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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus brought her Bangerz tour to London's O2 Arena last night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
    Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

    From strung out to playing strings

    Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
    The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
    Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

    Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

    The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
    On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

    On the road to nowhere

    A Routemaster trip to remember
    Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

    Hotel India

    Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
    10 best pencil cases

    Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

    Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
    Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

    Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

    Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
    Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

    Pete Jenson: A Different League

    Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
    This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

    The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

    Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis