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Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Vorsprung Durch Technik

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There are few better ways of starting Saturday morning than with a cup of tea and copies of the Guardian, the London Review of Books and Heat. The edge was somewhat taken off this pleasure when I opened today’s Guardian Review and saw that the headline was Salinger, Updike, Mailer… Mark Lawson on the postwar. Lawson is a critic of spectacular inanity and his subject is simultaneously overly familiar and beyond his talents. In fact, this article is really an advert for his forthcoming Radio 4 series, Capturing America, and takes the form of a potted history of post-war American literature. It is every bit as bad as I feared. Take this opening gambit:

There is an obvious temptation to believe that the authors who have recently died form – with others who fought in the war (such as Saul Bellow and Gore Vidal) or were teenagers in America during it (Philip Roth) – the greatest literary generation the country has ever seen or ever will see.

No, there is no such “obvious” temptation and a definition of literary generation that encompasses both Bellow (1915) and Roth (1933) is pretty generous. He continues with this theme:

When I began to think about the series, the question of who was America’s greatest living novelist would spark lively debate at a book festival. On the eve of transmission, that medal automatically defaults to Philip Roth.

To which I can only say: bollocks. There is a paragraph after paragraph of this rubbish; I forced myself to read it to the end but I don’t have the energy to pick it apart here. Radio 4 is bad enough for my blood pressure at the best of times so you can guarantee I won’t be tuning in to the series.

Toril Moi’s LRB review of a new translation of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir is frustrating for entirely different reasons. Published in France in 1949, it was originally translated into English by HM Parshley, a professor of zoology, in 1953. In 1983 it emerged that there were serious weaknesses with the translation, not least of which was the excision of 145 pages (about 15% of the original text). As Moi puts it:

The strength of Parshley’s 57-year-old translation is that it is lively and readable. Parshley was, on all evidence, an excellent writer of English. When he understood the French, he usually found the right phrase and managed to convey nuances of irony and poetry. The most serious weaknesses are the unannounced cuts; but his complete lack of familiarity with Beauvoir’s philosophical vocabulary and the deficiencies in his knowledge of French also undermine his version of the book.

Despite lobbying, it took over twenty years for the publishers to agree to a new translation. For some reason though, they enlisted a pair of rank amateurs:

Given the profile of the book, Beauvoir specialists hoped that the publishers would turn to a first-rate translator with a track record in the relevant field… Instead, the publishers chose Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, two Americans who have lived in Paris since the 1960s and worked as English teachers at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques. They have published numerous textbooks in English for French students (My English Is French: la syntaxe anglaise), and many cookery books (Cookies et cakes and Sandwichs, tartines et canapés among others). Their track record in translation from French to English, however, appears to be slim (I have found only two catalogue essays for art exhibitions in Paris, both translated by Malovany-Chevallier).

The results are predictable. And Heat? Well, I think we are all impressed by Nicola Girls Aloud’s anti-sunbed stance and Danny McFly’s torso. Conversely, the news that John Mayer is dating Taylor Swift is what the phrase “gruesome twosome” was invented for. (If you need to pretend those last three sentences didn’t happen: Christopher Tayler reviews The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis and Patrick Ness reviews Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.)

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Written by Martin

6 February 2010 at 18:33

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