TMO As a scholar of Comparative Literature, you must be more aware than most of the inevitable sticking point of literary translation. Would it be fair to say that this problem seems to matter more with the translation of fairy tales?
MW I’ve become increasingly interested in it as a phenomenon of our times in particular. Again, I don’t want to generalize with this ‘we’, but in the 19th century, a certain educated person would read Latin or Greek in the original. Well now, even the most educated people can’t do that. It’s a practice that’s vanished, with the exceptiong of a very few classicists. Do you know there used to be women (and I say this with an exclamation mark!) who would teach themselves Greek and read it in the original. These women weren’t even going to school – that’s what Mary Wortley Montagu did- she was totally self-taught. Now we all read (and I really can say this) Homer in translation and that’s also true of a vast array of the classics.
There’s also been a wonderful rise in imaginative versions of the classics. Seamus Heaney of course did some wonderful work in this field, and Ted Hughes and Anne Carson. Have you come across her? She’s done some extraordinary- very wayward and peculiar – versions of the classics (now she is a classicist and does read in the originals), but they are very sharp and mysterious. One of her recent books is called Antigonick– a modern version of Antigone. It’s illustrated too by her. She’s very enterprising and strange- you’d like her! One of her most successful books is called Autobiography of Red, a novel in verse that springs from her translations of fragments of Greek poetry about the monster Geryon– the three-headed monster whom Hercules kills. The fragments of Greek verse that actually remain are tiny and very enigmatic, but she’s taken them and written a mythic modern novel in verse. It’s extraordinarily successful as a work of contemporary fiction.
I’ve actually been working on these re-writings and retranslations and re-visionings. I gave a course on the form, at New York University in Abu Dhabi, and I’m writing about it. Another example of a favourite text of great influence and importance on a huge number of people is Gilgamesh, which none of us can read in the original – there really are only a handful of scholars alive who can read it in Babylonian!The epic was only recovered in the mid nineteenth century so for over a thousand years it wasn’t read at all. From this perspective it’s really a modern – a Victorian – poem. Such conditions have affected our relationship to reading in general. You don’t have to be someone who reads Antigone or Sappho to be interested in how a text isn’t a fixed object but a kind of metamorphic energy that will take different shapes and different forms at different times, and that this protean quality is a resource rather than a loss of some ‘pure’ original. We’re experiencing transformations of texts through different media. I like graphic novels, for instance. They’re very interesting in the way they tell old stories. Posy Simmons is a genius I think -her re-telling of Madame Bovary (Gemma Bovery
) is stunning and Tamara Drewe from Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd – they’re free transpositions, metamorphoses.
TMO Is this relationship between free transposition and the metamorphic the thing that makes something a successful and interesting translation?
MW: The word ‘translation’ is very broad as it simply means to ‘carry across’. It’s just another way of carrying across a certain text, and I really enjoy the dialogue that’s set up with some anterior work. I heard a wonderful phrase used by a friend of mine (who is a translator himself and interested in such things) : ‘translucination’. It’s a very good word! It conveys translucency, and a kind of hallucination too.
TMO It seems to me that there is somewhat of a paradox on looking at the nature of how these tales were collected and who they were collected from. They were collected by gentlemen from women, mostly, whose voices were more oral than a man’s. The Grimms, for instance and their desire to get to the ‘purest’ version was often from women who would refuse to talk to them. How did this contradiction work?
MW There was the famous case of the Grimms’ Cinderella, the version in which they cut off their feet. It’s very cruel indeed – the most cruel of all the versions extant. The birds, for example, put out the sisters’ eyes, and the father tries to kill Cinderella with an axe- it’s a really savage tale. An old woman in the hospital, or poor house, in Marburg didn’t want to pass it on to the Brothers, so they paid the little girl, the daughter of the director, to go and ask her for a story ,and then come out straight away and tell it to them. That’s how the Grimms collected it. I speculated in From the Beast to the Blonde, that originally she didn’t want to tell them because they were fine gentlemen and that this was a secret of glorious revenge! It was a secret between women you know? There was a public anxiety – especially men’s anxiety that women are getting up to no good when they’re together.
TMO With their wily and artful charms?
MW Well of course it’s true!- women did pass information to each other- not so much now but in the past where they weren’t able to look something up on the internet. I mean, if your period was late you talked to women about it. Men were frightened of that ‘sisterhood’ of knowledge. Fairy tales do encode a lot of that information.
TMO There is also a long history in oral traditions in poetry and folk tales as being essentially female in character. Are these kinds of tales the product of a perceived unlettered, less reliable source?
MW Yes, absolutely, and when the knowledge is taken over into the public arena and open discourse it tends to change character, and acquire a rather moralising instructive character – its pristine honesty tamed in order to educate and mould the young. It becomes an instrument of pedagogy. This is what the Grimms felt , and caused them such internal conflict- they couldn’t believe what they were encountering, so they tried to change it. But then they didn’t want to change it because they were also scholars and ethnographers and felt they shouldn’t.But they did. They went ahead and removed the reference to pregnancy in Rapunzel – a story which I think can be read very clearly as giving a warning to parents against this kind of behaviour Shutting up a girl in a tower and not letting her know about the world will lead to trouble! She won’t know what’s happening and the next thing she’ll be pregnant – so don’t that! Tell your daughter what she faces and what the consequences might be!
TMO In this light it’s rather easy to see the trajectory of the Western fairy tale in terms of today’s sanitized aspect. Is that true?
MW Yes. Print has a lot to answer for here because it has standardized versions. The web, in fact, for the time being, has actually displaced the publisher’s hold over the tradition. As we see from all the attacks on the web by all the authorities. It would obviously be in their interests to get their hands on controlling the knowledge circulating on the web.
TMO Your interest in The Arabian Nights seems to be in contrast to a disdain for Western passivity in princesses. How marked is this contrast?
MW My interest in The Arabian Nights was originally sparked by reviewing Robert Irwin’s book ,(A Companion to the Arabian Nights) and it was then that I realized that I had completely underestimated the importance of the cross-conversation that had been going on between the Eastern and Western traditions. The exuberance of the oriental tradition had shaped and inspired and given numerous plots to the Western tradition. I had missed that in my earlier books. Then I also like the differences. I like the heroines of the Nights. This is partly an effect of Western selection, yet it would be very difficult to select for passivity in heroines in The Arabian Nights! The stories give a very different pictur of female desire – from the very beginning women are powerful and desirous even if that’s sometimes expressed in a negative fashion (in the beginning we see the Sultaness as a ferocious adulterous). But that doesn’t mean that they are actually indicting the idea of that energy in women. It’s very paradoxical because we now think of poor Islamic women as being crushed – as indeed some are. Women speak in The Arabian Nights! They really speak! They speak of what they want -and they act accordingly.
TMO Any good examples?
MW I love the story of Hasan of Basra, in which there are many marvellous female characters, but one of them is an old hag who is an Amazon general. She’s totally confounded by the beauty of the young prince who is coming to find his beloved, and she helps him in his quest, generously and humourously. It’s a wonderful, heartening story and it certainly allows even someone who begins the story as a villainess great dignity and spirit. I love The Arabian Nights for that portrait that it gives of women’s courage and fieriness, independence and idiosyncrasy
TMO: An agency that seems very much to be aligned with ‘text’- something perhaps missing from Western tradition?
MW: A lot of these heroines do exist but have been deleted- Angela Carter found many active heroines for her two anthologies of fairy tales. There are lots – even in a Victorian collection such as Joseph Jacob’s English Fairy Tales, there are some. But the dominant picture is largely shaped by the influence of America and the saucer-eyed, wasp-waisted, passive, trilling girl who never stands up to anyone.
TMO: True, but has this started to change with more ironic versions of the fairy tale trope, such as with Shrek? Is this passive girl changing with figures like Fiona?
MW: Well yes, but rather crudely. You’ve seen the recent fairy tale films from Hollywood. They vary of course, and some are much better than others. But if the princess brandishes a gun (or saucepan, as in the case of Tangled) and bashes her suitor over the head, she becomes a modern heroine, which isn’t quite enough.
TMO: And they remain wasp-waisted!
MW: The film-makers don’t understand at all what’s meant by emancipation or what makes freedom- it’s all crowd-pleasing stuff for middle class parents. I don’t know how pleasing it is actually for them – I don’t think these films have been terribly successful. They don’t get it right. Frozen is the most interesting of them so far, but I haven’t seen Maleficent yet. On the other hand, there are some wonderful fairy tale films that have been more independently made like Pan’s Labyrinth, which is an extraordinary film. Have you seen Bianca Nieves?
TMO: on the list- there does seem to be something in the water when it comes to Spanish re-imagining of these stories?
MW: Oh You must see it ! It’s stunning! Pablo Berger the director re-visits the Disney Snow White very consciously, and totally transforms it. Maribel Verdu gives a superb performance and is unbelievably evil as the wicked stepmother, but she feels like an individual criminal schemer, rather than a generic older woman, partly because she isn’t old.
TMO: I’d like to talk now about your fiction and other writings- particularly as you will be judging the Man Booker International Prize in 2015.
MW: I’m very keen to make the prize look further afield than the Anglo world. We’re not excluding English and American writers, but we are trying to widen the range. I’m having a fabulous time, I have to say , because it’s a prize for significant achievement. It’s not nominated by publishers but self-selected by the team of judges. We recommend to one another what we like. It’s also for a lifetime’s work, and not confined to a single year of publication. It means that we’re reading very very good books! It’s remarkable how much good writing is out there.
TMO: That’s an awful lot of reading!
MW: It is. It’s huge, but I’m not resenting it at the moment, I’m having a lovely time! I’m very surprised by how exciting it is – the only difficulty will be establishing a shortlist. There will be blood on the floor.
TMO: Do you feel an effect of this reading on your writing- and fictional writing in particular?
MW: Because I had finally finished Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale, I hadn’t accepted any other major work on purpose in order to get back to a novel I began writing when I finished my last one, So I’ve been doing it for a long time. Then I got this Man Booker offer, which gave me very mixed feelings about accepting. But a lot of people wanted me to. I also got a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford at the same time, and although that doesn’t come with any strings, I want to make the best of it. I’m going to give a series of seminars there on the interactions between oriental narrative and western narrative in the contemporary period and I want to bring over various writers from the Middle East. So these two things happened and interrupted my plans to go back to my novel.
TMO: Which is coming along nicely I hope?
MW: Well if I could only just return to it – I hope I live long enough!
TMO: Your novel sounds almost like an Albatross around your neck in terms of getting back to it. It seems that you focus more on finishing your non-fiction first?
MW: I do worry about that and the psychological block – though it’s not exactly a block because I cleared last September to write and inspiration came very freely and easily. I’ve tried to do the same this September too. It isn’t as if it’s blocked- it’s there, bubbling away.
TMO: Do you find it more difficult to write fiction?
MW Yes – it’s more tiring. The excuse that I have is that my mother died, five years ago now, and she left me an enormous amount of material that relates to what I was trying to write. She’s a character actually- this is about her aged 20 in Egypt after the War. She had written a lot of diaries and other things. I found this material in her house at a time when I was very well along with the novel. I think what I should have done, maybe, was finish the novel I was writing and then use this new material I’d inherited for a totally different book. Indeed, when I have read all this material, I probably will write another book. In the meantime I have quite a lot of a novel.
TMO: And is the end in sight?
MW: Well…hmmmm. I know what it’s about. It’s about adultery against the backdrop of the collapse of British influence.
TMO: You do seem to be much more aligned to the spirit of the Mediterranean, or at least the exotic, sunny skies of the North African landscape? Your story, See No Evil is, for instance, suffused with it
MW: You actually managed to get hold of it? What did you think of it? That’s one of the ones that I put together in my collection of 18 short stories. I’m not sure though that all of them are good enough and this was one of the ones I was worried about- I was worried that it might be trying to strike too many targets. You’re encouraging me though thank you!
I’ve actually done some readings from my novel-in-porgress because when anyone asks me to read as a writer of fiction, I feel that I mustn’t turn down the chance. So this poor novel which is still unfinished has had quite a lot of airing. It goes down quite well. At the moment it’s been done as an inventory, so each object in the inventory leads to something else. Some of the objects are real and things that my parents actually had. The most recent one I wrote in September is called One Carpet Beater, which is something that I actually have inherited from our time in Egypt. Of course it’s very important to beat carpets in suchplaces, because of insects etc. But this section is about my father’s temper, I’m afraid. Now he didn’t actually beat my mother with it but there is a feeling of menace arising from it.
Oddly enough I thought it would discourage me – reading for the Booker, but I find that it’s encouraging me. The level of fiction is so high that it’s a wonderful world to be in. Again, it’s a bit like music – you hear wonderful music and you just want to be a part of it and play it, too. As Borges often said, you are always as a writer in dialogue with somebody.
TMO Has the craft of writing been lost to a world of easily -publishable things?
MW: I know. I’m really very angry with mainstream publishers, but there are signs of very good small presses that are producing better looking books- because they care more about literature. They produce lovely editions. I’m very impatient with the big publishing houses at the moment- they have become so nakedly and cynically commercial. They’ll say to a great poet : “Oh we can’t sell copies of that- why don’t you write a Fifty Shades of Gray for the boys?”
TMO A poetic Fifty Shades would be intriguing to see!
MW Well I am determined to get on with my own fiction, and it will be something a little different, I hope.