Yesterday evening I attended another fascinating Summer Reads event at the library. This time the book up for discussion was The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon (Pushkin Press, 2012). It was translated by Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead, Anne McLean and Daniel Hahn, three of whom (Ollie, Thomas and Anne) were on the panel. Danny was the eminence grise lurking at the back and Lisa couldn’t attend on account of the fact that she lives in the US… Just from that you can get a sense of what a lot there was to talk about with this book!
The audience was also at least half made up of participants on this year’s BCLT Summer School and it was at that event three years ago that the book was born. Eduardo Halfon was the visiting author for the Spanish group that year and so many people fell in love with his work that the idea, described by one of the panellists as “frankly bizarre”, was hatched of pitching a group translation to publishers. This had the advantage of speeding up the process but must have led to some interesting editorial discussions.
Then there is the fact that the book as it appears in English doesn’t exist in Spanish. The Polish Boxer is a mash-up of a short story collection (minus one), a stand-alone story and a novella, created by the author due to publishers’ unwillingness to produce really short books, and the fact that they really wanted a novel, which he doesn’t do. So is the outcome a collection of short stories? No. Is it a novel? No. But it can be read as either in a fascinatingly unpindownable way.
It is incredibly well-written and very funny in parts, moving in others and always intriguing. Anne, Ollie and Thomas all read a section from the book, leading to much laughter in the room. As I was reading it myself prior to the event, I was impressed by how this joint effort had produced such a united authorial voice, so I was longing to know how the trick was done.
Apparently it involved each translator working on seperate stories and then each of them editing the book as a whole, with Danny acting as the managing editor/evil mastermind and taking executive decisions about things that weren’t worth arguing over. As you can imagine, this was quite a feat of logistics involving spreadsheets and the most congested tracked-changes document ever seen. This made it possible to flag up how words were used throughout the book and to produce the joint voice. Having met the author in person must have helped with that as it enabled them to hear him speaking as they read – and this also explains the use of US English, despite 3 of the translators being British. Incidentally, Halfon apparently prefers to speak English but write in Spanish, although the details of that led some in the room to the (joking) conclusion that he doesn’t actually exist at all and that the whole thing must be some elaborate hoax. But for the effect to come off nobody could be proprietorial about their own translations – after the draft had been done, they had to let it go and become something shared. I’ve never worked on anything like this but I imagine that that must have been very hard. You get attached to the phrases you’ve toiled over!
Sam Ruddock from the Writer’s Centre, leading the discussion, pointed out that it’s hard enough for 5 readers to agree on what a book’s about, so how could 5 translators possibly come up with a shared interpretation? It was agreed that it was the very unpindownableness (if that’s not a word, it ought to be) of it, the between the lines nature of the text, that made it possible.
So, in conclusion, this was a highly enjoyable discussion of a remarkable book. The best description of it came from somebody in the audience: “it felt like a novel in the style of art house cinema”. If you haven’t read it, do! I can’t recommend it highly enough.
And then we went to the pub to talk more about translation, and other things, and eat Thai food while drinking real ale (if you’re Norwich based, that tells you pretty much where we were). And next year, I really am going to apply for the summer school, rather than just crashing evening events.