The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith

TheGistThis little book has a very interesting premise: write a story in English, translate it into French, and then translate the French text back into English. While I would be no good as a translator myself—I would always be tempted to infuse too much of what I think it should say into the text—the translation process is fascinating to me. Every little word can be so important. My high school English teacher (way back when) made a sport out of having us read poetry simultaneously in English and German or translate Pearl Jam songs into German. It was tedious at times, but also fun. And it makes you aware of how words work. I have yet to figure out why I enjoy reading Toni Morrison in her native language, yet can’t stand the German translations.


But back to The Gist. The original story was okay. It had a good twist at the end, but by itself, it would not have impressed me too much. Then followed the French version, and I was happy to realize that I was able to understand most of it. But unfortunately, my French is not good enough to really compare the two versions.

For me, it got interesting when I read the re-translation, when we’re back to English. I was constantly flipping back and forth to compare the two English versions, and then figure out where the differences started. Was it during the translation into French that the “messenger bag” became a “plastic bag,” or during the re-translation? And did this little detail change the overall story?

This is from the original English text:

Often books were printed privately, in runs of a hundred, twenty, even just five, and proudly so—it’s said that Goethe’s old man viewed his son’s willingness to appeal to a more ‘mass’ market with permanent disdain.

This is from the French translation:

Souvent, on ne produisait que de petits tirages, à titre privé—cent, vingt, quelquefois meme cinq exemplaires, et on en était fier. On raconte que le père the Goethe n’avait que mépris pour l’empressement que son fils mettait à vouloir conqueror le “grand public”.

And this is from the re-translation:

Often, print runs were very short, privately issued—a hundred, twenty, sometimes even five copies, and they were proud of them. Apparently, Goethe’s father had nothing but contempt for his son’s eagerness to conquer the ‘general public’.

I liked John slightly better in the re-translation, and it is because of how descriptions of him are phrased. Overall, the differences are subtle and noticeable only because you’re looking for them. But they are nevertheless there, showing how a translation can have impact on a book. This is, after all, the point of the whole book.

If you are interested in how words work, then this book is worth checking out. Make sure you have enough time to read it all at once; it won’t take long. (The Deluxe Hardcover Edition is $35—a bit steep in my opinion.) Thanks, Anthony, for lending me the book.


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