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The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith
Translated by Benoît Domis, re-translated by Nicholas Royle;
Review by Mario Guslandi
Subterranean Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596065611
Date: 31 May 2013 List Price $35.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

How many times does translation equate with misinterpretation? Is the author's narrative style and the very meaning of a literary text correctly rendered by the translator, or is what we read by an author originally writing in a foreign language simply misrepresenting his work? Does the gist of the book survive in spite of the translation?

Personally, I had my misgivings considering my own experience when, frustrated because very little horror fiction was being translated into Italian, I started, many years ago, to secure horror books from USA, UK, Canada, and even Australia, and to read them in English. Going back and reading the works of Lovecraft, Machen, MR James, and Stephen King in their original language, I was horrified to discover how poor and misleading the Italian translations were.

Thus, you can imagine how intrigued I was by the experiment carried out by Subterranean Press with the latest story by the talented Michael Marshall Smith. The original text of The Gist was, obviously, written in English and then sent to Benoit Domis to be translated into French. The French version has been then rendered back into English by writer and editor Nicholas Royle, who, during the process, had no access to the original text nor contacts with Smith. The aim was to discover how much the text changed when passing from one language to the other.

The story itself is simple and compelling. A young translator is recruited by an elderly antiquarian to make sense, or at least get the gist of a rare, old volume written in an apparently unknown language. The task gradually overwhelms the baffled translator, who starts to develop an indefinable sickness and whose very life will be -- literally -- changed forever.

Comparing the original English text and the translation from French into English by Nicholas Royle is quite interesting. I won’t bore you with too many details, but I'll stick to just a few examples:

At the very beginning Smith writes "I’m not doing it" which, unaccountably is translated by Domis as "Ca ne me interésse pas", rightly re-translated by Royle as "I’m not interested", which certainly is a weaker statement than the original declaration that the speaker does not want to do something.

The phrase "Few bits of paper I had with me last night. Forgot them when I left" becomes "I’ve forgotten when I left them", just because the French translator says J’ai oubliè où je les ai laissés.

Similarly -- again because of an inaccurate French translation, "I wish her well wherever she is" finally returns into "I hope she gets whatever she wants out of life " (no mention of the fact that she’s gone and lost somewhere else).

Minor points, certainly. But, at the very end, the misinterpretation appears a bit more substantial. "Several hangovers and a kiss" is translated into "Plusieurs gueules de bois et un baiser". This time it is Royle who misunderstands the equivocal French word baiser and translates it into "several hangovers and the odd fuck".

Fortunately, on the whole, the gist of The Gist survives the difficulties generated by the two consecutive translations, providing the reader with an enticing piece of dark fiction and with the captivating results of an unusual linguistic experiment.

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