There is something magical about translation. Sometimes it seems to have even a whiff of the fraudulent about it. I felt this especially strongly when years ago I was translating the letters of Heinrich von Kleist into Hungarian. Sitting at my desk I sometimes had the feeling that an invisible Kleist was by my elbow desperately trying to protest: “that’s not what I meant!”, and: “you have missed the point!”, and: “that’s not at all what I’m trying to say!”, and: “what a curious choice of words! Unheard of language, letters never seen!” Of course, he spoke not a word of Hungarian and watched helplessly as I exchanged his words for strange, new strings of letters and replaced them with words of Hungarian. And how much more upset he would have been had he suspected what kind of syntactic shackles I was imposing on his incomparable sentences!
And yet, in the end, something came forth in Hungarian. What is more, an enthusiastic Hungarian audience for Kleist came into being. Kleist who knew no Hungarian, and Hungarian readers who knew no German, found each other. But where? My instinct would be to say: in language. But no, this would not be quite true: he wrote not a word of the Hungarian text, and not a word of his German appeared in the Hungarian publication. So where, then, did they meet? In Literature, of which language is of course the medium – the mother tongue of the writer in question – but which has another well-spring also: the Spirit, untrammelled by a specific language and needing no passport to move from one to another.
The myth of the Tower of Babel is still with us today. The building of the tower came to a halt at the time and the undertaking fell through. It never reached unto heaven; moreover, its builders were obliged to scatter to the four corners of the earth. To cap it all, they lost the language that they had shared until then. The One language splintered into many. Interpreters were needed for people to understand each other, and translators, to inform them of what others elsewhere were thinking and, soon, writing down.
According to the myth, the fragmentation into languages was the result of divine judgement. Yet not even this judgement could make people forget that once they had a common tongue – that they had a common plan to take possession of the very heavens. The memory of this lives on to this day: for example, in the desire for mutual understanding, wherein there lurks the desire to encompass the Whole, or in the awareness that in spite of all our differences we can exchange our thoughts, indeed, we can even make others’ thoughts our own. The God of the Bible succeeded in scattering people; but He could not prevent them from trying to find each other. Translators are among those who can help them in this task; they are the ones with whose help another Tower of Babel is being continuously constructed. Not, as then, of stone, bricks and pitch, but of words that differ from each other, yet are none the less bearers of kindred thoughts.
Finnegan’s List is the scaffolding of a new Tower of Babel of this kind. It knows that languages can be very different and, indeed, isolated; but equally it knows there is passage across: not just into other languages but into the world of thought, into the world of the Spirit – which is very much One and one that is shared. There is in our time hardly a task more important than to nurture this, for we are witnessing daily how it is under threat of destruction from every quarter.
This summer, wanting to experience the city of my childhood through Joyce, I visited the Trieste Joyce School. Like the cosmopolitan Irishman, I later traded the multiethnic Trieste for Zurich, but the city shaped me permanently. With its many languages, its hybrid identity, its history that can be read like a palimpsest, Trieste could be described as a Europe in nuce. Joyce spent more than ten years in the port city, and wrote large portions of Dubliners there, in addition to starting Ulysses, which populates its Dublin setting with Central European figures like Leopold Bloom and uses Homer’s Odyssey as a foil. A grand, eccentric novel in which polyvocality and multi-referentiality rise to their highest form. In terms of complexity, only his Finnegans Wake surpasses it. Anyone attempting to decipher this work must have mastered at least two dozen languages (including Triestino and Swiss German), for it is multilingual to the point of the pain threshold of incomprehensibility. And at the same time it is so full of word-jazz and wordplay, that the ear can’t but exult. It’s the translators whom one doesn’t envy, for what should one do with a sentence like this: “Tim Timmycan timpted hir tampting Tam. Flepperty! Flippety! Fleapow!” Nevertheless, no one has given up hope yet—Joyce is one of the most translated authors worldwide, and we can assume that future generations of translators and scholars will continue to work on his books. Joyce was known for loving lists; he liked to play with different speech registers, and to artfully mix fact, fiction, and citations. The multilingual Trieste both inspired his literary cosmos and his writerly technique, and turned him into a genuine European. Which is to say: into someone who knows about diversity and complexity, about borders and exile, and about how to overcome (personal, cultural) isolation through translation and interconnectedness. Finnegan’s List is right to invoke Joyce’s project, always keeping in mind that it is about a work in progress. A colorful, babylonian endeavor that brings together what belongs together, in the interests of us all.
The beauty of the impossible: in the translation of literature there is something of a magnificent equation without a solution, of an elusive mathematical construction whose terrible complexity we are all too capable of anticipating.
We know that when we read a translated work, we are faced with a projection – at moment t and in language L – of b, an original object (a book), and that the function f that takes us from b where b = Die Leiden des jungen Werthers to ftL(b) = Az ifjú Werther szenvedései is in reality not so easily described, even if, evidently, nobody would ever doubt the close relation b has with its image ftL(b), so close indeed that Az ifjú Werther szenvedései (and although the latter is an autonomous text functioning on its own) should have no chance of existing without b, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers.
The translation of literature creates connections. Certainly, it brings together languages and cultures; it offers readings, understandings. On the way, it also generates diversity and otherness. To a given ensemble ℂ2 of a target culture, it introduces dissonant, different, foreign elements from the source culture ℂ1 even if these elements have been through the mill of ftL. In this sense, Finnegan’s List is a subversive machine. It sets out to draw attention to works that have been important for one country, one culture, or one author but whose effects haven’t yet been felt in other countries, by other cultures, and by other authors, for several reasons, the first of which being the randomness of today’s publishing world where certain “powerful” or “strong” languages are increasingly dominant and the merits of a work are too often confused with the number of copies it might sell. Unfortunately, the ftL function is not continuous on the Set of all Languages.
There are Ls that appear still very rarely in the equation, and there are large gaps in ftL(b) to fill in. The Finnegan’s List is an attempt to contribute to this effort – this wonderful effort of building an impossible algebra.
It may be that the ideal of literature is Weltliteratur. But it’s also true that however much the world may be the ideal, the medium of literature is language. And language is a sadly nationalist medium for an art that aspires to the gigantically global. Which is why, perhaps, although writers and readers may have wanted to believe in the ideal of Weltliteratur, there have been very few projects in its history to remedy the fact that literature is, very much so, often limited in its geography. There have been very few projects, in other words, devoted to making translations comprehensive. For translation is literature’s antidote to the problem that every language has its own policed borders. And yet the history of translation is a very strange history. It is full of gaps and zigzags, where one might have expected comprehensive flatness – like the ideal set of waves approaching on the horizon for the ideal surfer. Its history is oddly marked by time delays, and absences. And while it might seem that a digital era would offer the perfect conditions to make translations comprehensive, in fact the problem seems no closer to being solved. This is why a project like Finnegan’s List seems to me to be so important. It replaces the usual melancholy with the fizzing excitement of a possible ideal: a total geography. But also – and this is the true beauty of the project – it doesn’t aim for a blanket comprehensiveness. No, its beauty is in its use of writers as selectors, its insistence that translation must proceed, in the end, work by work. For literature might well have the world as its ideal, but this grand ideal will only be formed by the specific unique values of particular works of art.