I was right inside the pattern, merging, part of it as it changed and, duplicating itself yet again, here, now, transformed itself and started to become real.
— Tom McCarthy, Remainder
Repetition. Repetition, not identity. Nothing is repeated exactly, even words, because something has changed in the speaker and in the listener, because once said and then said again and again, the repetition itself alters the words.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men
Someone once said life is all conjunctions, just one damn thing after another. But so much of it’s not connected. You’re sliding along, hit a bump and come down in a life you don’t recognize. Every day you head out a dozen different directions, become a dozen different people; some of them make it back home that night, others don’t.
— James Sallis, Black Hornet
In a celebrated short story by the Argentinian man of letters Jorge Luis Borges, his protagonist Pierre Menard determines to recreate passages from Miguel de Cervantes’s literary masterpiece Don Quixote. Menard’s approach is one of immersion and appropriation. He intends not merely to copy from Cervantes’s book but to gain so deep an understanding of it that in writing his own version he produces a word-for-word duplicate. This while resolutely maintaining his perspective of a twentieth-century author, aware of the history and cultural changes of the years that separate his own literary efforts and those of Cervantes.
What Menard produces are passages that are exactly the same, in terms of vocabulary and register of language, as those in Cervantes’s own two-part novel. Yet they are wholly different too – precisely because of the disjunctures of time and place between the two authors. For the narrator in Borges’s story, the francophone Menard’s text is the greater, subtler achievement. He has had to imagine himself into another era, another location, another language entirely. His is an exercise that is simultaneously creation and re-creation. An adaptation that results in replication. It is also one that provides commentary on the historical, geographical and personal context in which it is written no matter that no overt reference is made to it.
For a translator, as Kate Briggs acknowledges in her book-length essay This Little Art, it is impossible to exactly reproduce source material. Translation is always an act of co-creation, of at least two levels of lexical selection and decision-making. It is impossible for the translator to get completely out of the way. They will have to filter the author’s original text through their own understanding and interpretation of it for the benefit of the new reader in a completely different language. They will have to ponder the meaning of paragraphs, phrases, single words, and render this in a way that makes sense to the reader while approximating the intentions of the author. You can read Menard’s story in the original Spanish, as written by Borges, and then in Andrew Hurley’s English translation. One story, two texts, one of which has two creators behind it.
Briggs questions whether it is legitimate to claim that you have read a book if you have not done so in the language in which it was first written. Can we ever claim to have read The Tin Drum or The Divine Comedy if we have only spent time with the English translations? When we do not have direct access to the linguistic nuances of Grass or the poetic devices deployed by Dante, is our appreciation of their work somehow poorer, watered down? Or do we, instead, take pleasure in the fact that a co-creator has opened up a literary universe otherwise closed to us? Accepting, of course, that they too are a presence in the book we read; the translator a shadow, a dæmon, that accompanies the author in this alternative version of the text.
Translation and adaptation do not have to relate only to the conversion from one language to another. They can take the form of what Briggs calls re-mediation, a shift from one artistic mode of presentation to a different one entirely. This can entail not just a change of medium, but of language too; a transformation across cultural boundaries. Radio, television and film provide numerous examples of adaptation within and between media.
- Jon McGregor has reimagined the events leading up to the narrative of his highly-regarded novel Reservoir 13. In a series of short BBC radio plays, The Reservoir Tapes, characters from the local community featured in the book are interviewed by a journalist.
- The popular Danish–Swedish television series Broen/Bron (The Bridge) has been adapted several times, relocated to the US–Mexican, British–French and Estonian–Russian borders. Each iteration, in their way, examines connections through similarity and the appreciation of difference.
- Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film The Departed explores concepts about identity and performance. It not only adapts the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, but nods and winks to its two sequels too.
- The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing traces a lineage. Dashiell Hammett’s novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key inspired Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo. This, in turn, provided a model for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. Each one of these works by Hammett, Kurosawa and Leone find echoes and mirrors in Miller’s Crossing in a hermetically sealed world that is a celebration of the film medium itself and of the tradition of the hardboiled novel. Art about artifice, artifice about art.
- Roman Polanski’s Chinatown reworks the myth of Oedipus for a 1970s audience despairing of the violence, corruption and impotent leadership that informed society and politics at the time of its making.
- Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo reimagines the Pygmalion myth through an adaptation of D’entre les morts, a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It is a film about obsession, fragmented identity and creativity.
Many films, of course, are based directly on novels, biographies and plays, as well as paintings, operas, cartoons and video games. They take source material and re-mediate it, sometimes with the input of the authors themselves. It is a co-creative endeavour, transforming one perspective of a story into something else again. On top of the author’s original vision are layered the ideas and insights of screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, art directors, designers, choreographers, actors, stunt people, editors and musical directors. This is a process that applies to all films and television shows that are not documentary in nature. For these depend on screenplays, on the written word, regardless of whether they have been adapted from another medium or not.
Reading a novel, our own imaginations take on all those roles, painting pictures, hearing voices, filling up our mindscreens, mobilising our other senses. The reader is a creative partner with the writer. In the cinema, the viewer abdicates some of these roles while seated before the screen, but resumes them as the credits roll and their brains carry on processing what they have seen and heard. They still share in the act of creation. With the novel and film there is a willing suspension of disbelief and, concurrently, an eagerness to fulfil this co-creative function. The novelist, for example, can take things so far, but at some stage the reader needs to build on the words they have read, filling in the gaps, giving the characters faces, hearing the birds, smelling the flowers, tasting the food, making the story their own.
Intriguingly, with corporate and political writing, there appears to be a reinforcement of disbelief. An unwillingness to participate, to translate, to lend meaning to the manifesto promises or vision statements. The novel and film both engage, while the bureaucrat’s prose, invariably written by committee, disengages. It is filled with empty words signifying nothing. The manifestos lie there unadapted, unrealised; the business plans dormant for the duration, never translated into meaningful action. They are texts in search of co-creators, of enactors, rarely closing the circle. It is no surprise, therefore, that some of the most powerful works about politics and business do not emerge close to home but are, in fact, to be found in the various domains of fiction: the novel, film, theatre, radio and television.
The work of anthropologists and the study of myth and fable have revealed the universality and timelessness of our stories. Frazer, Propp, Campbell, Lévi-Strauss and Warner, among many others, have helped illustrate how these are filled with archetypes and rudimentary structures that we repeat endlessly, revising and revisiting generation after generation. Every story is a translation, an adaptation. Our stories are always communal even when they appear extraordinarily personal. But in their retelling we grant them a new context, provide fresh insights about the contemporary culture in which we produce and situate them. So, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is transplanted to twenty-first-century London in Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. The Tempest is both staged and lived in a modern prison in Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. Viking gods and heroes are revived for a fresh audience in Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. The Odyssey is spruced up in Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s epic poem.
The lure of the tales envisaged and told by the Ancient Greeks has remained strong, as witness Wilson’s mammoth undertaking, the late work of poets like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, or Stephen Fry’s most recent publication, Mythos. The Greek tales help us understand who we are, help us come to terms with the repetition of the same mistakes, the same lessons unlearned. One tale of protest in the face of injustice, of the outsider on the inside, remains particularly pertinent. Chronologically, Antigone is the third instalment in Sophocles’s cycle of Theban tragedies. Its heroine confronts the empty rhetoric and hypocrisy of the political leadership, the abuse of power by a tyrant, and the nationalism and fear of the other that informs their ideas.
Antigone’s story has been revisited, translated, reconceptualised, on numerous occasions. In 1944, for example, the French playwright Jean Anouilh premiered his own version, which was as much a commentary on the Nazi occupation of Paris as it was a reimagining of Sophocles’s Thebes under the reign of Creon. More recently, partly in response to US foreign policy during the second Bush administration, Seamus Heaney published his version of the play in 2004 under the title The Burial at Thebes. It was followed, a few years later, by Ali Smith’s children’s book adaptation, The Story of Antigone, illustrated by Laura Paoletti. This sought to provide a new bird’s-eye, or drone-like, view of Antigone’s story as it unfolded. Finally, there is Kamila Shamsie’s remarkable modernisation in the novel Home Fire.
This 2017, multi-narrator retelling examines the story from the contemporary perspective of a group of British Muslims. The familiar story twists and turns against the background of rising nationalism, overseas conflict, homegrown terrorism, religious and political fundamentalism. The shadows of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Brexit and Trump loom large. This is no Menard exercise in reproduction and duplication, but one in which the author willingly serves as conduit to the world around her, allowing current affairs to shape and influence her narrative. The reader brings their own experience of that world with them to the book. They look into its dark mirror, responding to the shifting perspectives, forced to question their own values and their role in society.
It is a text twice translated. Shamsie’s own reimagining of Sophocles’s play is then internalised and adapted by the reader themselves. A story, like all great narratives, as old as human civilisation itself yet somehow sparklingly new too. In the past, our future is already written.
The novel is a form that takes time, flips time, gives us time, renews old matter, reminds you what life is and how layered and dimensional it and language and thought and being are, allows understanding, allows fellow-feeling, analyses the notion of structure while being a structure of its own, demonstrates transformation, is micro and macro, by which I mean works on us synaptically and symphonically, and as a form always at the vanguard of its own form never stops finding the form to meet the needs of the time in which it is written and therefore the needs of all our time-cycles, the ones we’re here on earth for, the ones that went before, the ones still to come, all from the pivot-point of the present moment, the no-time and the always, that each novel engages in and holds us through.
— Ali Smith, The Novel in the Age of Trump
The fragmentation of the arts and humanities in the twentieth century has often revealed itself as an obsession with novelty for its own sake, rather than originality that expands on what we already know and accept.
— Peter Watson, A Terrible Beauty
All books are made from other books and so, in their way, all books are translations in one way or another.
— Kate Briggs, This Little Art
- Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions (Penguin, 1998). Translated by Andrew Hurley.
- Kate Briggs, This Little Art (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017).
- Mireille Gansel, Translation as Transhumance (Les Fugitives, 2017). Translated by Ros Schwartz.
- Seamus Heaney, The Burial at Thebes: Sophocles’ Antigone (Faber & Faber, 2005).
- Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13 (4th Estate, 2017).
- Jon McGregor, The Reservoir Tapes (4th Estate, 2017).
- Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus, 2017).
- Ali Smith, The Story of Antigone (Pushkin Children’s Books, 2015). Illustrated by Laura Paoletti.