The Gist, a Meta-Narrative Experiment: Written by Michael Marshall Smith, Translated by Benoît Domis, Re-Translated by Nicholas Royle

And reviewed by yours truly.

The Gist, a novelette by Michael Marshall Smith, is the latest offering from Subterranean Press’s limited but honourable catalogue. To say it is by Marshall Smith—or at least, by Marshall Smith alone—is, however, something of a misnomer. Between The Gist’s covers are three novelettes and one novelette: Marshall Smith’s original, translated once into the French by Benoît Domis, translated again (without access to the original text) back into the English by Nicholas Royle. Two further recensions of the first text: three recensions of a single work.

Yes, I’m of the school that holds every translation to be a fresh recension. Every translation contains the translator’s idea of the text as well as the original author’s. If you’ve ever read translations of, say, the Greek classics from the 19th century and then compared them to a modern translation, the otherwise-invisible person of the translator becomes visible.

The Gist’s whole orientation is, it seems, dedicated to rendering visible—to re-envisioning—the person of the translator and making visible the process of translation in the text. A striking design aesthetic sees pages laid out newspaper-column-style, with pull quotes in contrasting red lettering: Domis’ French translation provides the pull quotes in the original; the Royle translation, the ones in the French; and the original text in Royle’s translation.

Toute l’orientation de L’Essentiel est, paraît-il, dédié à rendre visible—à rendre évident et clair—la personne du traducteur du texte, et de rendre visible le processus de traduction dans le texte. L’esthétique est remarquable, avec des colonnes dans le style d’un journal et des citations des autres versions en lettrage rouge.

All the orientation of The Gist is, it appears, dedicated to making visible—

But you hardly need my excavation-report French to give you some taste of the flavour—the gist of the idea, if you pardon the pun.

But what is The Gist about? And does it succeed as a novelette, and as a self-conscious linguistic meta-narrative experiment?

Says our narrator, the drunkard and quasi-idiot-savant translator John: “The conscious extraction of meaning from a procession of words is not, after all, the only way of interacting with a text, or with anything else in the world.” (No, but—nuair a labhraímid faoi bheith ag léamh/?ταν μιλ?τε για την αν?γνωση/quando loquimur legentem—“the conscious extraction of meaning” is often the first thing that leaps to mind.)

The meta-narrative experiment rather overshadows the novelette. The novelette itself is a decent but not shockingly mind-blowing story about a translator given an apparently nonsensical book, which, after a strange encounter in a playground, begins to infiltrate his brain… with a fairly creepy conclusion. If it stood alone, it’d be rather forgettable, all told: it is not the sort of thing I feel much emotional or critical response for.

The meta-narrative experiment… It’s an interesting experiment, I’ll give it that. The experience of reading text in a different language is always interesting: one thinks differently, or at least the rhythms and emphases of one’s thought alter, when one reads in other languages, or consciously exerts oneself to mentally retranslate. I’m a bad linguist, no translation scholar, me: I still need a dictionary to work through even such straightforward French as is found here. I’m not sure how much the effort is rewarded. Interesting is not, after all, the same thing as compelling or demanding. Qu’est-ce que l’on doit penser, quand on fait la lecture d’un texte de telle genre?

(I can’t help thinking that an English-French-English translation is weak sauce, as an experiment goes: the languages are closely, even incestuously, related. The retranslation alters some words, perhaps a miniscule shade of the tone, but not the rhythm or the emphasis of the text. Staying within the same language family makes the experiment a half-hearted one at best: what would alter had the translation been a case language, or an inflected one? Had it been translated to French and then to Japanese and back to English again?)

What is it one should think? It’s not a story I would’ve read twice on its own: for all the striking design elements, the pretty layout, the idea of translation, the end result seems more like an intellectual gimmick to me. A game whose innings and outcomes will appeal to a very, very limited audience: a story that lacks the emotional staying power to make the game worthwhile.

The Gist is published by Subeterranean Press. It is available May 31.


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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