cover image The Gist

The Gist

Michael Marshall Smith, trans. from English to French by Benoît Domis, trans. from the French by Nicholas Royle. Subterranean (, $35 (80p) ISBN 978-1-59606-561-1

This ambitious collaboration attempts to get at the very roots of storytelling. Appearing first in its original English, then a French translation, and finally an English translation from the French (without access to the original English text), Smith’s short story explores the ways information morphs during translation. Opening in a specialty store for “lost books,” the tale follows barfly John as he struggles to translate an esoteric volume for porcine bookseller Maurice Portnoy. Although skilled in over 15 languages, John is stumped by the mysterious book, which he assumes to be written in code. Days are spent in the local bar pouring over the pages, but to no avail. Then one morning after an all-night bender, John awakens in a private, enclosed park where a man speaking a cryptic language that strikes John as somehow familiar. As John’s drinking continues, so too does his descent into this enigmatic tongue. Parallels between the story’s narrative and the book’s overall conceit are compelling, but ultimately unfulfilling. Readers of French will enjoy the shifting stylistic nuances that any translation paired with an original inevitably provides; however, the retranslation into English adds very little to the book’s overall ambition. Instead of thought-inspiring, Royle’s static, dilute version reaffirms an age-old adage: something is always lost in translation. (May)