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Untranslatable Books

By Oisin Harris, Giulia Maggiori, Rex Cleaver


From the 500-year-old Voynich Manuscript to 2014’s Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, there has been a long history of certain books being deemed as ‘untranslatable’. So, for this issue, we decided to question what exactly makes a book ‘untranslatable’? How might translators actually work around (and occasionally overcome) the challenges involved with translating these texts? These are the questions we asked ourselves in order to help us discern why certain books get labelled in this way - as ‘untranslatable’ books. Join us as we venture into the potential untranslatability of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Vanina Marsot’s Foreign Tongue.




Mission Impossible – the Untranslatable Infinite Jest


Since its publication in 1996, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (IJ) has only been translated into six languages, seven including the upcoming Greek translation. This makes its rate of translation slightly faster than Cervantes’, Quixote (1615), yet lagging far behind a book like Knausgaard's, My Struggle, (2011), already available in over 20 languages. So, what are some of the barriers stumping its translation? Well, for example, Ulrich Blumenbach, its German translator, required 60 pages of annotated notes to explain to German readers the cultural elements ‘lost’ in translation. Not to mention Wallace’s purposeful inclusion of obsolete words that necessitated equivalent archaic ones in German. Blumenbach did all this without any input from the author and instead utilised the 100 Tage Unendlicher Spass, i.e. 100 Days of IJ, a blog created by the book’s German publisher which offered commentary on the book by various writers and thinkers. Its Brazilian translator, Caetano Galindo, (who ranks Wallace second to Ulysses in complexity) had to use a Wallace Wiki and an online discussion group to unpack the title’s complex syntax. Finally, Kostas Kaltsas is the Greek translator currently working on the Greek translation. For him, the difficulty lies in the variety of registers that have no Greek equivalent and the constant use of acronyms. Greek being a highly inflected language makes it difficult to retain the rhythm of Wallace’s sentences. 2019’s Russian translation of IJ gained a considerable social media following after its first 100 pages were published online by its Russian editor. Interestingly, Wallace himself thought IJ was untranslatable, but clearly the jury is still out!


The Cost of Comedy - Vanina Marsot’s, Foreign Tongue

Vanina Marsot, the author of Foreign Tongue, is a professional translator that specialises in screenplays for TV. Having grown up bilingual, she has always been fascinated with the differences that exist between French and American language and culture. This inspired her to publish her book, Foreign Tongue (2009), a novel about a French-American woman who runs away to Paris and starts working as a translator. The plot of the book is pretty straightforward and funny, yet the book possesses a characteristic that makes it untranslatable in French - it is full of French sentences that are intended for an American audience. The uniqueness of the book lies precisely in those phrases in French that the protagonist understands from a linguistic point of view (being bilingual), but which are often perceived as awkward by those who can’t contextualize them within the French culture. The question you are now asking yourselves is: why is this book untranslatable? Well, the book is untranslatable into French because translating the entire text into French would mean losing the comic effect of those phrases left in a foreign language. Unfortunately, they are not fully understood by the English-speaking public. In addition, how can one transform the experience of not understanding a joke in the French context that is easily understood by a foreigner to a French audience? Therefore, the beauty (yet complication) of translation is that it is not just about words but about shared cultural knowledge. And a cultural transposition is not always possible without radically changing the meaning of the entire book.


Translating Consciousness - Lucy Ellmann's, Ducks, Newburyport


Translating a sentence of maximalist modernist prose is no mean feat at the best of times, but what do you do when that sentence stretches to over a thousand pages? Such is the challenge for those translators brave enough to tackle Lucy Ellmann’s Booker Shortlisted novel, Ducks, Newburyport (2019).


Sprawling endlessly over hundreds of pages with no paragraph breaks, Ellmann’s novel is an encyclopaedic depiction of one woman’s interior thought-process. Written largely in the first person present tense — apart from short sections dotted throughout the novel, written in regular prose, enigmatically following a lioness in search of her cubs — the book’s narrator leaps from topic to topic. Often written in the form of endless Nabokov-like lists, it is these passages that arguably make any relatively direct translation impossible. How is a translator supposed to tackle Ellmann’s frequent free-association wordplay? These are sentences like “the fact that we’re about due for another blizzard ourselves, gizzard, wizard, buzzard, zigzag, ziggurat, mosque, piecemeal, peacetime, four-foot sword…”?


America’s cultural hegemony means that the equally numerous pop culture references (Harrison Ford’s Air Force One being one particular touchstone) can travel overseas relatively untouched by the translation process. However, the book’s Joyce-like displays of language beg to be met by a prospective translator’s own attempts at literary wordplay. The challenge awaits.


Here’s a few extra contenders:


Multiple Dr Seuss’ books alongside multiple Stanislaw Lem’s books; Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.

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