This experiment, curated by novelist Adam Thirlwell, is all at once serious, frivolous, beautiful, clunky, and infuriating. As I say over at the KRO, they crashed the car, but — well — all in all, it was a pretty fun ride.
These (usually) classic stories are translated (usually) from the source language — which is not published — into English, then to a third language, then back to English again, to a fourth language, and finally back to English. Qualified translators, please shut your eyes here: The novelist-translators are often not fluent in the source language; some of them just made free with whatever came into their heads; some of them used dictionaries and/or Google translate; some accepted help from a “bridge” translator or friend.
There is one story from the Arabic in the bunch: Youssef Habchi El-Achkar’s “الفصول الأربعة، بلا صيف.” The celebrated Lebanese-Canadian novelist Rawi Hage is the first to bring it into English, and he clearly takes this job seriously, doing it both with skill and with love. Hage uses his space in the “notes” to write about El-Achkar (1929-1992), about whom he says there is a “grand misconception”: “In Lebanese literary discourse, he’s often described as a writer of the periphery — but the truth is that he was a contemporary writer in exile from the contemporaneity of the city. The village, re-imagined as Kfarmalat, took center stage in his writing: an unfitting context for his experimental and philosophical style.” (Or perhaps not unfitting, but surprising.)
In Hage’s hands, this existentialist, dislocated story about the Lebanese civil war, has luminous moments. The story’s “fourth season” begins:
The radio is muttering beside him. It mutters all day, on a thin thread of hope it utters: It’s over. The radio mutters and adds: Tomorrow the war will be over, or the day after tomorrow.
And he believes it every time, like an addict he promises himself that this will be the last time: he falls for it, again and again. He needs words, even their lies, to make him forget that what’s destroyed is lost forever, that what was not will never be, and that whatever is built in the likeness of a great mountain will also disappear.
Some of the stories in McSweeney’s 42 are re-staged like good theater: They’re Shakespeare that’s shed its Elizabethan gear and language, re-set in contemporary Istanbul or Harare or outer-space. But where El-Achkar’s story is concerned (you will forgive me if I am oversensitive here) one “Middle Eastern conflict” (the Lebanese civil war) becomes another (the opening sallies of the Tunisian revolution) becomes others (Osama bin Laden, Syria). The story I found luminous becomes “contemporary,” clipped and snipped from some superficial headlines.
In its final iteration, the story’s”fourth season” begins:
It is August the 7th and I am back in my favorite cafe-bar, The Long Dark Cave. The Turkish bartender, my friend, is angry because Syrian protesters are being killed in pursuit of freedom on the television.
“Syria and Turkey, we are neighbors,” he says.
We see young men throw rocks that land off-camera.
The TV says: “They know what they don’t want, but they don’t know what they want.”
So, dear translators, you can uncover your eyes now. Sometimes, cough, it’s really better to have a professional do the job.