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.
MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH:
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.