Portobello, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: Multiples, Edited by Adam Thirlwell

A playful collection of shimmering stories that pass through different hand and languages

As a novelist, Adam Thirlwell is a showman; words dance across his pages in typographic arabesques. As a critic, he is a champion of the ludic and eloquently professes a fascination with translation. Given to blokey, erudite digressions and aphoristic generalities, he can be exhausting, but Thirlwell has a joyous, unbridled passion for fiction and any project he is involved with will likely make for frustrating but fascinating reading.

For Multiples, Thirlwell moves from showman to ringmaster – the cover, like a fairground barker, trumpets: 12 stories! 61 authors! 18 languages! - and stages an experiment designed to explore not what is lost, but what endures and what is gained in translation. The set-up is simple: a dozen relatively obscure stories by major writers are passed, like chain letters, though a series of five or six translations. Each translator works only from the previous version. Even the reader does not see the "original", but every second iteration brings the story back to English.

If this sounds like a formula for a donnish game of Chinese whispers, the result is no dry academic exercise. In recruiting 60 compelling novelists to assist him, Thirlwell has mischievously overlooked their command (if any) of the language from which they will be translating. Confessional translators' notes admit to resorting to friends, children, Google Translate, "bio-translation" and – when all else fails - to imagination and sheer chutzpah.

Some stories come through the process miraculously unscathed. The accomplished lyricism of David Mitchell's version of Miyazawa's "The Earth God and the Fox" is brilliantly preserved in Valeria Luiselli's Spanish and, in the second English version, by Jonathan and Mara Faye Lethem.

Other sequences illuminate the workings of the translator. Richard Middleton's "The Making Of A Man" tells the sordid, murderous tale of a "weedy little clerkling". Javier Marías, neatly captures him as "un empleaducho de oficina enclenque", which Andrew Sean Greer translates, with muscular style and wit, as "a runty little clerk on a hapless midnight quest for Vauxhall Station". In Julia Franck's German version he is further diminished – ein mickriger kleiner Angestellter (a puny little clerk) and by the time we come to AS Byatt's careful account, he is reduced to "an unremarkable little clerk".

Inevitably, some authors bridle at the rules of the game and feel the need to rewrite or relocate. When Ma Jian takes Zadie Smith's poised translation of Giuseppe Pontiggia's "Incontrarsi" and transports the protagonist from Empoli to Guangzhou, this bleak tale of a wilfully unremarkable man takes on a very different but no less powerful resonance.

Jo Dunthorne also relocates Youssef Habchi El-Achkar's story. Rawi Hage's poignant account of a man dazed by grief, marooned a Beirut café where he is haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, is given a faithful French translation by Tristan Garcia, before Dunthorne decides to "give up on faithfulness altogether".

Lebanon 1975 becomes London 2010. Now we have a man in a bar in Hebden Bridge, flicking idly from footage of the uprising in Tunisia and soap operas to interviews from Doha with fake pictures of local landscapes in the background. It makes for a shrewd commentary on how technology and rolling news have changed our perceptions of war. But the core of El-Achkar's story is gone - the blankness, the grief, the immediacy of violence, the harrowing death of the narrator's wife with her broken fingernails, now relegated to a scene from a soap.

Finally, some tales vanish altogether: Lásló Krasznahorkai translates his own story into German. Lawrence Norfolk compensates for his language skills by dazzlingly - if perversely - refashioning it as a villanelle and then Florian Zeller casually takes a single image and invents a new story out of whole cloth. Long before Wyatt Mason's version descends into gonzo fiction, every iota of Krasznahorkai is gone.

There is something exhilarating too about the brio and virtuosity on display in Multiples. But the practice of translation that has allowed Thirlwell to savour something of the genius of Calvino or Borges is not an untrammelled art, but a craft that depends not only on a command of language, but on an ability to rewrite while trying not to reinvent. In Thirlwell's three-ring circus, the clowns may be the most diverting, but to me the graceful high wire acts are more breathtaking.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing