H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life

03/06/2009 § 4 Comments

So, I’ve decided that I’m a jerk. I’m very interested in Howard Phillips Lovecraft as a person and have not read the biography by S.T. Joshi, which I would have liked to have picked up before this book by Michel Houellebecq, but the library didn’t have it, so this is what I get. I’m a jerk because I am prejiduced against it before I had begun. Now, about 40 pages into it, even though it is a fine read and more of just a rambling essay than a bio or anything (I’m pretty sure I read that it was a bio of sorts when it was published but I may be wrong), I am still prejudiced against it. Why? Because it’s written by a French person. Now, I’m making large assumptions here, but I don’t think they are wild assumptions.

He has probably read Lovecraft in translation, I believe he says as much around page 20. His essay was originally written in French. It’s not that I think he’s off the mark in his arguments and it is obvious he is a devoted fan, but I still feel like he’s an insult. It’s like me writing a german published essay, translated from my English, on Kafka.

Sure, maybe the intention was never to translate for an English audience….

Anyways, the argument in many assface English classes, or at least some English classes, is that some authors are untranslatable and I guess I never felt that. How many times have you heard you can’t read Dostoyevsky or Rimbaud in translation? Too many times. Far too many times. But, I’m an American with just a smattering of other languages and still naively assume English can effectively emote everything in all languages… we do have a hell of a lot of adjectives. Dig up your thesaurus if you don’t believe me.

This whole lost-in-translation phenomenon has never come up in the reverse. Not to me anways. It’s always European writers that one is supposed to read in the original text. I don’t believe I’ve come across the Americans getting all huffy with Europeans about reading in the original text (then again we are Americans so we probably have)….but with Lovecraft and all his cosmic descriptions and absurd pseduo-scientific words and the like, it seems tough to get the full sense of the horror. I mean, c’mon. The word “cosmic” translates as “cosmique” in French. How scary is that?

In any event, I’ve never chastised a foreigner for reading something in translation. Indeed, I was probably happy that they read the book at all. And I am glad Lovecraft is translated into many languages.

Ugh. I’m rambling. I am enjoying the essay. But still kind of annoyed I guess.

Anyways. I feel like this blog has gone off-topic for the last few posts and I just wanted to assure you I am getting back to fairytales proper in the coming posts. Maybe Norse or more American. Something with Giants perhaps….


§ 4 Responses to H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life

  • kasia says:

    Wait, I’m confused. You seem to be saying that the complaint that things don’t come across properly in translation is overstated (by assfaces, heh heh), but also that you felt like Houellebecq isn’t really qualified to write about Lovecraft because he read him in translation? Am I missing something?

    Meanwhile, huh, I didn’t know that Houllebecq had written something on Lovecraft. Interesting. Personally, I have very mixed feelings about Monsieur Michel – I think he’s an assface, even if he is a talented prose writer in some ways. His fiction is, well, obnoxious yet interesting.


    Regarding the translation point, I think people do occasionally say that English texts don’t work in translation. Probably they just don’t say it to English speakers, heh heh. But I know that this famous Polish poet said that Thomas Moore’s poetry made him appreciate the beauty of the English language (which, given Moore’s poetry, is kind of, um, hmmmm) and I think plenty of people have said that Joyce can’t be properly conveyed in translation. I definitely think TS Eliot would lose something in translation. I mean, I dunno, I think something DOES get lost in translation. Sometimes other things are gained. Harry Potter is actually a lot better in Polish, in my opinion. But we can’t all learn every language out there, so by golly, we’ve gotta make the best of things. But there are some Polish novels where the translations are SO bad that I honestly advise against reading the book. So yeah. ramble ramble. sorry.

  • Nick says:

    Firstly. That’s really interesting about works being better in other languages than the original,and I guess I hadn’t thought about certain fantasy works being alteredin positive ways in translation and depending on the translator that seems like an interesting effect, and unfortunately only really enjoyed by bi-tri-quad-&tc-lingual folks.

    And yes. I guess my post is not exactly on point here. Perhaps it illustrates my ambivalence to the feelings I was going through reading that essay… wanting to learn more about Lovecraft the man, but biting my tongue the whole time because I was annoyed that this person was the one telling me. Kind of like when your parents chastise you as a child. Houllebecq certainly knows more than I do about Lovecraft, as my parents did when I was ten….but I still want to stomp my feet in defiance. Or, maybe it’s just that I need to reread these posts after I write them for clarity and continuity.

    Whoopsie. I’ll try to be less birdbrained in the future. *wink*

  • Jerry says:

    At least you started the post by saying you are a jerk. That kind of gives you the freedom to say jerky things. Way to cover yourself. ;p

    PS you should put up more illustrations like that great one of Babe the ox you posted a while ago.

  • Nick says:

    Yeah. I try to cover all bases in the beginning. Can’t expect a comprehensible critique if I take away any authority on the matter by demeaning myself up front. 😉

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