Infinite Jest comes to Russia. Why translators finally took on the ‘untranslatable’ novel

Infinite Jest comes to Russia. Why translators finally took on the 'untranslatable' novel

One of the most important — and untranslatable — novels written in English has finally been translated and published in Russian. The Calvert Journal took a look at how and why a group of Russian publishers and translators decided to take on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

30 January 2019

In English-language literature, the “big novel” has made a return to the mainstream. Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) are all weighty tomes stretching across hundreds of pages. But Russian literary editor Nikolai Kudryavtsev is keen to remind people of the origins of such an approach. “The big novel was Russian first,” he says.

Kudryavtsev should know. As the head of translations at Astrel SPB, a literary press based in St Petersburg, he has masterminded the Russian-language translation of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 opus Infinite Jest, which was eventually published last month, just over 10 years since the author’s death.

The novel, widely considered Wallace’s masterpiece and one of the most important works of fiction from the last 50 years, has a reputation for being notoriously difficult to translate. “Wallace tended towards difficult and somewhat unreadable prose in places, even for native speakers,” says Sergey Karpov, one of the Russian version’s two translators (along with Alexey Polyarinov). In his essays, Wallace described experimental prose as a way of “getting at what’s deep” without resorting to cliché, something he regarded as a spiritual vacuum. His commitment to the difficult defined his influence on later generations of writers but it also has the effect of making his novels like these, as Karpov put its, “the stuff of nightmares” for translators.

Wallace’s story takes place in a disconcerting near-future where the three countries of North America have combined into a superstate called O.N.A.N. and sections of New England are a toxic wasteland. Hundreds of characters dip in and out of the search for a videotape so entertaining that viewers lose the will to live after a single viewing. The book dwells on the inner lives of tormented filmmakers, depressed tennis protégés, cross-dressing intelligence agents, wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorists, and a set of drug addicts.

The novel, widely considered Wallace’s masterpiece and one of the most important works of fiction from the last 50 years, has a reputation for being notoriously difficult to translate

It is as confusing as it sounds. It also happens to be a maddening, heart-breaking masterwork. Which is why Kudryavtsev and his team were so determined to see a Russian translation through. In an interview published after his death, however, Wallace himself was unforgiving: “I don’t think Infinite Jest is translatable. I think the English is too idiomatic.” Indeed, the book has appeared in only eight languages since its publication 22 years ago: a mind-bogglingly low figure, considering the impact Infinite Jest has had on American and world literature.

But for the team at Astrel, the stakes were too high not to try. “Infinite Jest is one of the three English-language novels of the 20th century that truly overcame the novel form,” Kudryavtsev tells me, comparing the book to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1976) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).

The translation has attracted more attention from the public than any other translation into Russian in recent memory

In the past, it was Russia that produced the great, “encyclopaedic” novels that are the forebears for today’s postmodern classics. Translation, for Karpov, is a way of bringing the achievements of the contemporary “big novel” back home. “Cultural accomplishments like this should be available to everyone,” he says, citing Wallace’s particular success in portraying the foibles of human psychology. “Russian literature, for different reasons, didn’t quite catch on to these things, and so is lacking important tools for depicting people’s inner lives. It may even be lagging behind world literature.”

For Karpov, the answer to Russia’s “big novel problem” is simple: a robust culture of translation from other literatures. “We hope that Wallace’s book can somehow renew and enhance Russian literature, or at least make our readership more sophisticated.” The cause is helped by the fact that, in contrast with foreign perceptions of the population, the national literary community in Russia is refreshingly non-partisan. In a world of increasing isolation and nationalism, Russian readers are eagerly cosmopolitan. “We used to see a lot of people who said ‘I only read Russian books,’” Kudryavtsev says. “But this is disappearing.” He points to the recent example of Sergey Kuznetsov, who wrote his novel Kaleidoscope (2016) after years spent studying the works of Thomas Pynchon.

Image: Neil H under a CC License

This is, in part, due to the strong culture of translation in the Soviet Union. American icons like Ernest Hemingway were bestsellers even at the height of the Cold War, and figures like JD Salinger and Jack London are jokingly considered “national” writers. While the publishing market suffered after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it now looks to be back on track. “If you look back to the 1990s,” Kudryavtsev says, “we had delays of 10 to 15 years before we received a novel. Now we get Booker winners in two to three years.”

When Gravity’s Rainbow was first translated into Russian a decade ago, the response was underwhelming. But Infinite Jest looks to be different. Even before it was picked up by Astrel, the idea of a translation had accrued a social media following when Karpov and Polyarinov decided to work through the first 100 pages and publish them online, just for fun. Kudryavtsev, who later convinced Astrel SPB to purchase the translation rights, saw an opportunity and asked if they’d like to finish the job.

“We didn’t even think at the time that we might see the translation through to the end,” remembers Karpov. “Initially we were frightened by the sheer size of the book. However, opportunities like this are rare and we agreed despite our initial hesitation. Now we can say it was one of the best choices we’ve ever made.”

Even before it was picked up by Astrel, the idea of a translation had accrued a social media following when Karpov and Polyarinov decided to work through the first 100 pages and publish them online, just for fun

The translation has attracted more attention from the public than any other translation into Russian in recent memory. The Moscow Book Fair has invited Astrel to present the book, while organisations such as the Higher School of Economics and the US Embassy are looking to set up readings and events (the embassy is even paying to have a Wallace scholar fly from Canada to give lectures in Moscow and Petersburg). With an eye to the future, Kudryavtsev has already purchased the rights to three other Wallace books: the novel The Broom of the System (1987), and short story collections Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion (2004).

Wallace is something special, says Kudyavtsev. “He had a beautiful technique, maybe one of the most beautiful in contemporary world literature. Reading Infinite Jest isn’t just reading — it’s an experience. Every chapter, every character has a different language pattern. I’ve read it now a few times because of the editing process, and normally that’s when you start hating a book. But I never hated this book. I can’t tell you how I feel about it now. Maybe it’s sadness — because it’s over now.”

While the translation might be finished, the novel itself is only just beginning its life in a new language, free to influence a new culture with its strange puzzles and narrative structures, to reinvigorate local readers with a taste for the ambitious and the poignant.

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