‘Read slowly, word by word, if you wish to understand what I am saying.’ Despite appearing in Essays Two, the latest non-fiction collection from Lydia Davis, this exhortation is by the Norwegian author Dag Solstad; yet the approach is apt for Davis’s work.
This is not because Davis, a feted translator and writer who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, is incomprehensible but because her work is often so short — a couple of lines or a couple of pages. It demands to be savoured slowly.
Even when she writes at length, as she does in this hefty volume spanning 19 essays, her thoughts on literature and language drill down to the minutiae of writing in ways that invite analysis of her every last comma — punctuation itself being a topic that earns its own entry in a 102-page piece on ‘Proust Translation Observations’, delivered in a handy A to Z (from Aurore to Zut).
Essays Two, drawn from talks, books and pieces that have appeared in publications as varied as the Yale Review, the Believer and Nest: A Quarterly of Interiors, reveals how Davis, a polyglot who was first exposed to another language aged seven when her family moved to Germany, tackles translations and learns foreign languages. Or, to put it another way, as she does in the preface, describes how her ‘professional and recreational activities tend to overlap’. The collection builds on 2019’s Essays One, which concentrated on writers, but also included tracts on the visual arts, memory and the Bible.
As a translator, Davis is best known for Swann’s Way, the first book of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. This project — a high point that she thought marked ‘the culmination of a career’ — won her a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant in 2003 and prompted six of the collection’s essays. If ever anything were to elevate Proust to the top of your TBR pile it would be the delight Davis takes in his writing, which she says repays rereading. And rereading. ‘One will find, too, that the better acquainted one becomes with this book, the more it yields.’ She counsels
“the full slow reading and rereading of every word, in complete submission to Proust’s subtle psychological analyses, his precise portraits, his compassionate humour, his richly coloured and lyrical landscapes, his symphonic structure, his perfect formal designs.
Davis, who has also translated Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, is dogged in her defence of close translating, her avowed method of reproducing an original text in English, which is not to everyone’s tastes. In ‘Loaf or Hot-Water Bottle: Closely Translating Proust’, Davis defines 11 ‘rules’ of close translating, which is what makes her take on Proust so different from that of his first translator, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, who she feels enhanced Proust’s text to the point of ‘changing the meaning of the original, either slightly or significantly’.
We are given three separate windows into how she learns three different languages — Spanish, Dutch and Norwegian — plus an additional foray into Gascon, the language of Armagnac, and three projects to translate older English into newer English. Her painstaking approach to deciphering Norwegian — from a gigantic family saga by Dag Solstad that hasn’t been translated into English — is unexpectedly gripping. She wanted to read his ‘Telemark’ novel, as the tome spanning three centuries of Solstad’s family history is known, because she thought it might help her with a similar project she had in mind.
The catch? She had to make it through 426 pages of Norwegian without once picking up a dictionary (a tactic we learn also worked with A.L. Snijders’s Dutch stories). As well as saving her the bother of constantly skimming through a dictionary, she found trying to figure out meanings ‘stimulating and completely absorbing’. She also remembered the words far better when she worked them out on her own, not least the opening to the first sentence: Les langsomt, ord for ord. Which is, of course: ‘Read slowly, word by word.’
The essay on translating an 1898 children’s classic by Alfred Ollivant, Bob, Son of Battle, written in Cumbrian dialect about a sheepdog, is another gem for the conundrums it throws up (do we really need to understand every word of a book anyway?) and the magic of invented stories. ‘How powerful is this thing, the suspension of disbelief — how powerful fiction and its illusions!’
Davis’s prose is crisp and clear throughout, as befits someone who can tell an entire story in a handful of words. This, from her collection Can’t and Won’t, is characteristic. It’s called: ‘Contingency (vs. Necessity). He could be our dog. But he is not our dog. So he barks at us.’ She breaks each essay into nuggets with subheadings, which may explain why they slip down so easily.
For her, translation is a very ‘deep sort of armchair travel’, which is true of most reading. But this book is a journey into something else as well: the mind of one of America’s most interesting contemporary writers. Read it slowly, word by word, and you will find yourself thinking harder about what you are saying, which can only ever be a good thing.