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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Can Historical Novelists Learn From Translators of Ancient Texts?

Poet Steven Mitchell is creating some waves with his new translation of the Iliad.

According to a Sept. 30 review by Alexandra Alter in The Wall Street Journal, readers of Mitchell’s updated rendition of the classic will no longer be met by “swift-footed” Achilles, “bright-eyed” Athena, or “crafty” Odysseus.

Instead, Mitchell has relied upon, selectively and judiciously, modern descriptions of these characters to make the text more accessible.

In the WSJ review, Mitchell offered an explanation for his decision to update the traditional understanding of the Greek used by Homer with what Alter described as movie-style dialogue: “If you translate literally, the English may sound stilted or phony.”

Historical novelists and translators of classical texts thus confront a similar problem: How to make a story ring both authentic and understandable to the contemporary ear.

To this end, as Mitchell demonstrates, the translator must from time to time move from the archaic to the modern. In contrast, the historical novelist must often retreat from the modern toward the archaic.

Somewhere in the middle lies the elusive sweet spot.

Does Fiction Shape the “Reality” of History?

At the essence of every work of historical fiction is this question: How close to what actually happened does the author come in telling his or her story?

Yet perhaps the more profound inquiry should turn the question on its head and ask: How will my historical novel shape the “reality” of history?

In a contribution for The Stone, a series of discussions on philosophy moderated by The New York Times, literary theorist William Egginton, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at John Hopkins University, has written a thought-provoking essay that explores the effect of fiction on the collective perception of reality.

His offering is essential reading for the historical novelist, if for no other reason than it opens the Pandora’s box of what in reality constitutes “reality.”

In a response to an earlier essay in the series by Professor Alex Rosenberg on the superiority of naturalism and science over literature in the search for knowledge, Egginton argues that:

In fact, the common notion of objective reality that most of us would recognize today and the one on which Professor Rosenberg’s defense of naturalism rests — as that which persists independent of our subjective perspectives — is mutually dependent on the multiple perspectives cultivated by the fictional worldview. It is not a coincidence that the English term “reality” and its cognates in the other European languages only entered into usage between the mid-16th and early-17th century, depending on the language.

Egginton submits that Cervantes’ Don Quixote changed forever how the Western World understood itself. And only with the arrival of Descartes and his Meditations at the end of the 1630s did there come to exist “a rigorous distinction between how things appear to me and how they are independent of my perspective entered the philosophical lexicon.”

Egginton explains this basis for this transformation as follows:

The fictional worldview, then, is one in which we are able to divide our selves to assume simultaneously opposing consciousnesses, and to enter and leave different realities at will, all the while voluntarily suspending judgments concerning their relation to an ultimate reality.

Interestingly, Egginton does not differentiate among the various genres of fiction. I would argue that the willing suspension of judgment is not always present for historical fiction; the perceptive reader is almost always judging whether the narrative informs what he thinks he knows about so-called reality-based history.

When vexed by this tension between fiction and reality, I always take comfort from my two favorite sources on the subject.

Jane Austen understood the difficult and potentially subversive task of the historical novelist when she had her heroine in Northanger Abbey remark about history, “I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. . . ”

And then there is the insight of author Tim O’Brien, who wrote about the Vietnam War in his “How to Tell a True Story”: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”

Can History Be Copyrighted? A Massachusetts Court Weighs In On The Issue

From the fiery crash of the airship Hindenburg to the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima, certain photographs can become so iconic that they inspire movies and books. If the scenes caught in these photographs are recreated on screen or in a work of fiction, does this violate a copyright owned by the photographers?

According to the District Court for the District of Massachusetts, “factual realities that exist independently of any photo” are not subsumed into a photographer’s “original, copyrightable expression” and thus do not preclude other depictions of the events giving rise to the taking of the photographs.

The decision was rendered last May in the case of Harney v. Sony Pictures Television, in which photographer Donald Harney brought an infringement suit for a 2010 Lifetime channel movie about a man who falsely claimed to have been born into the Rockefeller family and was convicted for abducting his own daughter from his estranged wife in 2007. Harney’s photograph of the father and daughter leaving a Boston church was featured in local newspapers and on FBI wanted posters.

Judge Zobel, writing the decision, stated that the movie’s recreation of the scene, while including the poses and similar clothing, did not create an identical image.

In the September 7, 2011, issue of Script Magazine, Boston copyright attorney Mark Fischer and law student Alicia Parmentier penned a thoughtful analysis of the decision and the prior case law on the issue. According to Fisher and Parmentier, the new Massachusetts decision further weakens copyright protection for “documentary renditions” of history, and that even in those rare instances where an unauthorized use of a copyrighted photograph is found, “it remains likely that an unauthorized recreation of that content will constitute a fair use under the Copyright Act’s exemption.”

Reviewing the decision’s impact on other areas involving creative expression and copyright protection, Fischer and Parmentier noted that courts have deemed the line between facts and content, on one hand, and their unique expression to be “elusive” and “an inexact science.” They also noted that historical interpretations and theories are generally not protected, either.

“Historical facts, no matter how hunted or gathered, whether true or made up,” the authors of the article wrote, “belong to all of us.”