McSweeney’s Issue 42
The literary canon is international in nature, spanning continents and countries, and there are very few of us who have read all the greats in their native tongues – Dostoevsky in Russian, Kafka in German, Borges in Spanish. Which poses an interesting, theoretical question: have we ever truly read Crime and Punishment if we’ve only done so in translation? This philosophical quandary forms the basis of the latest issue of the always experimental and provocative McSweeney’s. The namesake of the independent publishing house founded by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s is the elder statesman on an ever-expanding roster of inventive magazines released on the imprint including The Believer and Lucky Peach. For all its idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, McSweeney’s is at heart a literary journal which approaches its sometimes lofty endeavours with equal parts seriousness and irreverence. This combination somehow manages to make even their most esoteric and insider forays accessible and engaging.
A departure from even its own unconventional template, Issue 42 features none of the usual McSweeney’s mainstays and instead uses the magazine as a forum to delve into this thorny debate about the nature and art of translation. Guest edited by Adam Thirlwell, a noted British novelist, this issue of “multiples” asks some of the world’s most prolific contemporary writers to translate the translations of twelve works of fiction. This spiraling, dizzying experiment sees these twelve stories appearing in up to six versions each, flowing in and out of English and changing at every turn. Kafka’s Das Tier in der Synagoge, for example, is translated into English from the German original, then into Hebrew, then back into English, then into Spanish before finally returning to English once again. To make this project even more daunting all of the original texts were selected specifically with an eye to obscurity and most had never been previously translated into English. With a line-up of some of the most compelling authors working today – everyone from A.S. Byatt and J.M. Coetzee to Jeffrey Eugenides and Zadie Smith – on board, the result is as mesmerizing as it is bizarre. Seeing the way the authors’ stylistic preferences and voices emerge in the translations is the most fascinating part of the exercise. The variances in the English translations at different stages of the process reveal the idiosyncratic and subjective nature of language, highlighting the impossibility of ever truly capturing the subtlety of an author’s voice in any dialect other than his own.
Alternating between hardcover, softcover and unconventional formats like a bag of mail, McSweeney’s comes in a variety of forms with the design of the magazine changing dramatically with each issue in order to marry content with form. Issue 42 is an oblong softcover, a format that allows two versions of the same text to appear side by side; separated by a line and printed in different colours, the design makes for quite an attractive layout. Illustrations begin each new translation, breaking up the monotony of the dense text, and each section also ends with a tinted page where the authors recount their approach to, and struggles with, the translations. These personal reflections allow for a momentary respite from the intensity of the prose and aid in the pacing of the rather lengthy issue. The multilingual aspect of the magazine, something that seems novel today, also makes for quite pleasing visuals.
In an era defined by statements made in 140 characters or less and a constant barrage of images and visual stimulation, McSweeney’s seems like a relic from a bygone era when we took time to pause and reflect on such weighty investigations into the art of language more frequently. It’s comforting that there is still a place in our culture for such an esoteric, poetic exercise and it’s a testament to the editors of McSweeney’s that after fifteen years and 42 issues, each magazine continues to surprise and be dramatically different not only from the issues that preceded, but from anything else being published today.