GENDER, TRANSLATION, AND CHASING THE AUTHENTIC VOICE: ‘Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs’ by Lina Wolff, trans. by Frank Perry
Lina Wolff, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, translated by Frank Perry (And Other Stories, 2015)
By Dominic Hinde
Bret Easton Ellis has become a metonym for a certain type of male fiction. Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs has though very little to link it to the author of American Psycho, save the fact there is a dog with the same name in it. Even the other dogs don’t feature that heavily. In fact, if you’re intro Bret or dogs then Lina Wolff probably isn’t for you, full stop.
In lieu of dogs, Wolff’s book is interesting because it has been a slow burning critical success since it was released last winter, receiving warm reviews in the right places, a difficult task for a translated debut on a small independent publisher. There may not be much Bret in Wolff’s novel, but if you are reading her full-length debut in English, you have to contend with another man, the translator Frank Perry. Perry is a veteran Nordic translator from England who is a long way from both Wolff and Easton Ellis, and that is just the beginning. As you navigate Bret Easton Ellis, you can’t easily ignore the fact that it has many layers of authorship and poses some interesting questions about foreign fiction more generally.
Take first the focus of Wolff’s book, the writer Alba Cambo, author of short stories (like Wolff herself), and the fulcrum around which the other characters operate. The other main character, the younger Araceli Villalobos, watches and learns from Cambo, as well as attending a translation school (between French and Spanish). And Wolff writes the whole thing in Swedish, to be translated by a middle-aged male Englishman, and by extension allowing Wolff to access other markets in other languages.
Wolff’s novel is a piece if meta-fiction from the very beginning, a short story writer telling a story about short story writing with nods to a series of other literary figures. There is an argument that all translated fiction assumes a complexity of form through its use of multiple authors and cultural transmission, and with Wolff this is an even more complex process. Translation is always a difficult proposition, and involves a kind of curatorial authorship that needs to be both assertive and selfless. Sometimes translating a novel rather closely results in something so absolutely different from might have been intended that to not change it would be the greater wrong. Translating a novel properly can take years, including re-reading, note-taking, and strategic decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out.
Translating a novel badly on the other hand can be done in a matter of weeks, and it can then be packaged and marketed by publishers to publics who will never know the difference. If the author is no longer around then things are easier, but absent authors cannot be asked about what they meant either. Living authors on the other hand are often thrown by seeing their work in another language, especially if it is one they have some knowledge of. There have been fraught cases of authors refusing translations, and of publishers changing translations to make them more like what the reading public expect. Likewise, there have been instances of translator and author siding against the publisher, and of translations collapsing entirely because they are simply too difficult and should probably never have been commissioned. Translating a book can be as hard as writing a difficult second novel, and choosing the right person to do it is critical.
Many of the reviews of Wolff have cast her as a brilliant feminist writer (and in many ways she is), but there is also more going on in Bret Easton Ellis. It is testament to Perry’s skill as a translator that he is only fleetingly visible in Wolff’s novel. It is also testament to Wolff’s skill as an author that the book could well have been translated from Spanish if you didn’t know otherwise. It is in essence a Spanish novel, but one written by a Swede in Swedish and translated by an Englishman so that it is available to a wider audience.
All translators, like writers themselves, are cogs in the machine of global bookselling. Publishers make decisions for various reasons, and sometimes those decisions can be bad ones. The German-American journalist Tim Mohr was savaged for his translation of the global bestseller Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, which he rendered in the voice of an unlikable and incoherent California brat. Getting translations wrong can be catastrophic. Would a woman have translated Roche differently? It is hard not to see some advantage in appointing a translator with some feeling for the context of the text. Mohr, though, did exactly what was asked of him by his paymasters. The book he produced was the one that hip (male-run) publishers Grove press wanted. It sold extremely well.
Now Roche is a long way from Wolff, in both style and the amount of units she can shift, yet like other aspects of the media, you can’t separate the book market from other markets. Furthermore, the way you are sold a book heavily influences how you read it. What Wolff’s book shows, is how translation is in itself a queering process. What occurs is several stages of transmission, or of bodies within bodies within bodies. The writer Alba Cambo is a source of fascination to Araceli Villalobos, a girl who, by a roundabout route, ends up in sex work (the agency of this process is never quite made clear, though the disdain for the male characters is a constant theme, men are shown as particularly banal oppressors). When Araceli goes to work selling sex, there is also a question of authenticity to what she does. The process relies on the illusion of authenticity to the consumer, and the idea that though they are paying for a product, it might carry all the genuine characteristics of a real sexual encounter, even if it is only performed.
Foreign fiction itself transplants people into other bodies and spaces, so that when you purchase foreign fiction, either as a publisher or as a consumer, you can pretend that you are sitting in that pavement cafe sipping the Aperol rather than sitting in a bus station sipping a coffee from Greggs. Pick up a badly translated book and you walk into the low-lit backroom dressed half-heartedly to look like an authentic bedroom. Foreign fiction takes us no nearer to sophistication than buying sex makes us letharios. What it does do is allow us to perform certain roles, and to transcend our own limitations. As a translator the challenge is to make this process seem authentic, and to find ways of mirroring or approximating otherwise unknowable experiences and concepts.
Authenticity, indeed the hunt for genuine experience full stop, is the battleground of both translation and gender politics. The need to narrate genuinely authentic experiences, but also the tendency to decry those who are inauthentic, is a cause celebre. Literature is necessarily disingenuous, though, and translated literature can be deeply performative. One of the more problematic elements of Wolff’s work is that, as someone who has ostensibly moved to Spain for lifestyle reasons and is a self-confessed fan of Spanish-language literature, her novel is open to the same pitfalls as the American in Europe or the enthusiastic European in Asia. The danger for Scandinavian writers is always a neo-colonial commodification of the cultures their education and wealth takes them to, and one, which they are often as blind to as the Ivy Leaguer writing a novel on their summer study break to Berlin or the British African memoir.
But what does all this have to do with gender when we have female authors writing for female audiences? Gender is a question of position and identification, and like genre it is performed and produced, often externally. Roche, the most successful European literary novel by a female writer of its decade (Elena Ferrante has now sold more worldwide), was hailed as a brave generational voice, and more importantly as an “international bestseller.” Statistically though, most international bestsellers are English titles translated, thanks in part to the terrifying marketing capacity of multinational English language publishing groups. World literature is often a heterogeneous experience. The most translated female author of the last few years by volume for example is E.L. James and the Fifty Shades trilogy. Her status as a bestselling English author with an English-language film franchise is an important component in this. Both Roche and James achieved international success because they were able to package female sexual fantasy in a way the industry could commercialise. Much is made of literature’s ability to place us in other bodies and contexts, but in both cases the core attraction was sex, albeit sex dressed up as socially acceptable emancipation. Both were hailed for authenticity, and for tapping into something unquantifiable. This authenticity was established somewhere in the space between pen and bookshelf, with the help of the press and the marketing tactics of commercial publishers.
In their marketing and critical reception, both James and Roche were hailed in different ways as somehow emancipatory for their readership, and there is evidence to support this from surveys of book groups and reading circles. In the place where most books are sold – the middle class large volume market of Richard and Judy’s Book Club and USA Today novel recommendations, such books do actually appear to have a genuine efficacy with female publics. Getting rid of men in literature is still difficult though, because they dominate the world of commercial culture. Female writers and female readers are almost invariably brought into contact through male actors. As Bret Easton Ellis shows, there is always a male hand somewhere in the system. Can you ever have feminist literature if you don’t have feminist publishing? Answers on a placard.