From Wahnsinnig to the Loony Bin
Every culture has its own peculiar idiom, and writers have to make a lot of choices about how they can make a foreign tale accessible to an English audience. One way is to keep the original context – setting, characters, etc., – with English language replacing the original; this is what is usually thought of as ‘Translation’ and is how most English speakers encounter works such as War and Peace or Dead Souls. The characters still exist in their native Russia in the nineteenth century, with nineteenth-century Russian cultural mores, relationships, values.
From Wahnsinnig to the Loony Bin takes a different approach, which the authors call ‘Transposition.’ After translating the original story to English, they move the context to become contemporaneous for the reader; a story that was originally set in a Russian village two hundred years ago might be moved to modern-day New York or Vermont, a barber becomes an esthetician, the queen is America’s First Lady.
The six stories in this volume include two German and four Russian stories – two each by Hoffman, Gogol, and Pushkin – but transposed to be more familiar to modern readers. It is an interesting exercise, and an interesting read. The flavor of the original is still very clearly felt – in fact, it is so well retained that it seems as if you are reading a direct translation, as if the current context was exactly the one in which the original author set his story. This is lovely. You still have a flavor of ‘foreign-ness,’ but because the context is modern, the ultimate meaning is not muddied by having to pause to try to grasp the importance of a particular type of carriage, for example, or missing the implications altogether. It is like incorporating explanatory annotations directly into the story.
These six stories are classic and timeless, and certainly worthy of reading in the original or in direct translation; these transpositions, entertaining and meaningful on their own, serve as a bridge to that original context. Great literature is always relevant; it speaks to the human condition, across all contexts; the types of experiences are common to humankind. But sometimes the original context is so foreign, or has become so distant, that it becomes unapproachable; these transpositions remove that barrier and emphasize their continued relevance today.