‘Don’t Even Ask’: Translating David Foster Wallace’s ‘Jest’ Into Greek

In News by Dennis Abrams

‘It’s hard enough translating 600-word-long subordinate-clause-laden sentences while maintaining as similar a rhythm as possible,’ says Wallace translator Kostas Kaltsas.
Excerpt from the cover of the 20th anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" from Hachette's Back Bay Books.

Excerpt from the cover of the 20th anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” from Hachette’s Back Bay Books.

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘A Highly Inflected Language’
In his piece ‘Infinite Complexity: On Translating David Foster Wallace Into Greek at Literary Hub, Scott Esposito, while noting that some works of American culture such as the film The Force Awakens and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code quickly go international, asks why others do not:

Scott Esposito

Scott Esposito

“Take, for instance, David Foster Wallace’s near-canonical mega-novel Infinite Jest: released in the States in 1996, it has in 20 years been translated into just five languages. (A sixth translation into Greek is currently in the works.)

“At this rate, it is moving only slightly faster than the massive Quixote, which had appeared in England, France, the Germanic territories, and Venice 20 years after its complete Castilian publication in 1615.

“However, Jest is massively behind the 3,600-page über-novel My Struggle, which—just 5 years after its complete Norwegian release—is available or forthcoming in over 20 languages.”

Infinite Jest in Italian, for example, the first translated edition, became available in 2000, four years after Infinite Jest was published in the US.

Esposito spoke with that edition’s translator Giovanna Granato, who has translated Wallace’s The Pale King and Oblivion (along with works by other authors) to explain how Jest works in the Italian literary landscape.

She says that Wallace fits in well because “philosophical,” “specious,” and “convoluted” books are part of Italy’s cultural DNA: “There has always been a cult for difficult writers such as Joyce or Pound, Heidegger, or Wittgenstein,” she tells Esposito. “Their whole work has been translated and studied and commented and even imitated since the beginning.”

Esposito interviews Kostas Kaltsas, who is currently translating Infinite Jest into Greek.

From that interview:

Scott Esposito: Are there particular challenges that the Greek language or culture presents for a translation of this book? That is, are there certain aspects to the tone, or the references, or the creation of character that make it difficult to bring into a Greek context? Or, on a strictly linguistic level, are there aspects of Wallace’s English that are just hard to get into Greek syntax or language?

Infinite Jest anniversary editionKostas Kaltsas: “In the words of Wallace himself: “Dont [sic] even ask.”…The problems most specific to Greek are possessives and subordination. Greek sentences are just structured very differently. This means two things:

1. Certain effects cannot be maintained if you want to end up with a parsable sentence (The Pale King’s ‘The station’s flagpole’s flag’s rope’s pulleys” comes to mind: in Greek, this only works as “the pulleys of the rope of the flag of the flagpole of the station”; the “zooming in” effect becomes a “zooming out” one.)

2. It’s hard enough translating 600-word-long subordinate-clause-laden sentences while maintaining as similar a rhythm as possible; it gets worse when translating into Greek because it’s a highly inflected language. This means for example that in the case of subordinate clauses nouns are very often found in the genitive. The problem is that a lot of Greek nouns are never found in the genitive (some diminutive forms, for example). So I end up spending a lot of time trying to figure out some way of using the nominative while not making the sentences any more complex than they already are. Having said that, I don’t want to make them any less complex than they are. I’m with Lance Olsen on this: “Their M.O. is hypotaxis, not simply as a showoffy stylistic swagger, but as fraught existential position.”

More from Esposito about Infinite Jest in Italian, German, Spanish, and French is here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.