This is a book you read for style, rather than content. Nobody would claim that Michael Marshall Smith's 12,000-word story, "The Gist," is ground-breaking literature, though it would fit comfortably into a collection by, say, Angela Carter or Karen Russell. A translator named John, a specialist in out-of-the-way languages, is given a volume by a London rare book dealer called Portnoy; his task is not to translate -- the text is like no language he has ever seen -- but merely to give him the gist. John takes the book, spends a good part of Portnoy's advance on beer, and wakes up drunk in a children's playground. He does not get much further with the translation, but the words do begin to insinuate themselves into his mind. The gist, as it were. It is a fine story, with hints of both Poe and Borges in its ancestry, but not by itself worth the price of the book.
The presentation is a different matter entirely. First of all, it is beautifully printed, in Arts-and-Crafts style of around 1900, in double fine-set columns with red accents. It is sheer joy to hold and to read. But the main interest is that this same story is presented three times: in Marshall Smith's original, in a French translation by Benoît Domis, and in a retranslation of that translation back to English by Nicholas Royle. A sort of bilingual game of Postman. The idea fascinated me. But I have to say that, while the French was inevitably different, the two English versions were amazingly close, not only in meaning but also in atmosphere. I had thought that reading each story would be like immersing myself in a new experience, but in fact the second and third versions added little to my overall pleasure, although they threw up numerous smaller points of interest.
I found comparatively few substantial changes in meaning. Here is one. John is thinking what he could do with the promised money: "It meant a small gift for Cass (assuming I could track her down)...". This becomes: "Un petit cadeau pour Cass aussi (à condition que j'arrive a lui mettre la main dessus)...". And Royle translates this back as: "A little present for Cass as well (provided I could put my hand on the right thing)...". That "as well" comes from the French "aussi" which Domis presumably added to shape the rhythm of the paragraph, but it is not in the original. More serious is the change from getting hold of Cass to tracking down the right present; this comes from an ambiguity of the pronouns in the nonetheless perfectly correct French.
Take a longer passage, when John first describes Portnoy. Here is Marshall Smith:
"The man behind the desk in front of me sighed. This made his sleek, moisturized cheeks vibrate in a way that couldn't help but put you in mind of a successful pig, exhaling contentedly in its sty, confident that the fate that stalked its kind was not going to befall him tonight, or indeed ever. A pig with friends in high places, a pig with pull. Pork with an exit strategy."
And here, via the French of Benoît Domis, is Nicholas Royle:
"The man sitting behind the desk gave a sigh that made his shiny, moisturized cheeks tremble in a way that reminded me of a pig in its piggery, the very picture of porcine contentment, convinced that the fate awaiting his fellow pigs would not befall him, not that evening, not ever. A pig with friends in high places, a pig with connections. A pig with a withdrawal strategy."
Both versions are good, and share the same basic meaning. Smith has a rhythm, though, that Royle cannot recapture, because he is coming from a language that organizes thought in quite a different way. But Royle scores some points of his own; "the very picture of porcine contentment" is superb. Not so good, though, as "...a pig with pull. Pork with an exit strategy." Much of Smith's humor comes in the sudden ironic switch from "pig" (the live animal) to "pork" (the cooked meat), but the French uses the word "porc" throughout. Perhaps the translator might have considered making a similar shift, or going for the alliteration of "a pig with pull" rather than the more generic "pig with connections." But to do so without more specific prompting from the French would take him out on a limb, and risk imposing his own humor on another writer's work. So he plays it safe, and rightly so.
Those readers wanting to study the three versions in such detail will find a treasure trove. Others will get an intriguingly surreal story in a beautiful edition.