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Gulliver's Voyage to Phantomimia
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B+ : an enjoyably clever transcreation
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Volter Kilpi died before completing Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle, and it was first published posthumously in 1944.
It is presented as Lemuel Gulliver's account of his fourth voyage -- though, in fact, his fifth, previously unknown expedition --, having the Jonathan Swift-creation set out on a new adventure after several decades he'd spent quietly tilling: "my little Plot of Land in Gloucestershire".
Truth be told, I wrote this "reader's report" as a rather hysterical attack on my work precisely in order to draw your attention to aspects of the text that I'm especially proud of. [Au./Tr.](Worth noting here also is that this is one of the few footnotes attributed to either "Au." (author) or "Tr." (translator); almost all the others are attributed to "Ed." -- Robinson as (mere) editor, the role he prefers to present himself in in relation to the text.)
Despite its tone, the reader's report is nevertheless a particularly useful gloss on much of what was done here -- with 'Nyrkki' taking a particularly tough line against Robinson's transformative input. Beyond, that, however, there's also some interesting discussion of the actual translation -- as Kilpi's original Finnish is both unusual and challenging, especially as it claims to be a translation from the very language it is being translated *back* into -- albeit from a very different era. Particularly noteworthy here is that, as Robinson acknowledges in a(n editorial) footnote: "there are no orthographic markers of eighteenth-century writing in Kilpi's Finnish text"; meanwhile, Robinson's translation (and then his fictional supplement) very much present the text in Swiftian, early eighteenth century style and look.
Nyrkki's nitpicking regarding Robinson's annotations are also amusing -- and again serve to deflect possible criticisms. The notes Nyrkki comments on include Robinson's speculations about some apparent anachronisms in Kilpi's text, as well as some (more far-fetched ...) possible connections. Robinson's reading of the original text does, in fact, occasionally stray quite far -- notably, for example, (as also 'Nyrkki' notes)in finding at one point:
The echo here of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's "lines of flight" from A Thousand Plateaus (1980 in French, 1988 in English) suggests that the French thinkers might have perused this text in some form, perhaps in French translation, from which they would have taken the concept of "la ligne de fuite," or perhaps from some other manuscript version in English, from which they would have translated "line of flight" into their French.The reader's report is obviously not favorable, and 'Nyrkki' can recommend it for publication only on condition of large-scale changes, from properly attributing the text to Kilpi and not pretending it is Swift's to translating it into: "a more appropriate English register (and period)" and cutting all the "tendentious footnotes" -- and, of course, Robinson deleting: "his shameful continuation of the novel".
The final Introductory Text, the Publisher's Postscript ties much of this material together while also extending the game -- "I don't exist either", this publisher acknowledges .....
It's about a fifth of the book that this introductory material takes up, but it is more than padding -- and more than merely introduction. Robinson's effort is at 'transcreation', and this is an integral part of the larger work. If the translation of Kilpi's unfinished novel is the heart of Gulliver's Voyage to Phantomimia, Robinson's elaborate build- and send-up around that -- including then also his continuation of Kilpi's story -- very much make for a grander conception (and realization).
As to the *actual* fiction, then -- Robinson's translation of Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle (though he maintains the fiction that what he is presenting is, in fact, the English original ...) -- that is, indeed, a Swiftian travel-tale. Lemuel Gulliver has apparently long been living in comfortable retirement, but he still has the itch. He notes that, for all his travelling: "ne'er once, as I say, has my Journey taken me North-wards", and one day he suggests to his friend the whaler Cartwright: "what if next Summer we sail'd in Stead to the North Pole ?". Cartwright is on board, and so they outfit his ship, the Swallow Bird, and set off.
For quite a while it's just a sea adventure, without much being seen or encountered. The North Pole proves rather elusive -- with them eventually finding themselves apparently close but having difficulty getting closer:
Our Course was, in short, perpendickular to the North Pole, but slightly off the Perpendickular; so that we were encircling the Pole not in an even Ring, but in a scantie Spiral toward the Centre.They find themselves in a vortex, the Polar Vortex -- and for quite a while things go spinning round, explaining also why Robinson started all this off with a nod to the Vorticists. It makes for a different kind of adventure for Gulliver -- and the soon much-reduced crew. Eventually, they find:
We had been displac'd outside Our-Selves, expell'd outside; or, why not say it, also, collaps'd inside Our-Selves , imploded into the Core of all we call Space & Time; so that Time & Space had become for us a Kind of non-existent Existence, whose Measure was slipping thro' our Fingers; -- but inside which, na-the-less, we went on living.The tale of Gulliver's voyage is divided into three parts, this first of which mostly takes place 'In the Polar Current'. The second eventually gets them 'In Phantomimia' as, after the Swallow Bird gets stuck in ice, they abandon ship and try to set out over the ice. As it turns out, they have not only traversed great physical distances, but also ones of time: as becomes clear when they are spotted and saved by men in flying machines, they now find themselves in the twentieth century. (As Robinson points out in a footnote, the author of the manuscript never specifies the year the characters then find themselves in, but events are mentioned that would suggest it is around 1938 -- the year Kilpi happened to be working on his *translation* (and the year before he died, leaving it unfinished).)
Saved by a British Geodetickall Club expedition, Gulliver and the few remaining others are brought to a more modern London -- opportunity also for Kilpi to present the reactions to this new world, with some neat little riffs, such as:
The Hustle & Bustle of the Street ! We were in it in Deed ! Or what say I: Hustle ? Bustle ? Say rather Hurlie-Burlie ! Say rather Tintamarre ! Say rather Clamour & Crashing, Percussion & Pandemonium ! 'Twas a Deluge of Lights & Sounds & Motion, that deafen'd our Ears, blindded our Eyes, deregulated our Senses; 'twas as if our Sensibilities were twisted into Knots, & the Street fled, as 'twere, from the Knowledge, that Man, after all, existed, & was present for it; for one's Being had about as much Significance in that Place, as a Wisp of Dust has, in a Whirlwind.Kilpi's manuscript leaves off towards the end of this second part, and the rest is entirely Douglas Robinson's doing. He presents a few more chapters in Phantomimia, notably with Gulliver and friends being summoned to a royal audience and dealing with the king -- King Dick the Stiff. They soon decide to move on -- meaning, escape -- and find themselves in another time vortex; a final third part of the book finds them: 'In the Conquest of Canaan', things taking a rather biblical turn.
Gulliver's adventures, in both the parts by Kilpi and then Robinson, are reasonably entertaining -- though Robinson does stretch the story considerably more than Kilpi had -- and, on its own, makes for a decent Gulliver-variation. But, of course, these parts aren't presented simply on their own, and it's the supplementary material and the (elaborate) framing that make Gulliver's Voyage to Phantomimia a considerably more rewarding work.
If Robinson's continuation of the story is arguably the weak point of the fiction -- it's fine, but he can't as effectively imitate Kilpi's voice as he does in the simple (not so simple) translation, and he arguably takes the story to rather different places than Kilpi likely would have -- the framing of the book is solid and very entertaining. Robinson is very clever and it shows, with the book very effectively annotated; the notes -- dosed out, too, so as not overwhelm the text; he doesn't get carried away with them (beyond, intentionally, in a few of them) -- are particularly well done, ultimately less simply explanatory than an integral part of the larger work -- right down to the late claim: "This is not metafiction, and I am not the author of it. [Ed.]".
If occasionally straying rather far -- from Vorticism to Deleuze and Guattari ... -- Gulliver's Voyage to Phantomimia is an intricate construction but ultimately not even overly elaborate: yes, there's a lot stuffed in here, including some that might seem a layer too many (such as the would-be publisher of the book), but it all fits together into a strange but surprisingly cohesive whole, playing intriguingly with questions of authorship (Swift/Kilpi/Robinson) and translation, among other things.
One can debate this approach to translation -- which basically amounts to creating a new work around the translation of a fragmentary original -- but if any text lends itself to such a radical 'transcreation' it might well be Kilpi's unfinished one, itself presented as a translation. There's an argument to be made for sticking simply to the original text and (re)presenting that in English -- an argument Robinson makes (as he does with most of the other objections one might make to what he does here), via his Professor Nyrkki -- and I, for one, would certainly have been (much) more comfortable with that, but there's no question that this alternative is a very clever and entertaining take(-over).
As much literary experiment as translation, Gulliver's Voyage to Phantomimia is certainly an interesting piece of work.
- M.A.Orthofer, 22 December 2020
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Finnish author Volter Kilpi lived 1874 to 1939.
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