by Kaulie Lewis
There’s no denying that our world is getting smaller. Financial markets never close, overseas travel takes a matter of hours, and pop culture spreads in seconds. But literary translation still has a hesitant air to it, as if both readers and writers are wary of foreign literature. But this, too, is beginning to change, and Bloomers are leading the charge. Chief among the new translators are the now famous husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, an impressively prolific duo who have translated almost 30 Russian classics in a span of roughly 25 years. The story of how they came to translation is equally impressive, if deceptively simple—they sat down to read a translation of Dostoevsky, realized it wasn’t very good, and decided to try and craft a better one. Despite having no previous translation experience and no training (Pevear had published a few poems and Volokhonsky studied theology, but neither had attempted a major translation or published a book) they placed their first translation with a small press and slowly built a readership. Slowly, that is, until Oprah made their translation of Anna Karenina a book club pick and shot the 19th-century novel back onto the best-seller list. Now the pair is included in the The Paris Review’s Art of Translation interview series; an excerpt of their conversation is available from LitHub.
Pevear and Volokhonsky made successful, late-blooming careers for themselves as translators of notoriously difficult Dostoevsky novels. The most striking thing about their translations was that they were able to preserve the roughness of Dostoevsky’s characters, their myriad voices and unreliable narration, in the English versions. But that feat, impressive though it is, pales in comparison to the work of Bloomer Dai Congrong, who is translating James Joyce’s late masterpiece Finnegans Wake into Chinese. The first third of her translation achieved best-seller status in China, but the other two thirds are proving . . . well, difficult. “May God give me the courage to finish it,” she’s said of the project. Her full struggle to translate the untranslatable has been profiled by the London Review of Books, and they, like us, wish her the best of luck.
Bloomers don’t excel only at literary translation—they’re strikingly good at invention, too. The BBC has compiled a few examples of writers who invent languages, and among the usual suspects (Bloomer J.R.R. Tolkien, who published The Hobbit at 45, for one) there’s also Anthony Burgess, who published his first novel at 39. The BBC pays considerable attention to his development of Nadsat, a Slavic-inspired slang used by the ultra-violent teens of A Clockwork Orange, which Burgess published when he was 45. As Hepzibah Anderson summarizes, “Language, as dystopian novels remind us over and over, is a barometer of a society’s health . . . [and] it’s reassuring to know that wordsmiths are still labouring to expand our vocabularies, and with them, our experience of the world around us.” Reassuring, too, that so many of these writers are Bloomers and that their world-expanding creativity is still a force reckoned with, even as the world grows smaller.
The world-expanding creativity of Bloomer writers and artists shows itself in other kinds of inventiveness besides the linguistic. There’s the work of Frank Herbert, for example, who serialized his first work at 35 but didn’t release Dune until his mid-40s. Dune is now 50 years old. In an article for The Guardian Hari Kunzru makes the case that it was the era-defining text for the Age of Aquarius and even now has political significance in addition to simply being a great story (though our partners at The Millions would have to disagree with that last claim). Whether you like the science fiction classic or no, there’s no denying Herbert’s genius for world-building; his work redefined the science-fiction genre.
Then there’s the considerably less successful but still daringly inventive bohemian Bloomer Joe Gould, who spent his life composing what is likely the longest novel ever written, depending on your definition of “novel.” He worked for decades on a project he called The Oral History of Our Time and claimed to be writing down everything he heard, creating a “vital new literary form” that hovered somewhere between fiction and history. But Gould was also highly erratic, possibly suffering from hypergraphia, among a slew of other disorders. Though a few small excerpts of his work were published in The Dial and Ezra Pound claimed to have read at least part of the handwritten manuscript, for years no one was sure whether his full Oral History really existed. This month, in an essay for the New Yorker, Jill Lepore attempts to track the never-published Oral History and the eccentric behind the project, with interesting results.
Bloomers’ world-expanding talents of translation and creation also continue into other disciplines besides the literary, and CNN has organized a slide show of 30 musicians and actors “who had to wait forever before topping the charts or winning a big award” or who have yet to do either. Their list includes James Taylor—who just had an album debut at #1 after 47 years of releases—Weird Al Yankovic, and even Al Pacino. Though many of the names and faces in the slide show are likely familiar to audiences and listeners, CNN is quick to add a thoughtful note that for every one of the 30 Bloomers included, there are many, many more artists who are still waiting for the attention and praise they deserve.
One Bloomer who is frequently celebrated for her patience and late-in-life turn to creativity is Penelope Fitzgerald, who our own Evelyn Somers profiled for Bloom. In a piece for LitHub, Jessica Ferri considers the work of Fitzgerald and her fellow Bloomer Jane Gardam and concludes that “English novelists of a certain age do it better.” We particularly appreciate Ferri’s diagnosis of the “Penelope Fitzgerald problem,” a possible explanation for her lingering obscurity: “Perhaps it is indeed the ability to write one’s mind, with no regard for trends. The ability to do so comes from the wisdom of life experience combined with the time and space to think—the freedom, rather than the problem, of the late bloomer.”
If you happen to be struggling with your own “problem” of a late-blooming “ability to write one’s mind” with wisdom and talent, we have a possible solution. Two Sylvias Press is offering the Wilder Series Poetry Book Prize, which comes with $1000 and publication, to female poets over 50. We hope this just the beginning of wider recognition of Bloomer writers, who, with their ability to translate between languages, ages and experiences while creating new ones, make the world a little bit bigger for all of us.
Homepage image courtesy Miloslav Druckmuller/SWNS via The Telegraph