1 How did you get into translating?
I’ve always been interested in languages, literature and different cultures. At school, I leaned strongly in that direction and I went on to study medieval and modern languages and literature at university. I’ve since lived in Germany and Italy and moved to the Netherlands in 2003.
With that background, translation’s a very tempting career. It allows you to work with the languages you’ve studied, to maintain contact with the countries you’re interested in and, from a practical point of view, it’s the perfect portable career. You can translate anywhere you can use a laptop.
I’ve been translating since I left university, combined with other language-related jobs, but my first serious move towards a career in literary translation was in 2001, when I took the postgraduate certificate in literary translation from Dutch into English at University College London, a year-long introduction into the world of publishing and translating. That was a great foundation and gave me the confidence to approach publishers. The Dutch Foundation for Literature and the Expertisecentrum Literair Vertalen in Utrecht are also very helpful in providing training and networking opportunities for both new and experienced translators.
This is an interesting question, but there’s really no such thing as an average translation. Something that looks straightforward can turn out to be tricky, while other pieces may seem to flow from your fingertips! I have heard 2000 words a day given as a rough guideline for literary translation, but I’m not quite sure how that was calculated.
Of course, the process isn’t only about the actual translation. I’ve just checked my emails and see that my first communication with Peirene Press about Tomorrow Pamplona was way back in January 2010. First we mailed backwards and forwards and agreed to go ahead with the project together. Then I translated the book and took it through various drafts before sending it to the Peirene copy-editor. Meike from Peirene also read the following version and made some comments, which I reacted to. We discussed a few points and then the book went to a proof-reader and to Jan before I gave it a final check. So, from negotiation to publication, it’s been almost a year and a half for this book.
That depends very much on the project. Jan was great to work with, as he made it clear that he was available for queries and then let me get on with it. Some authors like to be closely involved in the translation, while others aren’t that bothered. Translating from Dutch can be an interesting process though, as so many Dutch authors have excellent English. They often come up with really good suggestions and are generally happy to talk things through, while respecting your role as a translator and a native speaker of English. I’ve sometimes even collaborated with authors on translations of their work, which can be great fun. It’s good for the lonesome translator to get out there and talk to other people sometimes!
4 In Tomorrow Pamplona you manage to keep the maleness of Jan’s words. Was this hard?
Thanks, Stu. That’s good to hear. Jan has a very strong voice as an author and I knew that I needed to keep that force and bluntness in the language. Danny’s a boxer, after all, and he’s a real bloke, a man’s man. During the editing process, one of our debates was about the swearing in the book. We discussed toning it down a little, but I didn’t want Danny – or Robert – to mince their words, so the swearing stayed.
Interestingly, although there are plenty of male literary translators, the German, French and English translations of Tomorrow Pamplona are all by women. I’m not sure that gender matters too much as long as you focus on the individual characters and the distinctive voice of the author.
Tomorrow Pamplona! Next question? 😉
Seriously, this has been a great project to work on, not only because of the book, the author and the Peirene team, but also because there’s been so much involvement from the internet community of bloggers and tweeters. It’s great to have that thoughtful feedback and direct contact with readers.
Hmm. Well, I’m currently translating Berlin by Cees Nooteboom for MacLehose Press, which is something of a dream project, as it combines one of my favourite Dutch writers, one of my favourite cities and a great publishing house.
An author I’ve enjoyed working with in the past is Karlijn Stoffels. I translated her young adult novel Heartsinger for Arthur A. Levine at Scholastic. She has a fantastic, dry wit and writes with a beautifully lyrical touch. She’s recently written a novel for adults, Zuiderzeeballade, and that’s one title I’d be very interested in working on.
Other than that, there’s a classic Dutch children’s epic adventure of knights and chivalric exploits, De brief voor de koning by Tonke Dragt, which is a real favourite in the Netherlands. It’s been made into a film and was voted the best Dutch children’s book ever. Although some foreign publishers have shown interest, no one has picked it up for translation yet. I still have my fingers crossed!
7 Why is so little Dutch lit read in the UK you think? Will books like Tomorrow Pamplona help this?
An interesting question. Firstly, there’s the fact that publishers in the English-speaking world are notoriously reluctant to produce books in translation. After all, there are so many authors out there already writing in English, which means that the publishers get to read the entire book before they decide to buy, as there’s no language barrier. I can see why having to go to the trouble of getting the book translated and then perhaps finding that you don’t like the book or translation would be an obstacle. Then there’s the issue of the bookshops and what they decide to stock. Some more literary texts may only be available in the larger bookshops or online.
However, I am largely optimistic, perhaps because I’m attuned to the number of Dutch books published in English. More would always be welcome, of course, but there are some wonderful titles out there, such as Marieke van der Pol’s Bride Flight, translated by Colleen Higgins, or The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmer, which won the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Even Dutch classics are getting a look in, such as Louis Couperus’s 1889 novel Eline Vere, translated recently by Ina Rilke. So I think there’s quite a lot of Dutch literature out there in English. It’s just a question of hunting it down! I certainly hope that Tomorrow Pamplona will play a part in helping to bring more Dutch literature to English-speaking readers.
I know that a lot of people aren’t keen on reading books in translation, but I’d say that if you’ve had a bad experience in the past, maybe it’s time to give it another go, as there’s so much high-quality translated literature available now from all over the world. You could start by choosing a book that’s set in a location you know well and focusing first on the place and the atmosphere – if it’s a good read, the writing and the characters should draw you in before long.
I’d also like to suggest that readers, including myself, should try to be a little gentle with literature in translation. Sometimes I feel that if we’re aware that a work has been translated we tend to approach it with that in mind, looking for evidence that it’s not the original text, hunting down any slightly awkward phrases so that we can dismiss the writing as ‘just a translation’. I suspect that a lot of perceived literary infelicities in translations would be overlooked or forgiven if they appeared in an original work. So, my advice to any readers who are nervous of translations would be to try to switch off that hyper-sensitive ‘translationese’ alarm for the first few pages and to allow the narrative to carry you along. There’s a whole world of great stories and characters out there in translation and it’d be a shame to miss out on them