In other words – writing, reading and literary translation

I have recently been working on a translation into English of a short story in Dutch.  It’s part of an ongoing project, and I am finding the process fascinating.  As a writer who is also a translator, there are a number of things going on at the same time when I undertake literary translation, and although the temptation is to say that much of it is instinctive, in fact there are layers of practice at work which I find it helpful to analyse and articulate.

Any translation has elements of decoding meaning from the source language (which in my case is Dutch) and encoding it in the target language (in my case, English).  Sound straightforward enough?  Well, not really, because the differences between how languages work, the building blocks that make up meaning – things like word order – mean that it’s not simply a case of grabbing a dictionary and swapping one word for another.  Also, you can’t just translate expressions and idioms literally, because the same idea may be expressed completely differently in the two languages.  For example, iets kennen als zijn broekzak literally translates as ‘knowing something like his trouser pocket’ – which makes no sense whatsoever in English.  The equivalent idiom in English would be ‘knowing something like the back of his hand’.

But what if the meaning of the text is made up, not only of dictionary words, or even idioms and colloquial phrases, but of subtle nuances of tone, sound, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, pace, and so on.  This is most obvious in translating poetry, of course, but any literary text is more than the sum of its words, and my challenge is to extract a sense of those extra layers of meaning and to convey that into English.  It is my job to write the short story in English which the original author would have written if they had been a native speaker of English.

This is, of course, impossible, but the best translations get so close to this ideal that the reader forgets that they are reading a translation.  This is what I am aiming for.  I need to identify and isolate the quirks, style and individual voice of the author and find a way of distilling that into an equivalent voice in English.  If the story reads as if I wrote it, then I’ve failed.

Ironically, I believe that it is the fact that I am a writer which equips me to do literary translation.  Finding my own voice, using all those tools of tone, sound, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, pace, and so on in my own writing, enables me to put that toolbox at the disposal of the author whose words I am translating.  Because I am a writer, I am well-placed to see the workings behind the scenes of the original text, to recognise what the author is doing, and to do what is necessary to create the corresponding effect in English.

It can be a slow process.  This is not like translating an online article about a new archaeological discovery, or even like translating a piece of academic writing.  Those kinds of texts are mainly about conveying the content.  The voice of the original author is rarely the main feature of the translation, and the task is to convey the information in appropriate, equivalent English.  It may take time to do the necessary research to find that appropriate equivalence – especially where there is specialised vocabulary involved – but it is not an especially lengthy process.  With literary translation, by contrast, I need to live with the text for a while before attempting to start translating it.  In the case of this short story, I first read it more than six months ago, and have gone back to it many times since.  I have it read straight through; read it for structure; for style; for vocabulary; for geographically-specific references (the author is Flemish, and the story is set in Antwerp).  I have marked up ‘problems’, passages where it is not immediately apparent how I should translate the text.  One particular phrase occupied me for a long time – in the end I decided to take a risk and move quite a long way from the literal meaning of the original Dutch word in order to create the same shock-value and controversy in English.  Re-reading my translation now, I am really pleased with the ‘solution’ to that particular ‘problem’.

There is a campaign ongoing in the translation and publishing industries at the moment to put ‘translators on the cover’ – in the vast majority of cases, literary translators are not named on the covers of the books they translate, even when these translations go on to win major book  prizes.  Often – in Anglophone markets, anyway – it is hard to know that the book you are reading is a translation.  At best, you might find the translator mentioned on the title page, but usually they will merely get a credit tucked away on the copyright page, which only the most nerdy amongst readers ever actually reads (I do – but I’m an ex-librarian and back in the day, when cataloguing was done manually, this was where you found the information you needed in order to catalogue a book).  If you live in an English-speaking country, you have probably read the work of literary translators without even realising it.  It is my hope that, having read this post, you may seek out the work of literary translators and enjoy the results of the process that I have described.  There is a whole world of books out there, and literary translators are the people who make it possible for you to read them in your own language.

Photograph of part of a page from a Dutch/English dictionary, showing the entries for 'vertalen' (to translate), 'vertaler' (translator) and 'vertaling' (translation).

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Books – why I love them, why I buy them, why e-readers are OK, and why libraries are amazing

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog to find that I love books.  I’m a writer, after all, and I’ve never yet met a writer, in any genre, who didn’t love books.  Not only that, but I spent quite a few years working in academic and public libraries, which was rather like working in a sweetie shop (but less fattening).  I’ve got it bad.

As a child, I didn’t have many books.  We lived in various parts of Europe, and in those pre-internet days (1970s and early 1980s) getting English- or Dutch-language books abroad was pretty much impossible (see my post about being brought up bilingual).  My father would make an annual trip to London to shop at Foyles bookshop, and bring back as many books as he could carry (which wasn’t a lot to last a voracious young reader a whole year).  When we stayed with my Dutch grandparents, I would read their extensive collection of English-language whodunits (my grandmother was severely addicted – her favourites were Dorothy L Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie, in that order) which sowed the seed of a life-long love of classic crime fiction.  I read Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass a dozen times.  When all else failed, I read the Pocket Oxford Dictionary like a novel – there are worse ways to train as a writer.

I may not have had many books, but I knew what I did and didn’t like.  I liked Enid Blyton’s mysteries and adventure stories, but not her more surreal, fantasy output.  I adored Cicely M Barker’s Flower Fairies books, not least because of what they taught me about plants – I can still recall snatches of them when I see wildflowers growing in the hedgerows.  I didn’t care for classic children’s stories like Mary Poppins or Peter Pan, but then, given that I was by that stage already a fan of Lord Peter Wimsey, that’s perhaps not surprising.  I was at best ambivalent about classic novels – to be truthful I still am.  Apart from Persuasion, I am unmoved by Jane Austen.  I appreciate her talent, I just don’t much care for the books.  I found Dickens interesting, but heavy going.  Amongst the Brontë sisters’ output, I liked Wuthering Heights, and once I’d discovered Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea I could see the point of Jane Eyre.  Sherlock Holmes came into my life at the age of 16, and I still re-read those stories when I need something comforting.

In fact, I discovered lots of books at the age of 16, because that’s when we settled in the UK and I started to use libraries.  My school library had virtually no fiction on its shelves, but the local public library was huge, and I systematically stripped the shelves.  I was doing A level English too, so there was Chaucer (yay!), Shakespeare (OK, especially Hamlet and Twelfth Night), D H Lawrence (hmmm), Austen (see above), R S Thomas (dark and melancholy but wonderful), and my beloved Dylan Thomas (with whose work I had fallen in love when I first heard Richard Burton intone the opening lines of Under Milk Wood).  John Donne (sorry, I’m sure it’s great writing but I haven’t got time for this), Wordsworth (lovely but a tad self-indulgent), Tennyson (the less said about that the better), and Keats (lyrical but lengthy), also figured in the syllabus.  I did three A levels, but the only one I can remember in detail is English – I can still quote the odd line here and there.  For light relief I read James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Robert Louis Stevenson (Kidnapped was possibly my favourite book through my teenage years), and every Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers I could find.

It’s probably no coincidence that I went on to spend many years working in libraries (university and public).  The windows on the world offered to a teenager in a remote Snowdonian town by the presence of a good library were a gift, and I am passionate about the continued provision of public libraries.  Yes, the internet is an amazing repository of knowledge (and misinformation!) but it cannot replace the serendipity of going to the shelf for a book and becoming entranced by its neighbour, which you didn’t know existed and would consequently never have searched for.  As a student, some of my best essays were written using books which weren’t on the reading list (because those had all been borrowed by other students writing the same essay), which meant I had a slightly different slant on the topic.  Being able to access, for free, a huge range of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, is a precious thing and can be truly life-changing for a child whose home is not filled with books or whose family cannot afford to buy them.  Libraries set people free to out-grow their circumstances – just look at Jeannette Winterson.

As soon as I could afford it, I bought books.  I love being surrounded by books in my home, books I can savour at my leisure and don’t have to give back.  I have mixed feelings about bookshops – on the one hand, there is the rush of excitement at being surrounded by so many books, doorways into parallel universes, questioning minds, and illuminating knowledge.  On the other hand, there are so many books that it can feel hard to make a decision about what to buy.  Is it OK to treat myself to this book that I really fancy, even though I don’t actually need it for a course, or for research?  How can I hush the voice in my head that says “Not MORE books!?  You haven’t read the ones you bought last month!”

I have quite a lot of books.  A couple of years ago we downsized massively, and sold hundreds (literally) of books.  For a while, we had just two small bookcases full.  But inevitably, stealthily, the books are taking over again.  “Of course you need that book for your research…Have you read the review for this?  It looks so interesting…Oh look, she’s got a new book coming out next month, shall we pre-order it?…If we buy the paperback it’s easier to share it between us than if we get it on Kindle.”  You get the picture.  Because of where we live, most book purchases are online (using Hive or independent bookshops where possible) and the thump of a book landing on the doormat is so exciting.  All those new words, new ideas, new pictures in my head.  I love having a whole shelf of books I haven’t read yet – so much to look forward to.

Kindle came into my life a decade ago, and I don’t regret it for a moment.  It’s especially good when I go away on holiday, and want to take some light reading with me without lugging heavy books around.  Because it’s hard to flick back and forth inside an e-book, I find it less good for reference books, or indeed non-fiction in general, and my elderly device doesn’t show illustrations well.  I use the app on my smartphone when I’m out and about – on the train, or dining alone.  I often buy the Kindle version of a whodunit which I know I’ll only read once, or if it’s by an author I’m not familiar with and I’m not sure I’ll like it – and I admit that’s because it’s cheaper on Kindle.  But for reading pleasure, the aesthetic experience of words on the page, an attractive cover, and the tactile heft of a book, I’ll choose a ‘real’ book over an e-book every time.  Oh, and let me be clear about this – marking pages or turning down page corners is a sin!

Colour picture of a shelf of books.

 

Writing about writing, and why I find it difficult

In the course of research for a recent writing commission, I have been reading a number of writers’ websites, their biogs on their publishers’ websites, and interviews with writers.  In these, they talk about their ‘practice’ (their writing process and rationale), their formative influences, and the philosophy underpinning what and how they write.  It’s been interesting, and was necessary in order to write my piece, but the experience has left me feeling more awkward than ever about something I have long struggled with.

Judging by the feedback I get, a lot of readers of this blog enjoy reading about the writing process.  But I find it so difficult to write about!  Talking this through with my partner the other day, I described it as being “a bit like asking someone to talk about why and how they breathe.  You just do it!”

OK, if you are a singer you will want to do breathing exercises, and learn techniques to manage your breathing and make it work for you so as to be as expressive as possible in your singing.  But, basically, you just do it.  And you can’t imagine life without it.  Writing has always been like that for me – I’ve just done it, and can’t imagine not doing it.  I read books and go on courses to learn new skills and techniques, but I’m not learning how to do it – I just do it.

I know I could read and write in Dutch by the age of 5, because that’s when my English-medium education started, and I was hugely frustrated by the vagaries of the language after nice, regular, phonetic Dutch.  But I know that by 7 I was writing my own books, keeping a diary, and devouring chunks of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary.  I wrote stories, poems, and lengthy pieces on natural history, accompanied by full-colour diagrams of leaves and dissected flowers.  By 8 or 9, I was torn about what I wanted to be – a private detective or a writer.

Although I excelled at English language, it was history I really loved, and which in some shape or form I’ve continued to study ever since.  I did ‘A’ level English, though, and was lucky enough to be able to do a pilot of a very progressive (for the mid 1980s) syllabus which included a large creative writing component.  My work was chosen for inclusion in a collection produced by the exam board to be used by teachers and students as an exemplar.  I got a good grade, my longstanding inability to write a decent literature essay more than compensated for by my facility with writing and practical criticism (the latter now coming in useful when writing reviews!).  But although my teacher was enthusiastic about my writing, the message from home and school was clear – you can’t make a living from writing, so do something else.  Interestingly, not one of us went on to study English at university.

Alongside academic essays and dissertations, I continued to write poetry for some years, and a series of jobs gave me opportunities to write across a range of genres: manuals, reports, press releases, newspaper articles, courses and training materials, strategy documents, and for the last decade or so, web content.  Writing was rarely in the job description, but was always a necessary aspect of the work and somehow I managed to subvert things so that it became a major part of the role.  For the last few years I have also been writing commissioned work alongside the day job, and now I’m writing full time, a mixture of commissions, blogging, and working on my first book.

I have from time to time thought about enrolling on a creative writing degree course, but for a couple of reasons I have decided not to.  Firstly, almost all syllabuses are designed for people who want to write novels.  I don’t want to write novels.  I quite like reading them, especially if they are historical or whodunits, but my mind doesn’t work that way and I can’t imagine dwelling within an imagined, parallel universe for the time it takes to research and write a novel.  It’s not that I don’t have an imagination (I do, a very vivid one, which is particularly visual), but I like to start with something factual, often historical, and maybe give a slightly different slant on it.  What story could this object tell?  How might it have felt to be in that place at that time?  Modules on plot and characterisation don’t seem very relevant to me.  The courses which aren’t about novels are generally about poetry, and whilst I do write poetry from time to time, it’s not my passion in the way that non-fiction is.

Secondly, it would mean a commitment of at least a year, full time.  I’m not sure that I can justify that at my age.  It’s not as if I don’t already have a track record of writing, and of getting commissions.  I’m not saying that I’ve got nothing to learn – there’s always more to learn – but I’m not sure that, even if I could find a course that was relevant, it would be the best use of a year of my life.

I can’t conceive of not writing.  It’s as natural for me as breathing, which is why I find it so hard to describe what I do, my ‘practice,’ and why although I’m rigorous about my structure, use of language, tone, and so on, and edit ruthlessly, I find it difficult to create literary-sounding biogs about how and why I write.  I’m interested in places, things, people – especially, but not exclusively, historical.  I always want to know why (this used to drive my family nuts when I was little!).  And then I want to use words to share what I’ve discovered.  Quite apt for the little girl who couldn’t decide whether to be a private detective or a writer!

It’s a process which is often quite solitary, but where the finished product potentially reaches many, many people, including many whom I will never meet.  In much the same way as I weave – first researching the design inspiration and the properties of the materials, then creating the design, then exploring the technical aspects of the piece, then making it – I craft the words on the page into a shape which I am happy with, and which I hope others will find stimulating, interesting or enjoyable.  Just as not everyone is going to like my tapestries, not everyone will like what I write, but as long as I’m pleasing some of the people some of the time, I’m happy!

Photograph of a woven tapestry of a seascape, entitled Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer

Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer. Woven tapestry, 3×3 inches.