Adam Thirlwell: Found in Translation

In which Adam Thirlwell explains how he got 61 writers to push 12 stories through 18 languages

Feature by Paul F Cockburn | 02 Jul 2013

“I had this idea of doing it almost as some kind of art project,” says Adam Thirlwell of the concept which would eventually become an issue of iconoclastic US literary magazine McSweeney’s Quarterly, and is being published in the UK by Portobello Books. “I just thought it’d be fun to get one story translated in a chain of languages to see what would happen at the end.”  

Attending a literary festival in Paris, he mentioned this idea to the writer Vendela Vida, not for a moment thinking of it as an issue of McSweeney’s, published by her husband Dave Eggers. Two weeks later, however, Vida emailed Thirlwell to see if he’d be interested in guest-editing what would eventually become the ‘Multiples’ issue 42, in which 61 writers took 12 stories through a journey of 18 languages. 

“We chose 12 original stories – either unknown stories by famous dead people or by living foreign authors who should be more famous,” Thirlwell explains. “Each of these stories was translated in a chain of five or six, going in and out of English. So, a story might start in Spanish, be translated into English, then go into Hungarian, back into English and then into French and back into English finally.

“I just thought it’d be fun to get one story translated in a chain of languages to see what would happen at the end” – Adam Thirlwell

For Thirlwell, it was strange to experience life on the other side of the editor’s desk. “It took about two years from literally thinking of the idea to getting a finished copy in our hands,” he says, “although the real work was done over about a year. The basic problem was that none of the story chains could progress until each person had done their work; you were always reliant on the next person in the chain. A month could go by when I was just waiting for people to finish.”

One factor in this was Thirlwell’s decision to choose novelists rather than ask trained, professional translators. “Obviously, people’s language abilities were variable, but I wanted to explore what people thought of as style. So I deliberately chose people like John Banville, who is such a stylist that you know even a book review is by him without seeing his byline. I wanted to see what would happen when you put all these stylists together.

Thirlwell is stepping into Jura Unbound territory on 11 August. “I’m doing it with Daniel Hahn, who's one of the directors of the British Centre for Literary Translations in Norwich,” Thirlwell explains. “Daniel’s brilliant at making translation this fun thing to watch. He’s pioneered events where he gets two translators to work on a short text, but they’re not allowed to see each other’s versions until they’re presented on the night – and then they sort of go head-to-head!

“I want to do an event that’s not so much about presenting the book as exploring some of its ideas in a fun way. One of the aims of the project was how to see just how much a story would change after it had gone through five different translations. So we might do something similar; we’ll give the audience one sentence to translate, and sort of pass it round so at the end of the night we’ll see what happened to it. Daniel’s keen, rightly, to do things in parallel, to show how creative translations can be and how you can have more than one right answer.”

Multiples, the event, will take place on Sun 11 Aug in the Guardian Spiegeltent, part of Jura Unbound

The accompanying book is due for publication Thu 1 Aug