Review: Gregory Dayon Lydia Davis

In The Country of the Written Page

For if, as I found recounted in some book or other, sailors at sea used to catch the glow of Flaubert’s lamp as he worked through the night, and take their bearings from it, as if from a lighthouse beam, so too it might be said that when he “unloaded” a good round phrase, it had the regular rhythm of one of those machines used in excavating. Happy are they who can feel the beat of this obsessive rhythm.

Marcel Proust, Chroniques.

An artist is a realist who likes to reformulate what’s real. When in the first essay of her new collection, Essays Two, Lydia Davis writes that ‘translation is a very deep sort of armchair travel’ she is talking from experience, the experience of a fastidious artist who has found a productive way to circumvent the limitations of her own time and place. ‘This sojourn in another language…’ writes Davis, ‘is one I thirst after because it relieves me, for a while, of my own culture and present.’

Given that these essays, which focus on her processes and strategies as a literary translator, were written during the course of what has so far been a terrible twenty-first century for the United States, we can sympathise with Davis. In fact, away we can happily go too, as if towards the Proustian steeples of Martinville and Vieuxvicq, as we are transported by a native not exactly of George W Bush’s or Trump’s America, nor indeed of septentrional France, but of the written page.

Of course the country of the written page must necessarily resemble the lands and cultural atmospheres from which it issues. Long before the lamp in Flaubert’s study supposedly guided sailors at sea as he laboured over his sentences through the night, and before the ancient writerly intention ever emerged to describe ‘life’ within the constraints of agreed-upon alphabets, everything was already describing itself anyway, and all such descriptions were intervolved. That a translator’s method must necessarily traffic in synonyms speaks to this, in the sense that the majority of what we are as creatures, let alone as writers – regardless of the tongue we speak or language we write in – is synonymous with everyone else around us. What is also synonymous is that perhaps the most significant part of what we all are is metaphysical, internal, unseen. This is something that the semiotic nature of writing, and reading, always proves.

For Davis the translator (enmeshed as that personage is with Davis the writer, Davis the daughter, mother, partner, teacher, gardener) the insights that come from her ‘sojourn in another language’ flow two ways. For instance, when she visits the Columbia County Fair while in the middle of translating Madame Bovary, she anticipates that a farmer she observes walking among the exhibits is about to knot the corners of his handkerchief and place it on his head, to protect himself from the sun, as do the farmers arriving at the great agricultural fair in Flaubert’s novel. The inverted effect of this kind of mental slippage in the translator’s mind – if slippage is what it is, perhaps elision would be more correct – is that, as Davis writes, ‘you come to acquire greater perspective on your own native culture, with its particular history.’ In other words, the twenty-first century American farmer she observes becomes, by contrast, more specifically himself, and of his time and place. And so, in turn, does she. Such a by-product of being a translator, and the fact that Davis takes the trouble to describe it in ‘Twenty-one Pleasures of Translating (and a Silver Lining)’, the opening piece of Essays Two, is pointing to the act of translation as a path to self. Here then we observe the translator as a heightened inhabitant of her own world via someone else’s language. Saussureans will sympathise, as will actors.

Connected to this is the oft-repeated lament that in today’s education system we only become aware of the rules of English when we begin, and continue, to learn a foreign language. This learning by contrast often also involves a sonic heightening, as when we realise that certain sounds in certain languages are missing altogether. Like the ‘th’ sound in Mandarin. Or the ‘s’ sound in the Wadawurrung of my region. Commas too are a case in point. We have a choice to either hear them for ourselves when they are absent in a sentence or to relish the way they sculpt a text when they are present. As Davis says, we live in a time of fewer commas, an upshot of which is that in her translation of Swann’s Way, her loyalty to Proust’s sparse use of commas (as opposed to the way previous translators such as Scott-Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Grieve allowed commas to multiply beyond what existed in the initial text) means that her translation feels more modern when in actual fact it is Proust who was more modern all along. What he does is allow the reader a place in his world, a place to see, to hear, to smell, and to punctuate, therefore to breathe. It’s a music he implies. Davis has a whole section on commas in her long essay ‘An Alphabet (in Progress) of Proust Translation Observations, from Aurore to Zut’, but really they seem a constant topic throughout this book, along with the generative value of second thoughts, and how being self-reflexive does not need to contradict grammarian rigour. Essays Two is, in its own way, a prose grammar, a style manual too, but an ongoing one whose prescriptions are couched in the humanely subjective experience of a working writer. Hard or fast rules, for Davis, are to be reflected upon, slowed-up, and most often expanded upon.

For instance, I can imagine ‘An Alphabet (in Progress) of Proust Translation Observations, from Aurore to Zut’, being published separately as a useful primer on some key nuances of literary composition. After all, anyone who has ever taught a creative writing unit at undergraduate level, or at Masters level for that matter, knows that the course we really need to be teaching is How To Make A Sentence. I imagine an atelier with the constituent parts of sentences strewn about the room like engine parts. Here, work out how to use all these bits in the one line. Stiffen this with a semi-colon. Watch out, you’re burring the tenses there.

Whatever the case, it is stimulating to find a literary analysis, or close-reading, that reflects on both the personal lineage involved in dealing with grammatical mechanics – the way we have come to language, the way it has come to us – and also on the physical aspects involved in the production of the sound of prose. Davis informs us that when she was translating Proust she ‘noticed a progressive relaxation or tightening of the mouth in the pronouncing of words as they succeeded one another.’ This aspect of craft is not just another stakeholder in the process, it is a truth that comes before it. Like land before real estate. Who, after all, reads without their body? The reading body is silent but always sounding, and the sound of prose, if it is to affect us in Yeats’s ‘deep heart’s core’, must first resound in that doubly internal tympanum which exists as if on a bridge between the ear and the imagination.

Of course the reading we do is physical in other ways too, and is affected by whether we read outdoors or in, at night or by day, and whether or not we do our after-reading, our reflecting on what we have just read, in the garden, on a train, in solitude, or with friends. Davis describes how after she accepted the commission of translating Swann’s Way – her contribution to the 2002 Penguin translation of A la recherche du temps perdu, overseen by general editor Christopher Prendergast – she noticed how the things in her life ‘were arranging themselves around it. The position of objects in my study had changed to accommodate it. Family relations were calmer, in order to provide less distraction. My health habits were improving to promote greater alertness and intelligence; and even the basement was tidier, the mountains of cardboard boxes removed, for fear of a fire that would consume the work.’ Sounds anxious, right? Well, perhaps understandably so. But it is characteristically frank and generous of Davis to let us in on this, and also on the thought she had early on in the process ‘that by the time I was finished with the translation, I would be thoroughly trained and prepared to translate a book by Proust.’

It occurred to me many times while reading these essays that Davis’s humility augments her expertise in a way that only comes with deep confidence. Gone is the unassailable holding-forth of a skilled ‘master’ (which she is), in favour of an explication of craft that hinges on her two-mindedness, her doubt, regret, and also a touching personal pride in her work. At the end of ‘An Alphabet (in Progress)’ she remarks that if she were to write a memoir about being a translator (which Essays Two almost is) she would title it: ‘Then Again, Maybe Not. Or, Then again, maybe not…’ It has to be said though that as an insatiable linguist and a vocational, as well as professional, translator, she does put herself in some doubt-inducing situations. Translating Swann’s Way is one thing, but by the time she took that task on she already had form and skill in shifting a literary text from French into English. She had translated the majority of Michel Leiris’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), had translated Blanchot, Butor, Joubert, Simenon, and even Francoise Giroud’s life of Marie Curie. So when she takes it upon herself to begin translations from languages she doesn’t already have a working grasp of, the aforesaid two-mindedness is bound to, well, abound.

Davis is of course well known for her explorations in what is sometimes described as micro-fiction, or ‘the very short story’. In her previous volume of essays, Essays One, she described how the taste for extreme concision was in some way a reaction to working with Proust’s long thoughts. When in the spirit of reciprocity she decides then to attempt at least a small translation from every language into which her own fiction has been translated, the Dutch writer, A.L Snijders, captures her imagination. In the essay, ‘Before My Morning Coffee’, Davis describes the process whereby she achieves the translations in what eventually became her two translated collections of Snijder’s stories. After visiting Amsterdam in 2011, and after realising that a lot of Dutch words were recognisable to her from her knowledge of German and English, she begins to consider Snijders work, in part because his fiction is consistently very short, a great help to the beginner in Dutch. Davis explains that ‘a translation from French, for me, has a set of challenges altogether different from those of a language I am still learning at beginner’s level.’ And so we set off with her again, this time on the journey of learning as she goes.

It is not, however, until we reach her essay, ‘Learning Bokmål by Reading Dag Solstad’s Telemark Novel’, that she really begins to display her fascination with being under-qualified to read in another language.

Dag Solstad’s Telemark novel, Det uoppløselige episke element i Telemark i perioden 1592–1896, which as yet has not been translated into English, is regarded as an experimental tour de force in Norway. As I don’t read Norwegian myself (nor French for that matter, unless in euphemisms) I can only rely on Davis’s and others’ descriptions but the Telemark novel strikes me as akin to Georges Perec’s Life A Users Manual, if only in its thrilling materiality and doggedness of form. Davis describes something of the controversy the book caused in Norway, largely due to the fact that Solstad, who is viewed by many as Norway’s greatest contemporary novelist, has made a novel out of entirely non-fictional elements. But this is not Knausgaard, no, this is a chronicle of the author’s ancestors’ lives and activities from 1591 to 1896, told in a resolutely unadorned style, soul after soul, almost in the manner of a parish archive.

Davis came to the book after she’d mentioned to her Norwegian translator that she was undertaking a project involving ancestral research of her own. The Telemark novel was recommended to her not to read as such but ‘just to browse’, in order to get an idea of what Solstad had done. Davis becomes absorbed in the book, and her essay on how she went about the task of reading it from first to last page without any prior knowledge of Norwegian is both long (61 pages), fascinating, and also funny. What the essay emphasises though is the deliciousness to Davis of such an extreme lexical puzzle, the deliciousness also of drawing upon a lifetime of work in the overlapping cognates of some major Romance and Anglo-Saxon languages to immerse in a newly exciting aesthetic world, also the deliciousness of blanking the internet when solving the endless riddles. Oh yes, and there’s the deliciousness too of making copious notes with a sharp pencil in the broad margins of a beautifully designed book, while sitting in a comfortable armchair, following your nose.

Davis’s Telemark essay is structured via headings such as: I Resolve To Read It, Blind Immersion, Mistaking The Cognates, What I Did Not Do Enough Of, The End Of The Book – And The Importance Of Detail. This use of chatty headings as a disarming structural device is reminiscent of some of Davis’s longer short stories, and given her taste for the composting of found material in her own fiction one can imagine her presenting a revised version of this piece as a short-ish story. That an aesthetic predisposition to Solstad’s own composting project was crucial to her embarking on this rather epic nutting-out process is clear, but nevertheless the conflation of her various skills as linguist, fiction writer, storyteller, puzzle solver, and wry humourist, are all on display here.

It’s surprising then, given such undertakings as her reading of the Telemark novel, and also her oft-stated, indeed her golden rule, of staying as close as possible to the original text she is translating, that Davis would, as she recounts doing in the section of Essays Two titled ‘Translating From English to English’, set herself the very different challenge of turning the tenacious Cumbrian dialect of a classic children’s novel, Owd Bob, Son of Battle: the Grey Dog of Kenmuir, into a more streamlined or generic English version, published in 2014 as a New York Review of Books Children’s Classic. She describes how her ‘translation’ of the classic she loved as a child was triggered by the realisation that Owd Bob, an acoustically rich yet nevertheless visceral story, first published in 1898, about sheep farmers and their dogs in the Dalelands of Northern England, had slipped from being a household name to a book that no-one much had ever heard of. Deciding that the book’s fall into obscurity was at least in part due to the difficulties posed by its arcane language, including its author Alfred Ollivant’s phonetic approximations of the Cumbrian dialect, she sets about an update.

I must admit that I found Davis’s description of how she transformed the language of Owd Bob into something more digestible for contemporary readers both fascinating and a little disturbing. This project could only be explained as a labour of love. Even though she takes what she calls a ‘middle path, changing only the most difficult things, allowing some of the less difficult to remain’, the very act of doing it has a Disneyish whiff about it.

The homogenisation of Cumbrian dialogue in Davis’s version is, to my ear, radical, but a good general example perhaps of her ‘middle path’ approach is her rendition of the book’s first sentence. In Ollivant’s original it reads:

The sun stared brazenly down on a gray farmhouse lying, long and low in the shadow of Muir Pike; on the ruins of peel-tower and barmkyn, relics of the time of raids, it looked; on ranges of whitewashed buildings; on a goodly array of dark-thatched ricks.

And in Davis’s version:

The sun stared boldly down on a gray farmhouse lying long and low in the shadow of Muir Pike; it shone on the ruins of a fortified tower and a rampart, left from the time of the Scottish raids; on rows of whitewashed buildings; on a crowd of dark-thatched haystacks.

I couldn’t help but dwell on such interventions, trying to fathom how Davis came to think that changing the original music was a good idea. Apart from the ‘labour of love’ conclusion the other notion that occurred to me was that for a writer who takes such pleasure in the diversity of the earth’s human languages, Davis remains first and foremost an intuitive artist of language, with all the lateral manoeuvres and organic exceptions that that must imply. Her linguistic skills, as she describes elsewhere in this book, were formed through the natural immersion in the sounding world that we all enter into as children. For her this sounding world comprised the educated east coast North American English of her family, and also the German spoken in the school she attended at the age of seven, when her family moved to Europe and she was dropped into the German school system without knowing the language. By her own account she picked German up swiftly and though her family returned to the United States her belief in the importance of context and immersion in learning and understanding languages – which is something of a constant refrain throughout Essays Two – was established. It follows then, I thought, that the connections we make with certain books in our formative years, especially those whose vocabulary and style sit at the magnetic outer edge of our understanding, can also be powerfully formative. This is the way, I explained to myself, that her version of Owd Bob must be viewed.

Nevertheless it came as a relief as I progressed through her account of the ‘translation’ of Owd Bob, to find something of a mea culpa. The Owd Bob essay is also structured with section headings, eleven of which near the end invoke the set of misgivings Davis came to have about the undertaking. Misgiving #1, for instance, is titled, The Loss Of The Dialect Entails Loss Of Colour And Texture. Misgiving #2: You Don’t Have To Understand Every Word Of A Book Anyway. What follows is a disarming discussion on the pros and cons of what she had done, a discussion which happily addressed many of the thoughts that had been nagging away in my own mind.

One of my thoughts that Davis’s set of misgivings doesn’t address is that her original love of the book as a linguistically gifted younger reader probably had a lot to do with the idiomatic textures she was now eradicating. Another thought was that I well understood how you can love a book so much that you proselytise its virtues in a manner that ends up contradicting the subtle spirit of its invention. Davis provides multiple sensible answers to, and reflections about, all her misgivings and in the end decides that her habitual tendency to launch into a project without thinking is perhaps the chief culprit. She even goes so far as to admit that her updating of Owd Bob, Son of Battle, was perhaps not necessary after all. ‘I could have left it alone,’ she admits. ‘A treasure to be discovered intact.’ To reach such a conclusion after all the painstaking effort that her ‘translation’ required is characteristic of Davis’s approach. She is always frank, thorough, wry, and open to experimentation. These qualities define what is so refreshing about her essays.

I should add too that I am happy to have read Owd Bob, Son of Battle: the Grey Dog of Kenmuir, which I probably never would have without Davis drawing my attention to it. I did, however, get my hands on the original version, which I found in reasonable nick in a shop in New Zealand. I actually read parts of it aloud in the company of my border collie and although the Cumbrian burr I tried on was undoubtedly ridiculous I feel confident in saying that no amount of adapting or updating of the text would have got her interested, even in such a wonderful human tale involving her ancestral kind. All she wants to do after all is climb over the sheep.