The literatures of the various languages are replete with untranslatable books; today it is a commonplace in comparative literature and linguistics, or whatever these fields and their institutions of the academic spirit of the age currently prefer to call themselves, that every text, however trivial, contains facets that cannot be transferred into another linguistic system. But perhaps hardly any text defies translation as staunchly as The Ninth Biospherian by Roni Layerson. His(?) complex approach to the Biosphere 2 project presents major comprehension problems even to readers sharing the same language (if indeed they manage to get hold of the text in the first place; more on the confused publication history below). The translator, who will at least probably have a complete – or, more probably, an incomplete – copy at his disposal, can but despair.
The Ninth Biospherian is the story of Biosphere 2: From 1991 to 1993, eight people lived in a giant glass house situated in the Arizona desert. The building was closed off from the outside world and comprised six biomes, i.e. six complete ecosystems, a rainforest, ocean, desert, agriculture, etc., that were supposed to recycle the air and water and provide the crew with food. Layerson relates the various aspects of this project from the viewpoint of an imaginary ninth crew member.
The structure of the available manuscript is that of an anthology. There are said to be other versions, but I am not familiar with them. My copy has 637 A4 pages, with an additional loose appendix of notes, bibliography, footnotes, and photo material that is almost as thick.
The table of contents, that has first to be discovered, appearing, as it does, unexpectedly at the end of the first third of the text, indicates twelve chapters, listed as separate essays and short stories. I have discovered at least one additional, unlisted chapter. The individual chapters (I will stick with this impartial term) are not ascribed to different authors, although they are, in some cases, clearly copied: sometimes more, sometimes less. Layerson refrains from a trivial allocation of authors’ names, knowing that we will read it thus anyway.
A kind of introduction at the start of the anthology takes care of this. Layerson writes:
At first glance, i.e. on the first few pages or upon casual browsing, The Ninth Biospherian may, depending on the reader’s educational background or stylistic preference, appear reminiscent of Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum or one of Borges’s meta-fictions, or what do I know. And after all these are two references that are often cited when people are writing about it, so the book appears to be so before you have even got hold of it. I knew this too before I began dealing with it. It is really no problem to establish links going back to Sartor Resartus. References. Gimmicks.
By now it is abundantly clear which waters we are navigating. Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum is a book consisting of reviews of imaginary science-fiction books. The preface discusses Lem’s book itself. Anyone familiar with A Perfect Vacuum will perhaps agree with me that it is mannered and conceited rather than a reading adventure. Jorge Luis Borges, mentioned by Layerson, writes in a preface that his style of writing in Collected Fictions was still clumsy. Elsewhere he ascribes the overly baroque nature of a text to an immature author. With its intrinsic vanity, this self-criticism probably applies less to the stories in Collected Fictions than to Lem’s later book. And it applies to Layerson. It seems as though the virus of this “mirror-fencing” text production is also eating into the matrix of the fencing style, more and more so with each generation. I too feel its infection. I am beset with the same difficulty when translating the text; for on the one hand I aim to remain true to the style of the original, as crappy as it may be. On the other hand, I am of course tempted to improve on the author’s weaknesses. For example, to write: “as crappy as it may be”, i.e. to abandon the blasé. Into another mannerism. And thus remain true to the fundamental character of the original!
the entire text as pdf