Some literary mistakes

Last week, I wrote a piece for the Spectator’s Arts Blog about the mess-up surrounding publication of Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom. A week after its much-hyped, viciously embargoed, British release, it was revealed that the publishers had accidently printed an earlier draft of the novel, not the final version. Apparently typos and grammatical mistakes peppered the text, in addition to some ‘small but significant’ changes to characterisation.

Now, after a great deal of fuss, and a great deal of pulping, the copies of Freedom in the shops are free from error. And I am left with no further comment other than that I pity the journalist or PHD student who has been instructed to compare and contrast the two different versions.

In my article (which you can read here), I suggested that typos aren’t the end of the world. Don’t they reveal the human fallibility of the author? Isn’t that somewhat reassuring? And isn’t that particularly apt for a novel about human fallibilty?

Most readers disagreed and I was left with a couple of comments insisting on the ghastly interference of typos.

But the Franzen debacle led me to wonder about other literary mistakes … here are a couple that sprang to mind.

One case is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which I actually happened to mention in the article because of the repeated typo of ‘Rusdie’ in the author biography in my old paperback). There are some more notorious mistakes in Midnight’s Children. To mention a few:

The characters Picture Singh and Saleem go on a train from Delhi to Bombay which is said to pass through Kurla; land is reclaimed in Bombay using concrete tetrapods; and the singer Lata Mangeshkar is on the radio in 1946.

These are all errata, factual impossibilities: Kurla is on a different railway line; the tetrapods in Bombay have only ever been used to protect the sea wall against coastal erosion – not for land reclamation; and Lata Mangeshkar didn’t enjoy any real success until the 1950s.

But for those who aren’t particularly well-versed in Indian railways, Mumbai’s coastal protection policies, or Bollywood singers, they could easily slip through the net – why would one suspect these things to be false? A more serious error is getting the date of Gandhi’s assassination wrong, which is highlighted in the text when the narrator, Saleem, says:

Rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages in a wrong date.

Why the mistakes? Why all these factual errors? How is one to trust Rushdie or his copyeditor ever again?

In an essay written in 1983 Rushdie defends these mistakes, claiming that they are intentional, deliberate errors. They interrupt the narrative and force the reader to question the narrator, Saleem (the reader isn’t supposed to question the actual author, Rushdie). With all these mistakes, Saleem is portrayed as full of human fallibility and unreliability. Saleem is, after all, remembering his story and Rushdie emphasises the distorting process of memory:

One of the simplest truths about any set of memories is that many of them will be false … as I wrote the novel, and whenever a conflict arose between literal and remembered truth, I would favour the remembered version.

He highlights the notion of ‘memory’s truth’, to which he gives more importance than actual historical accuracy.

All rather shakey, unreliable ground.

The other literary mistake that springs to mind might be rather less intentional. It arises in a fantastic book – Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.

The narrator, Meheimed, returns to his native Sudan after spending seven months in England. Salih makes it clear that Meheimed wants to return to his village in Sudan and see it unchanged, as though he never left. But this desired vision of continuity is repeatedly disrupted, most emphatically through the character Mustafa Sa’eed, a newcomer to the village. As the novel progresses, it transpires that this character has also spent time abroad, in Cairo and in England, and Meheimed begins to piece together Mustafa Sa’eed’s story.

The ‘mistake’ occurs when, one evening, Mustafa Sa’eed recites in English, ‘in a clear voice and with an impeccable accent’ a poem, which the narrator says he later found in an anthology of First World War poetry. Here is the extract that appears in the book:

Those women of Flanders

Await the lost,

Await the lost who never will leave the harbour

They await the lost whom the train never will bring.

To the embrace of those women with dead faces,

They await the lost, who lie dead in the trenches,

the barricade and the mud.

In the darkness of night,

This is Charing Cross Station, the hour’s past one,

There was a faint light,

There was a great pain.

There’s no point in googling this, or leafing through anthologies searching for the first line ‘Those women of Flanders’. This poem would never be found in a First World War poetry anthology. What would be found in its place is Ford Madox Ford’s ‘In October 1914 (Antwerp)’. Here is the corresponding extract:

These are the women of Flanders.

They await the lost.

They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;

They await the lost that shall never again come by the train

To the embraces of all these women with dead faces:

They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,

In the dark of the night.

This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;

There is very little light.


There is so much pain.

Mustafa Sa’eed is reciting a bastardised version of Ford Madox Ford’s poem. How on earth has this happened?

Season of Migration to the North was originally written in Arabic and so the poem, in the original text, must have appeared in Arabic as well. When Denys Johnson-Davies translated the novel into English in 1969, he translated the poem into English. Perhaps he didn’t recognise the poem’s provenance and so didn’t find the original for quotation. It seems a bit mean for Tayeb Salih not to have let him know!

What we have now in Season of Migration to the North is an English translation of an Arabic translation of English. It shows what a complicated and distorting process translation can be – how impossible it is to neatly reverse, instead bringing one further and further away from the original.

It is a bit like the distorting process of memory, pointed out by Salman Rushdie. When remembering something, one can’t just reverse time and go straight back to the unchanged moment. In the process of going back things change, details slip, factual impossibilities occur.

And if one takes translation on a bigger scale – the literal ‘bearing across’ not just of language but of a person – a similar distortion occurs. Season of Migration to the North is about the translation of the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed from Sudan to England and then back to Sudan. And, as I mentioned, Tayeb Salih is keen to emphasise the changes in Sudan when each character returns:

We pass by a red brick building on the Nile bank, half finished…I tell him that when I was here only seven months ago they hadn’t even started building it.

If change happens in physical translation, then surely in this tiny microcosm of Ford Madox Ford’s poem, then change must happen too. It can’t move seamlessly from English to Arabic and then back to English – change and disruption must leave their mark. Perhaps Denys Johnson-Davies deliberately continued the process of translation rather than finding the original poem.

Or else there’s rather a glaring mistake. Lucky for the publisher that Tayeb Salih isn’t still around to make such a Franzenesque fuss about it.


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11 Responses to “Some literary mistakes”

  1. cakelyn Says:

    Interesting comments! I’m currently reading Season of Migration to the North in the original Arabic, and just got to the poem you cited, and looked it up….unfortunate that the translator wasn’t up to doing the same!

  2. Suchmaschine Says:

    Every time I see blogs as good as this because I should stop bludging and start working on mine.Thanks

  3. Emily Says:

    I don’t believe that the narrator’s name is ever mentioned in the book A Season of Migration to the North.

    Interesting blog though!

    • emilybooks Says:

      Hi Emily,

      Thanks for pointing that out! Perhaps I have made my very own literary mistake?!

      Weirdly my copy of Season has completely vanished, so I can’t check through to see from whence that name was conjured. Very peculiar indeed … I shall try and track down a copy and try to work out where on earth I thought up the name if it really isn’t ever mentioned.

      Strange times ….


  4. zak Says:

    A journal article I read calls the narrator Meheimed or something similar & explains that this is the name of a character in a later Salih novel who is supposed to be the same person as the Season of Migration narrator. He’s not named directly in Season.

  5. Bernard Says:

    The narrator is named as Meheimeed in a later text titled Bandarshah. Also, according to Johnson-Davies, Salih would deliver sheafs of papers to JD’s office as he wrote them. Considering how the text was translated, their friendship, and Salih’s fluency in English, the mistranslation must have been intentional.

  6. elmehdi ghaouel Says:

    he spent 7years in england. i read both the original novel in arabic and this translation you are talking about. it is a goog translation.

  7. Mustafa Adam Says:

    The name of the narrator was not actually mentioned in the novel. Salih’s characters reappear in different works. The name of the narrator appears in later novels; the two- part novel Daw El-Bait (Bandershah and Maryoud) The events and characters crossing novel boundaries makes it possible to identify the narrator as Meheimeed.

  8. Mustafa Adam Says:

    Yes. it is actually seven years. The reference to spending years on end researching on the works of a mediocre English poet lends emphasis to the narrator’s interest in the Women of Flanders poem.

  9. Lilla Says:

    Lovely article;do you have a working link to your original article? The one provided is not working.

    ” In my article (which you can read here), I suggested that typos aren’t the end of the world. Don’t they reveal the human fallibility of the author?”

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