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.