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.