Writers on Translation

Returning home from a short trip, I found a delightful conversation between  John O’Brien, editor of Dalkey Archive Press, and several European authors about literary translation tucked away in a newsletter from Samsonia Way.

In an interview conducted at the Passa Porta Literary Festival in Brussels,  O’Brien asked three authors featured in Best European Fiction, recently published by Dalkey Archive Press, how writers felt about putting their works into the hands of translators and editors. Here are some of their answers.

John O’Brien: Do you care how the work fits within a new culture? Are you more concerned with translation’s accuracy to the original or do you just let it go?

Igor Štiks: When it comes to translation there is an unwritten contract between the writer, the translator, and the editor. Ultimately, the writer simply has to trust these people. There is a moment when you have to, as you say, “Just let it go.”

The translated text is unlike the original because it’s a collective work and it has to be understood as such. Therefore, any insistence on absolute control from the writer or editor is bad for translation.

Even though some mistakes can happen, the biggest fear of every writer is that the most important things will be missed or altered, and that the work will get an entirely different resonance somewhere. The best thing is when you have someone who will really puts the work into another language as if it was written in that language.

Of course, the fourth party in this contract is the readers. My experience of having ten or eleven translations is that it’s curious to see what readers discover, why they buy the book, and how certain topics will resonate differently. This gives you an idea about the richness of your own text. That’s why for every author, if he or she can get translated, it’s always a feast.

Peter Terrin: While writing, Haruki Murakami is already thinking about the translation. He tries to keep the sentences as simple as possible so that the translation won’t have big problems. I wouldn’t go that far, I think, but, I’m not Murakami so…

Anyway, I think it’s very interesting to see how a translator reads your work. It’s amazing how each language is so detailed and different. You can just hope that the translators are as excited as you are, and that that’s reflected in the translation. There really isn’t anything you can do.

John O’Brien: Once, I was editing a text and the original said something like “as dry as the Mississippi Valley in the summer.” Anybody who knows the Mississippi Valley knows it’s quite humid and wet. I was facing a problem: Is this a joke? Is it supposed to be an ironic statement? Or, was the original editor sloppy? Was the author sloppy? Knowing the author wouldn’t respond to my queries for months, I decided to change it. The translator was aghast. When I met the author a few months later and told him about the change, he responded, “Oh thank God! I’m really lazy when it comes to those things and my editor had no idea what the United States is like.”

So in that case it was fine. But this is a struggle that happens all the time and sometimes the writers end up being the victim of this process. Would you prefer to be working closely with the translator, even if you don’t know the language, in order to avoid this kind of situation?

Igor Štiks: I would rather a translator to point out errors or inconsistencies instead of deciding what it should be. I think this is another problem relating to the industry: here is the author, there is someone who bought the rights. Very often these buyers, or the editor, don’t want to meet the author and they are going to commission a translator who won’t be part of the process either. The translator will just deliver the text, then the editors will work on this text, and nobody speaks to one another.

This happened to me. My book came out with another title, which is fine—if somebody asks before they change it. Of course, the translator didn’t know about the cover, and we didn’t agree about many other things. I never got a copy. The bad story of collective work.

Peter Terrin: I don’t have enough experience to really answer the questions, but I do recognize the mistake that John O’Brien talked about. If the writer is alive, the translator and the editor should contact him. But if you translate books and the writer is not alive, What do you do then? I think that is another story.

John O’Brien: I’ll just add an anecdote from seven or eight years ago. There was a French book we were translating and there was a sentence that came from the translator: “He began to climb the curtains.” The problem was that there were no curtains mentioned before or after this. There was no context to tell you if this was a metaphor or not. Or, as the character was a little bit goofy to begin with, perhaps he literally started climbing the curtains. So we sent it back to the translator, and the translator said, “That’s it. That’s the only translation that can be made of this.”

It just so happened a French graduate student arrived on campus [at the University of Illinois, where Dalkey Archive is located]. So the first day she arrived, I showed her the passage and asked, “Is this guy climbing the curtains?” And she said, “Of course he’s not climbing the curtains! Why would you think that?” I answered, “Because I just read the English version. Tell me what it means and stop fooling around with me.” And she answered, “It means he’s sexually frustrated.”

These are some of the complexities that go into translating work. Both of these volumes of Best European Fiction are examples: every one of these stories had to be both carefully translated, then–we hope–carefully edited without totally violating the text, as can sometimes happen as well.