Michael Marshall: Research & the Long-Distance Walker

Michael Marshall, We Are Here
photo via Michael Marshall Smith

When I met British novelist Michael Marshall back in 2009, he told me about the research he was doing for a novel set in New York City. Well, We Are Here is out now, so I asked him to tell us a little bit more about the wandering approach he took to the city as he was putting its story together.

I recently saw a bumper sticker that amused me: “I want to live in a world where chickens don’t have their motivations constantly questioned.” My feelings on research relate less to why fowl traverse thoroughfares, however, and more to the knotty chronological relationship that obtains between them and their storage solutions for developing embryos.

Because when it comes to research, I’m sill not sure if it’s the chicken, or the egg, that comes first.

We Are Here is largely set in New York City. For a long time the city and I remained strangers, with the exception of a week-long visit back in the late 1980s as part of a tour with the Cambridge Footlights. We performed our mannered and carefully-worded undergraduate sketch comedy to the bafflement of tough late night club crowds far more geared up for improv, and spent the rest of our time wandering streets that were, in those days, genuinely rather unnerving.

I didn’t return until the late 2000s, when a sequence of events and a policy of using the city as a hub to other destinations meant I found myself in NYC for anything from three to seven days on an annual basis. It had become somewhat gentrified by then, less openly alarming to the effete North London novelist I had become, and I discovered the truth that everyone else knows—that New York, along with Paris and London, is one of the world’s great triumvirate of cities. A great walking city, too—perfect for an inveterate high-speed flâneur and block-walker like me.

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28 February 2014 | guest authors |

Nina Schuyler Has Translation on the Brain

Nina Schuyler
photo: Cristina Taccone

As Nina Schuyler explains below, the protagonist of her new novel, The Translator, thinks she understands the Japanese novel she’s rendering into English, but she may be looking at it from a skewed perspective. What happens when the rest of her life is thrown into disarray by a brain trauma that takes away her ability to speak English—but leaves her fluent in Japanese? That would be telling, of course… but I can share Schuyler’s insights into what drew her, as a novelist, to this captivating premise.

In 2005, The New Yorker published an article by David Remnick, “The Translation Wars,” about a married couple that was busy re-translating all the great Russian novels into English: Richard Pevear, an English speaker, and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, a Russian émigrée. Finally, what Nabokov called a “complete disaster” and “the dry shit” of Constance Garnett, who had first translated Russian literature into English, could be set aside.

What caught my eye wasn’t the word “Translation” in the title of the article, but the words “Tolstoy” and “Dostoyevsky” in the subtitle. As a girl, I fell in love with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Pasternak. I remember one summer when I was twelve, I carried Doctor Zhivago every day to the pool. Back then, I didn’t even consider that the stories were first written in Russian—what Thomas Mann called “the muddy, barbaric, boneless tongue from the East.” What I thought about was snow, sleigh rides, passion, betrayal, revolution, peasants, czars, love.

Constance Garnett was, in fact, English. In 1891, when she had a difficult pregnancy, she taught herself Russian. Soon she began translating. According to Remnick, when she came across a word or phrase she didn’t know, she merrily skipped it and moved on. She was not skilled enough to carry forth certain verbal motifs and complicated sentences.

I went to my bookshelf. My Russian literature—all Garnett’s translations! Watered down, corrupted translation, soaked in a heavy dose of English custom and sensibility. As all writers learn, conflict makes for story. The New Yorker article presented itself to me as a seed for a story: What if a translator thinks she did a superior job, as Garnett most likely did, but, in fact, mangled the job?

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11 November 2013 | guest authors |

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