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The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith


When I was young, there was a very famous story about miscommunication during the First World War. Allegedly, the original message sent was, “Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.” but by the time the relay radio operators had finished transmitting and retransmitting it, the message became, “Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance.” Although this is probably apocryphal, it spawned many variations like, “Enemy advancing with ham-shanks. Send three and four pence.” There are also references to wild Italians and the need for pants to be pressed. It’s improbable that any of the stories are true. Even in the fog of war, people would not make such fundamental mistakes. The least competent message retransmitter would ask for clarification if what he thought he heard made no sense. The most likely explanation is bored copyrighters in newspaper offices were relieving the tedium of spinning out stories from the trenches by adding a little humour. It’s a process shadowing the game Chinese Whispers in which a group of hopefully well-lubricated people sit in a circle. One whispers a message in the ear of the next person and so on until the final person in the circle announces the message received. The opportunities for hilarity are obvious.

Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith

The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith (Subterranean Press, 2013) is a very brave publishing experiment which I applaud. Since I speak and read French quite well, it proved an interesting hour or so of study. The point of the exercise is simple. Michael Marshall Smith writes a short story about a man tasked with extracting the gist of meaning from a book thought untranslatable. The story is then translated into French by Benoît Domis and then back into English by Nicholas Royle. The translators were only allowed to ask technical questions. The English translator was not allowed to talk to the author.

The point is to see how far the second English version drifts from the first. It’s a classic exercise in semiotics. The meanings one group of people choose to give to groups of letters is initially arbitrary, but through consistency of usage, significance accumulates. Indeed, as the story itself points out, meanings for individual words drift so what begins its life as a signifier implying a responsible person can morph into a signifier implying an individual with a criminal purpose: the example given is henchman. By studying the context, it’s possible to date a work by deciding which meaning is intended for the given word. Moving from the immediate decoding level of attributing meaning to individual words and rising to a meta level, the reader can aim for an overview. At such a level, the individual words of the source become less significant as we strive to capture the gist of what was written. This need not be a mechanical summary. It can actually ignore much of the text and communicate an underlying truth about it. We can call this analysis or interpretation or, if you want to get technical, deconstruction. Whatever words we use, the point is to encapsulate an element of the meaning and make it stand for the whole.

The good news is that The Gist is a reasonably good short story. It’s certainly not the most original and, in a way, I think it’s a little too preoccupied with setting up the philosophical basis for the publishing exercise rather than allowing the natural “horror” to emerge. I’ve read many better variations on this theme. Perhaps that’s why it changes only slightly when retranslated back into English. Both translators would be familiar with this trope and with the necessary apparatus, e.g. the double-sided desk. It would have been interesting if the work could have been translated into cultures which lack such specific artifacts or locations. In saying this, I’m not taking anything away from the translators who worked on the text. Indeed, we should offer them both a sustained round of applause for having most faithfully processed the words to preserve meaning. The only difference is in the length. As a language, French prefers to use more words to carry the essential meaning. English is inherently more pithy. Thus when Nicholas Royle translates back into English, the result is that the text becomes slightly fuller. That’s really all I need say about this interesting experiment, if you get my meaning, that is.

For a review of a collection by Michael Marshall Smith, see Everything You Need.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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