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Fun with languages from Lydia Davis

Essays on translation, with style and joy

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“All art is quite useless,” Oscar Wilde wrote, but even the jolt conveyed by that artful line means art does something, and so it must have some use. Or maybe it just feels useful — I don’t know; how useful is a short story compared to a spoon? The essays of Lydia Davis are helpful on this subject. They elaborate on things you can do with literary art, but they also make clear how literature evades a common sense of “useful,” because it leads to new problems, new questions, instead of solving something once and for all.

In “Essays One,” Davis’s meditations on writing include imperatives such as: “When you write, write freely, as you want to, following your own interests,” which is both wisdom to act on and advice whose practicality depends on hazy factors (are your interests, for instance, interesting?). Now comes “Essays Two,” a collection about translation, with some whimsically blunt headings, like “The Comma Splice,” that recall a how-to guide. It’s a guide, however, to new dimensions of thought. Davis makes translation seem like a sublime exercise of mind and self. “Just as you can enter another person and speak in his voice,” she writes, “you are also no longer confined to writing in your own style and with your own sensibility.”


Davis’s adventures in translation are full of such realizations, and the lessons they sustain are encouraging. Reading for fun, it turns out, can make things happen. In an account of Davis’s Spanish studies by almost exclusive means of a Spanish translation of “Tom Sawyer,” we follow her impressive progress and come to understand that the rest of us could do the same, bolstering language-acquisition through a combination of “an interesting story”; “aroused curiosity”; “freedom to work independently”; and — this next part is probably less fun — “constant reinforcement of vocabulary.”

A hopeful mood prevails in this book. In an essay on reading prose in Norwegian, a language about which she originally knows relatively little, Davis advances happily just by noticing, by looking around. “Words are repeated in certain contexts,” she writes — an easy-to-forget key to learning a language — with “some contexts the same and some different, and eventually, over time, with much repetition, we learn what the words mean.” Recognition accumulates through a patient habit of reading out of curiosity, by which Davis begins to understand Norwegian. It’s incredible, and yet, in Davis’s telling, totally credible. She makes it seem so obvious that reading a foreign language for enjoyment leads to astonishing new vistas, because she reminds us that fun is naturally propulsive.


About translating French, Davis writes, “I want to take the always slightly mysterious French sentence and transform it into something every word, and nuance, of which will be thoroughly home to me, which is what English is to me — the home language.” This gets to the wonderful paradox of Davis as a translator, who finds a comfortable mode for thrilling mystery, for language far from home. She writes about translating from challenging to simple language; her (successful) work to translate Alfred Ollivant’s “Bob, Son of Battle” “from one kind of English to another” is largely a matter of “standardization of the dialect, and the simplification of some of Ollivant’s sentence structures and vocabulary.” Again and again, she finds ease amid difficulty.


Complexity, the essays imply, doesn’t have to defeat us. Strenuous literary pursuit could even be good for you. While translating Proust, Davis writes, “Family relations were calmer, in order to provide less distraction. My health habits were improving to promote greater alertness and intelligence; and even the basement was tidier, the mountains of cardboard boxes removed, for fear of a fire that would consume the work.” She lives with this literature, feels through it, without treating it as solely an object of study. She writes, “I have almost always approached any translation I undertake without reading the text beforehand. There are several reasons for this, but a primary one is to keep my own interest stimulated and thus my prose more alive.”

I decided to try some of her tactics, to see if they work. I found a French translation of “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” and read it without really understanding French (I’ve studied French for a few weeks, but not much more than that). I kept track of words I didn’t know, and I tried to figure out what I could from a combination of context and cognates. It sort of worked! At first the sentences were closer to music telling a story I already knew. But gradually I became more at home with basic words, routine phrases, and formulations. The strange case became familiar, in a way.

Still, this experiment reveals some limits of Davis’s method, which mostly works between languages that share cognates. As an English speaker, I can tell that the French “docteur” has something to do with “doctor,” but that trick only works with some languages. This doesn’t negate the inspiring idea — demonstrated by Davis with evident pleasure taken in wakeful thinking — that a leap from one language to another is swift way to vault into new circumstances. Davis writes, “I like being transported to another place and another culture, especially early in the morning . . . there is a refreshing freedom in that.” Similarly, reading her essays is like getting outside after being indoors for too long: I’m pretty sure it’s healthy, and I’m certain that it feels healthy.


Essays Two: On Proust, Translation, Foreign Languages, and the City of Arles

Lydia Davis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages, $35

Adam Colman is host of The Cosmic Library podcast from Lit Hub, which is now releasing its second season, “The Worlds of Scheherazade.”