January 10, 2014 | Review Period

The World’s Most Multilingual Book?

A good gift for the polyglot in your life.

For Christmas this past December I received a book. This is not an unusual occurrence in my family. Many books have exchanged hands between relatives over the years, something that has long been a source of pleasure in my life. And an honor, really. Bibliophilia is a privilege for which I am grateful.

Multiples, Edited by Adam Thirlwell

Multiples, Edited by Adam Thirlwell

This particular book, however, was a total mindblower. Its name is Multiples, and it is edited by Adam Thirlwell, about whom I knew nothing previously but whose writing in the book’s introduction suggests he is a very smart guy. Across the top of the front cover are the words “12 Stories in 18 Languages by 61 Authors.”

The author-translators include illustrious names such as Colm Tóibín, Zadie Smith, J.M. Coetzee, and plenty of other literary heavyweights.

Here’s one example of what you will find: A story by Franz Kafka, “Das Tier in der Synagoge,” is first translated from German into English by John Wray, then into Hebrew by Etgar Keret, then translated back into English by Nathan Englander, then translated into Spanish by Alejandro Zambra, then translated into English again by Dave Eggers.

Other stories start out in Arabic, or Japanese, or Danish, or Dutch, and so on, and go through several translated permutations. Since many of the translations involve English and a few major European languages, a very healthy chunk of the book is accessible to people who aren’t actually octadecalingual.

Translations occur without reference to the original; the translator-writers are working off just the previous translation. Thus it is like the game of telephone (also known as Chinese whispers, I just learned) that kids play around the world.

Having looked at some of the translations, I can confirm that “translation” is a term that is applied loosely here. There is much creative license and much art, and the book’s introduction did not lead me to expect otherwise. These are, after all, writers with individual personalities and styles.

Not to mention varying foreign-language capabilities! A “complicating factor,” according to the book jacket, is this: “Not all of the writers are 100% fluent in the language they’re translating from.”

The translated titles alone reflect the idiosyncracies of the process. Of the three English versions that appear in the translation chain for the above-mentioned Kafka story, we have (in this order): “In Our Synagogue,” “The Creature in Our Shul,” and “The Animal of the Church.”

Multiples is an eccentric experiment that is completely accessible only to a very, very small crowd. I am not among them, but for me it was worth it just to get a book labeled “12 Stories in 18 Languages by 61 Authors.”

Now, I don’t mean to be picky, but those numbers are misleading. Being inclined to compulsivity, I counted the languages. There are 13, not 18, because you don’t get the original stories in the original languages. Yes, you get the original titles, but I refuse to count a little strip of title as representing a language. The full story text in each translation chain starts with the first translation of the original, not with the original itself. (Odd.)

Therefore, if you do in fact speak 18 languages fluently—all three or so of you out there—well, then I fear you will be understimulated.

The book is instead optimized for the tridecaglots in your life. Oh, except for this: if you factor in that humans won’t be able to read the Urdu anyway because it is in microfont that requires at least one bionic eyeball but preferably two, then a cover-to-cover reading will be possible with mere dodecaglottery.

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