Lina Wolff’s novel The Polyglot Lovers, translated by Saskia Vogel, is a warning to those who write by hand, and to those who write villains. The book won the 2016 August Prize, one of Sweden's main literary accolades, and received a PEN Translates Award from English PEN. Its plot hinges around a manuscript by Max Lamas, an aging novelist and old-school literary sexist who believes he’s written the perfect multilingual book. Unfortunately, his sole manuscript has vanished, and to the narrator’s clear delight, it’s not coming back.
The narrator of The Polyglot Lovers dislikes Max Lamas, and intends the reader to dislike him, too. He’s cruel and almost hysterically sexist. He treats the women he encounters, both in life and in his fantasies, with a shifting mix of scorn, entitlement, and rage. He cheats on his wife, encourages a near stranger to commit suicide, and breaks his elderly lover’s heart. He lacks complexity, which seems to be intentional: his dream of finding “a very young polyglot lover with enormous, white, milk-scented breasts” is pure caricature. At no point does Wolff work to develop his character or to provoke empathy for what she calls his “bad man’s dishonest worldview.” Instead, she writes him as a buffoon to be loathed.
The problem with writing a novel about a sexist jerk, though, is the sheer amount of time the reader has to spend with that jerk. Wolff tries to offset this by splitting The Polyglot Lovers into thirds. Before we meet Wolff, we meet Ellinor, a masochistic woman in search of love. Her experiments with online dating lead her to a critic named Ruben, and to Lamas’s manuscript. The novel then cuts to Lamas, and finally to Lucrezia, the granddaughter of Lamas’s last lover. Ellinor and Lucrezia are more nuanced characters than Lamas, but they seem to have been placed in The Polyglot Lovers mainly to occupy space. Wolff never explores Ellinor’s attraction to violence, and Lucrezia has no agenda beyond telling her grandmother’s story. Ellinor’s narrative arc gets abandoned once it meets Lamas’s, and Lucrezia has no arc at all. As a result, their presence in The Polyglot Lovers reflects Lamas’s misogyny rather than undermining it. The man is the center; the women exist to prop him up.
This is one problem with The Polyglot Lovers. The other is its prose, which is stiff and uninspired. The sentences feel mechanical, the dialogue drags, and the characterization and description are flat and vague. When Ellinor meets Ruben’s estranged wife, for instance, she glances at her wedding ring and notes, “It looked expensive and fancy.” Looking out his window in Stockholm, Lamas informs us that “The sea was cold, the cliffs dark. On the street below our apartment people were sitting at outdoor tables, wrapped in blankets and holding cups.” This descriptive dullness cannot be laid at the translator’s feet. Expensive and fancy and holding cups may have been Vogel’s English word choices, but there is no possible reason to believe Wolff offered more detailed descriptions—a cushion-cut emerald, steaming mugs of coffee, whatever you like—and Vogel omitted them.
Vogel herself is an accomplished essayist, fiction writer, and translator. Her own prose is much smoother and more detailed than The Polyglot Lovers, as is her translation of Karolina Ramqvist’s The White City. Reading Vogel’s other work, in fact, raises a question sometimes discussed in translation reviewing and theory: Should a translator improve the original text?
The usual answer is no, or not while translating literary fiction. Like beauty, improvement is in the eye of the beholder. To my ear, Lucrezia’s mother saying “Those academics and their traits—a sweet, piercing scent of moldering onion coming from their armpits” is terrible dialogue. The syntax is unnatural, the two clauses mismatched. But maybe some readers disagree, or don’t mind, or would use the phrase “a sweet, piercing scent of moldering onion” themselves. Regardless, Wolff wrote the line, and so her translator has to reproduce it, not condense it to “God, those academics smell like onions.”
But what about the novel’s subtler missteps? What if Vogel could have reorganized and combined sentences to make the prose flow better, even if there was no way to improve its content? Without reading Swedish, there’s no way to know whether such a translation approach was possible. Nor do I know Vogel’s translation philosophy. If she’s loyal above all to the author or to the Swedish text, then she would have no call to nip and tuck the English prose. But if her loyalty is to the translation or the Anglophone reader, then maybe she should have found new ways to make The Polyglot Lovers sing. After all, Lamas dreams of “the intimacy that seamless communication could yield.” A slightly more activist translation approach might have yielded much greater intimacy.
There is no seamless communication to be found in The Polyglot Lovers, nor is there seamless communication between book and reader. The flat language and narrative structure make empathy with Ellinor and Lucrezia challenging and make it hard to dislike Lamas without disliking the novel itself. Though Wolff constructs him as a villain, she never strays far from his side. Her feminist critique gets lost. In its place, we first have Ellinor seeking abuse, then Lucrezia telling her grandmother’s story, which transforms into Lamas’s. The novel submits to the male ego. At minimum, it would have been nice to understand why.