rhetoric onto passers-by. Now, they have internet access. Tend your gardens and learn the weeds from the heliotropes.

Qalandar | February 17, 2010

I'd add to that by referring to the deliberate market-friendliness fostered in some of these books: for instance, a foreign word will be used, but then its meaning provided in various ways. I'm not arguing for obscurantism, but either they shouldn't bother translating and let the reader make his way, or simply translate (given that the audience is English-speaking) -- the halfway house that far too many "post colonial" writers refer to seems like it wants to give the reader the frisson of exotica, but without the real costs of otherness (whatever one might say about the difficulties of reading the modernist masters, they certainly never shied away from the latter). That being said, I don't really think of this as selling out, but as sincerity: these writers haven't sold out, they are simply demonstrating the potential all-assimilating banality of "globalized" culture (undeniably pleasant if one has access to it, but potentially bland). Bolano I think offers a corrective: the migrant women workers, prostitutes, factory workers, and students who are brutally raped and murdered in 2666, this is globalization too, the author seems to be telling us (it's clearly on his mind, given the novel opens with the sort of "translated" post-modernity -- here in the context of literary criticism/academia, not fiction-writing per se -- that has come up in this thread), and it is one that, I would venture to say, is impossible to exoticize (the same can't be said of The Savage Detectives, but that novel's "glamor" is twinned to nostalgia for a coming-of-age moment, and is thus always already lost (self-consciously irretrievable, given the book's central conceit of its protagonists in search for a poet so minor she might not even be a poet)...

null | February 18, 2010

As an aside I wanted to ask Random House India has just published the first english translation of Ibne Safi's book. I was wondering if any of you guys have read it and what's your take on it

sepoy | February 18, 2010

@null: As someone who spent an entire childhood immersed in Ibne Safi, I am quite excited. Haven't read it so, don't have a take on it. Maybe Random House India will send me a review copy. Do tell them, I am willing.

null | February 21, 2010

Sepoy I am not affiliated in anyway with Random house. Here is an excerpt

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