I was once offered a ticket to go see Jimmy Buffett. My reply: “Buddy, I don’t sing along about margaritas, I drink ’em.” Then I blew imaginary smoke off my bepistoled fingers. Yippee Ki Yay, my good fellow!
I’ve got somewhat of that attitude toward reading books about books, or books about writing.
However, at the urging of someone whose opinion I esteem, I read Pen of Iron by Robert Alter. It’s about the influence of the King James Bible on American writers, namely Melville, Faulkner, Bellow, and Hemingway.
It’s one of those books that makes me realize that, when I read, I grasp insufficiently what there is to be grasped. Given the amount of my life I’ve spent reading… well, it would sober a Parrothead.
(And you know what else? I’ve never read a lick of Faulkner. And I tried The Adventures of Augie March, and, uh, didn’t get it. But I have read books by the writer Hemingway and they were good books and he wrote them well.)
Now then. I wish to talk about Something They Say, and I’ve resigned myself to Their Wisdom: if you’re reading a translation, you’re reading a different book.
Here’s what Alter has to say about Moby-Dick:
What is robustly odd in the English is regularized in the French: “Hindoo” becomes l’indienne; “wide-slaughtering” is simply destructeur, and “unverdured” is interpretively translated and sadly flattened as infertile.
Alter’s unhappy verdict on translation:
What usually happens… is that a dutiful, more or less semantically faithful version of the original, employing a rather conventional set of stylistic procedures, erases a good deal of what is most compelling in the original text.
So if you haven’t yet read War and Peace, don’t sweat it. Go learn Russian first.