Working in a bookshop, I’d occasionally meet a customer who was against the idea of reading things in translation. ‘Surely all the subtleties will be lost?’ they’d argue. To some extent, I can see their point. If you read fiction – as I often do – for the pleasure of how something is being said, then surely you should only read things in your own language?
I like looking at sentences – at how they’re constructed. Sometimes I even get excited by punctuation, by the intriguing placing of a comma, for instance. Thinking about the pleasure I get from reading someone like James Salter – the kind of writer whose work is all about miniscule detail, crystalline sentences, nothing put in the wrong place – I find it hard to imagine how that would work in translation.
I’ve no way of knowing, either, considering I only speak, read and write in English. (I’m rubbish at learning languages. I’ve tried and failed a number of times.)
Now I’m going to contradict myself by saying my favourite writer ever is Knut Hamsun, someone I’ve only ever read in translation. When I read Hamsun, something happens to me that doesn’t really happen with any other writer: I get affected physically. I actually laugh out loud when the protagonist laughs, I have to stand up and walk around the room for a bit and then sit down again, I have to slap my knee and bite on my lip.
There seems to be a kind of ‘spirit’ in his work which transcends the language it was written in. I’ve now read three different translations ofHunger , for instance, and while one might feel ‘better’ than another, (i.e., it reads easier), I still felt the same emotions; in other words, the same kind of anarchic spirit came across.
My novel is to be translated next year into French, German, Italian, and Dutch. So far, I’ve had absolutely no contact with the people working on these translations. I have to take it on trust that they’re doing a good job. In fact, the whole thing feels like a trust exercise – even when the editions are finished and printed and I’m holding one in my hand, I’ll have to just feel proud, and nod at it, and hope that these mysterious translators have done a good job.
Which is part of the reason I’m looking forward to the Crossing Border festival: for once I will actually meet my translator. I am full of contradictions. Although I just wrote that the ‘spirit’ of Hamsun seemed apparent, even in translations (that were made by people who’d never met him), I also secretly kind of feel like my writing might be translated better if I actually meet my translator and she gets a sense of ‘what I’m about’.
I’m a bit scared, too. It’s like another trust exercise. I will meet An De Greef and she will be able to speak English and I won’t be able to speak Dutch, and once she’s translated this and all my other articles I will just have to look at them and feel proud of them and hope she’s done a good job. Also: what if I do something to piss her off at the festival, accidentally, and she takes it out in the translation of my articles, making me sound awful, making me say things I didn’t say?
I will never know.
I will just have to nod proudly and hope, whatever happens.