The Big Idea: Michael Marshall Smith

It’s not unusual for authors to play with words in their stories. It’s slightly more unusual for authors to take chances with the meaning of their stories — and to see if the meaning of the stories will change if the words are changed, in a deliberate way. With The Gist, author Michael Marshall Smith is doing both. Here he explains how and why he’s doing it.


I don’t actually remember when or how or why I had the idea for The Gist—which is odd, as it’s ended up taking about ten years of my life. As a writer, I’m normally a pretty direct kind of guy. I don’t do fancy. I distrust artifice. I may wrestle with a Big Idea in a novel once in a while but it generally winds up being subservient to character and plot, and the books themselves are as straightforward as I can make them. The Gist had a complex circularity embedded within it from the start, however, and the idea sits front and centre.

The underlying notion is a simple one—Chinese whispers. It occurred to me that it might be intriguing to write a story and have it translated through a series of languages, before bringing it back around to English, to check what had happened in the meantime—to see if the ‘gist’ survived. To make it more interesting I decided to make the original story about the process of translation, too… or at least, I think that’s what happened. It may be that I started writing a story which featured a low-rent scuffler, a loser in every respect apart from having an exceptional facility with languages, who’s given the job of translating a book out of a language no-one’s never seen before… and that’s what gave me the idea of the translation project. I’m not sure. It must have happened one way or the other, but I can’t recall which was chicken and which was egg. The question loops back on itself, as the gist often does.

Either way, the translation aspect remained a pipe dream while I wrote the actual story, which took an unaccountably long time. Usually I like to get a first draft down as quickly as possible, preferably in a day, two or three at most. A handful have taken a few weeks to shoo into the cage, in between working on other things. The Gist took about five years, adding a little here, and a little there, with several months in between re-opening the file. I’m not sure why this was and I’ve never written anything else that way, but it meant that I was a significantly older person when I finished than I had been when I started, which is rather appropriate, given how the story turns.

When the story was finally done, and edited, I rubbed my hands together and prepared to embark upon the fun part. Nine months later, by then somewhat battle-scarred, I finally had a chain set up. I had agreeable individuals ready to translate the original into Italian, then from Italian into Polish, and from Polish into French. The final part of the journey, from French back to English, had always been earmarked for my old and dear friend Nicholas Royle, a writer whose work I admire very much and who was a source of great inspiration and support when I started to write. I’d originally hoped the chain might pass through a language using non-Roman characters, like Japanese or Hebrew, but it proved too hard to get the ins and outs to work: one of many things this project has shown me is how lucky I am to write in English, as other languages are far more patchily supported when it comes to translation. This struck me again when I gave a presentation on The Gist at the Sharjah Literary festival in the United Arab Emirates last year, as I was dependant upon simultaneous translation to communicate and unable to even guess at the title of the panel on which I was appearing.

Eventually I lit the blue touch paper and withdrew. At which point… nothing happened. The Italian translation never materialized, and so the whole thing ground to a halt. After two years I regretfully gave up, and prepared to use the story as the centerpiece of a new collection instead. But fortunately Bill Schafer at Subterranean, who’d been an enthusiastic, determined (and patient) supporter of the project from the start, prevailed upon me to give it one more try. I did, shortening the chain markedly and going to people upon whom I knew I could rely—Benoît Domis and Nick Royle. In a surprisingly short period of time these translations were done. I blocked out the design in the style of the Roycrafters (to whom reference is made in the story), and handed it over to Subterranean, who have made a fantastic job of turning this idea into a reality.

And it’s not done yet. Later this year The Gist will make the leap into the virtual, courtesy of one of my French publishers, Alain Nevant. His company Bragelonne will be publishing the story as an ebook, deploying an innovative app model that allows you to tap on any given paragraph of the story to alternate between the original English, the French, or the translated version. If you wish, you can even mix and match throughout, setting the gist free of any particular writer or language.

We all translate, all the time. Any given word, each collection of letters, is merely that: an arbitrary jumble of black squiggles upon which meaning has been conferred by history and convention. A word is not a thing, but merely an agreed method of referencing a thing, and these vary over time and space: what is comprehensible here and now would not be comprehensible there, or then. Every time we use a word in any language we are using something concrete to evoke the intangible, like using your hands to capture air. That’s not possible, of course, and never has been and never will be—and yet somehow we still manage to communicate, and run our lives, and buy cars, and order complicated coffees, and tell people we love them, and have them understand.

That’s the everyday miracle of language, the way in which through art we are translated. The big idea with The Gist was to celebrate how astonishing that is.


The Gist: Subterranean Press|Amazon

Read an excerpt (scroll down). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

14 Comments on “The Big Idea: Michael Marshall Smith”

  1. Quite a few years ago now, I ordered a book from SubPress titled “Only Forward,” pretty much on impulse, but the description sounded appealing. I loved it. Then, in a used bookstore in Ashland, OR I found the first two books in the Straw Men trilogy and proceeded to annoy my traveling companion to distraction by reading excerpts aloud to her until she finally told me to quit it in no uncertain terms. We were at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival but you can’t see plays 24-7. After that, I tracked down every book by MMS that I could find and I think I have them all now, barring a few short stories. I found the final book of the trilogy in NC, while waiting to be able to go home after hurricane Katrina. I snatched it up and my only thought was that for six hours or so I wouldn’t be worrying about my house or obsessing about what was happening to my city. Michael Marshall Smith gave me a gift. I’ve never posted this much but this is my “thank you.”

  2. Can’t help it….

    Mr. James: “The original title of this book was ‘Jimmy James, Capitalist Lion Tamer’ but I see now that it’s… ‘Jimmy James, Macho Business Donkey Wrestler’… you know what it is… I had the book translated in to Japanese then back in again into English. Macho Business Donkey Wrestler… well there you go… it’s got kind of a ring to it don’t it?”

    Question: “What did you mean when you said, “Feel my skills, donkey donkey donkey, donkey donkey?”

    Mr. James: *Sigh*

    Seriously – I love this idea! Off now to go shopping.

  3. I love this idea! I’m weirdly hopeful this will spark a new mini-genre. Or at least a strong trend.

  4. What an intriguing idea. Reading the English before and after translation will have to be enough for my monolingual self, but I think my French speaking friends will love this even more. It would be interesting to see translator’s notes for text which seems to depart from MMS’s original story. The human side of translation is far more interesting than a description of a quirky Google Translate algorithm…

    Quelle idée intrigante. Lecture de l’anglais avant et après la traduction devra être assez pour moi-même unilingue, mais je pense que mes amis francophones vont adorer ce encore plus. Il serait intéressant de voir les notes du traducteur de texte qui semble s’écarter de l’histoire originale de MMS. Le côté humain de la traduction est bien plus intéressant que la description d’un algorithme Google Translate bizarre …

    What an intriguing idea. English reading before and after the translation will be enough for myself unilingual, but I think my French friends will love it even more. It would be interesting to see the translator’s notes of text that seems to deviate from the original story of MMS. The human side of the translation is much more interesting than the description of an algorithm Google Translate weird …

  5. Reblogged this on MentatJack and commented:
    I love reading “The Big Idea” on Scalzi’s blog and this book has been intriguing me for a while. I once did a reading at an open mic that applied this technique (via machine translation) to a rather personal email. I suspect the results here will be better.

  6. Hi there –

    Glad you like the idea… yes, it and things like it have been done before, but I hope this has something new to give.

    And thank you so much for your comment Maryann – you’ve made my morning :-)

    Michael Marshal Smith

  7. The cover reminds me of “The Name of the Rose,” and the idea makes me think of those scenes from Monty Python that were translated into Japanese and then back into English.

    Nevertheless, I’d be curious to see how the first English version compares to the post-translation English version. It must take a lot of patience to leave that much of a novel up to other people’s interpretations.

  8. Very interesting concept. It’s a shame you couldn’t get an Arabic translation. It’s good to hear that Sharjah still has a literary fest. I went there in the ’90’s and came back with a suitcase full of books from the Arabic publishers. Back then it was very hard to find western novels, especially F/FS written in Arabic, I hope that it’s easier now.

  9. There seems to be a slow meme going through the literary world around the idea of translation. Chinglish by David Henry Hwang was a play that played with this, with substantial portions of the play in Mandarin and English. Which made it a natural to import into China, as is,…….

  10. Mais c’est merveilleux! As a Canadian, I regularly trip over this phenomenon. Sometimes, you play guessing games “oh, that ad must have been shot in French. The joke kinda falls flat, but it might have been funny or sexy in the original.” Sometimes, you have guess the intentions of bureaucrats, in deciphering a memo that’s been edited in two languages multiple times. But to play with it on purpose ! Fabuleux!

  11. Reminds me of an experience I had in an ASL class. We had to translate a specific English sentence into ASL and I think there ended up being upwards of 4 or 5 different end results. All of which were perfectly acceptable. It would have been interesting to see how another group sent those back into English. Of course ASL’s structure/grammar is VERY different than English’s which contributes to the multiple ways to translate things.

    I used to have a decent ability with French, but I’ve lost a lot of it. I’m going to have to put this on my list just to see how much French I can actually remember!

  12. Frederik Pohl’s story “The Wizards of Pung’s Corners” was translated into Chinese and published in English re-translation in “Pohlstars” as “The Wizard-Masters of Peng-Shi Angle.” It did make for fascinating reading, I’d still like to read the original.
    The Gist sounds an intriguing concept.