Anna Asbury
RETELLING
DOOR Laia Fàbregas
01-12-2008

Dear Anna,

Before I arrived in The Hague, I had imagined that I’d let you talk more. I had envisaged asking you during the day to let your thoughts wonder on the subject of translation. After that I would write what I thought you meant, in order to ask you at the end of the column if I’d formulated it right. But in the end I didn’t do that. There were so many impressions every day, that I found it hard enough just to order my own thoughts.

After the crazy days of last week, I’m now back in my house, in my life. I see friends, I phone my parents… Everyone asks how it was. Well… How was it? How can I explain it? How do you translate experiences for people who weren’t there?

I’ll give it a try…

There was a little world in the centre of The Hague.
There was a big family, with six translators and four writers, and Helen, who showed us the way.
There was a hotel and there was a theatre where you often came across the same people, people we knew from the programme booklets.
There were people we admired and people we’d never heard of before.
There were coloured wristbands which granted us admission everywhere.
There were coloured tickets which we could exchange for food and drink.
There were podium moments for almost everyone. Even for the translators.

The writers disappeared every day between two and five. They hid in their rooms to put their thoughts into writing.
The translators disappeared between five and eight, and sometimes later. They hid in their rooms to put the writers’ thoughts into their own languages.
And the next day we were complete once again.
And Helen showed us the way.

I think that was it.

I’m curious as to how it was for you…

Did you find it difficult to meet the deadlines?
Did you sometimes work some more on your translation before going to bed?
Was it exciting for you to read out a piece from my book in English on stage?
Do you find it difficult now to explain everything we did to people at home?
Did you discover good new writers or musicians?

Oh yes, and there were also
lexicons,
dictionaries,
dictionaries
and dictionaries,
and even more dictionaries

But I didn’t see any.

Did you bring a real dictionary with you?

I think if we were to continue this strange exchange of letters any longer, we would soon be unable to read the words dictionary or lexicon anymore without seeing ‘yes’ and ‘no’ instead. A good time to conclude.

I wish you a pleasant final translation.

Laia

Alle vertalingen van Anna Asbury
RETELLING
01-12-08

Dear Anna,

Before I arrived in The Hague, I had imagined that I’d let you talk more. I had envisaged asking you during the day to let your thoughts wonder on the subject of translation. After that I would write what I thought you meant, in order to ask you at the end of the column if I’d formulated it right. But in the end I didn’t do that. There were so many impressions every day, that I found it hard enough just to order my own thoughts.

After the crazy days of last week, I’m now back in my house, in my life. I see friends, I phone my parents… Everyone asks how it was. Well… How was it? How can I explain it? How do you translate experiences for people who weren’t there?

I’ll give it a try…

There was a little world in the centre of The Hague.
There was a big family, with six translators and four writers, and Helen, who showed us the way.
There was a hotel and there was a theatre where you often came across the same people, people we knew from the programme booklets.
There were people we admired and people we’d never heard of before.
There were coloured wristbands which granted us admission everywhere.
There were coloured tickets which we could exchange for food and drink.
There were podium moments for almost everyone. Even for the translators.

The writers disappeared every day between two and five. They hid in their rooms to put their thoughts into writing.
The translators disappeared between five and eight, and sometimes later. They hid in their rooms to put the writers’ thoughts into their own languages.
And the next day we were complete once again.
And Helen showed us the way.

I think that was it.

I’m curious as to how it was for you…

Did you find it difficult to meet the deadlines?
Did you sometimes work some more on your translation before going to bed?
Was it exciting for you to read out a piece from my book in English on stage?
Do you find it difficult now to explain everything we did to people at home?
Did you discover good new writers or musicians?

Oh yes, and there were also
lexicons,
dictionaries,
dictionaries
and dictionaries,
and even more dictionaries

But I didn’t see any.

Did you bring a real dictionary with you?

I think if we were to continue this strange exchange of letters any longer, we would soon be unable to read the words dictionary or lexicon anymore without seeing ‘yes’ and ‘no’ instead. A good time to conclude.

I wish you a pleasant final translation.

Laia

TRANSLATION
22-11-08

Dear Anna,

Everything comes to an end… It’s the last day of Crossing Border. My head is spinning with all the languages. Yesterday I listened for almost two hours to a conversation in Italian between Federica and a journalist. After an hour I could follow them completely. It’s no wonder. I already speak two Romance languages, so it’s easy to add a third.

I was thinking about the visit we made to the Peace Palace yesterday. We sat at a really long table with a dark red table cloth. We were given coffee and I was afraid I’d make a mess of the table cloth. We listened to Steve, a translator who came to transmit all his knowledge of translation to us. (The English readers will miss out on the alliteration in this last sentence… And it’s such a nice instance of alliteration).

Steve told us about his three golden rules which make a good translator.

Rule 1. The translated text must contain all the information in the original. No more and no less.

Rule 2. The translated text must be as simple and clear as possible (in the sense of user-friendliness).

Rule 3. The translated text must read as if it was originally written in the target language.

After listing his rules, Steve summed them up in one powerful sentence: a translator must be able to write well in his or her mother tongue.

That sounded well thought out, and true. But something about his theory didn’t quite feel right. Liesbeth pointed it out: she put a question mark over rule 2.

And so I return to the subject of alliteration. Steve’s rules say nothing about the preservation of the form of the text. He puts the emphasis on user-friendliness. That’s also important, especially as he wasn’t talking about literary translation, but about texts which are written to help judges reach a verdict.

I think that literary translators would formulate rule 2 slightly differently. Or perhaps they’d add a fourth rule. Because there should also be room to accommodate the form of a text, for example alliteration, in the translation.

Umberto Eco writes about this in his book ‘Dire quasi la stessa cosa‘. According to Eco, in the case of an impossible combination of form and content, the translator of a text must weigh up the possibilities and ask herself: can I preserve both the form and the content? If not, is it more important to preserve the content or the form? Can I adjust one or other so that both are ‘almost’ preserved, or should I let one go in favour of the other? That strikes me as a very difficult question.

Well, this is the last column/letter which has to be written and translated under time pressure. I don’t want to make it too difficult for you, but what do you think, is it possible to do anything with my alliteration? You’ll need more than a thesaurus for this one…

I hope you enjoy the last day!
Laia

MANY LANGUAGES.
21-11-08

Dear Anna,

I agree that we’re no better off with one world language. No two languages are equivalent, even if we sometimes have that impression. Every language is a separate approximation to reality. Every language has unique words. I wouldn’t want millions of unique words to disappear.

Yesterday Helen wrote Chris a list of Dutch words. It included: gezellig , bakfiets , bitterballen and jas . Of the four words, only one had an English equivalent. Gezellig, bakfiets, and bitterballen needed further explanation. And now maybe you’ll have had to use three annoying footnotes to explain these three words to the English readers.

Unique words define a culture. On Tuesday evening I walked with Abdellah and Federica behind Helen and Chris, on my way to BorderKitchen. Suddenly Abdellah and Federica disappeared. They had stopped by a street light with several bikes locked to it. I walked back a few steps to stand with them. They were both staring in amazement at one of the bikes: a bakfiets with a transparent cover. They asked me what it was. So then I used English words to describe a Dutch object to a French-Moroccan and an Italian writer. Now they know what that object is for. I didn’t teach them the word. They didn’t mention equivalent words in their own languages either. They simply don’t need it. A world language would be full of words which many cultures would not use.

But today it occurred to me that we already have a kind of world language. I mean body language: all those little things we say with a hand gesture, or the position of our arms, or by the direction of our gaze, or just the slope of our shoulders.

Today we had lunch with the Crossing Border international press. I talked to various international journalists and with two journalists I had the same experience. At exactly the moment that I said in English that my book would be translated into their language, they shifted their gaze silently from my face to about twenty centimetres beside my head. Their eyes drifted towards some point in the distance, bringing the conversation to an abrupt end.

It was a non-linguistic reaction. And it was entirely clear to me. My eyes also drifted unasked to another object.

Body language is many times stronger than regular languages. With regular languages you can always say: ‘Sorry… I didn’t hear you’, or ‘I don’t think I quite understood you…’ With body language you can’t do that. I can’t ask: ‘Sorry, could you explain to me what you meant by gazing into the distance?’

But perhaps I should have done that. Perhaps I should have mentioned it (as I was taught in my management training back when I worked in an office). What do you think, Anna, shall I do that, next time?

Laia

[1] The closest English equivalent for gezellig that seems to spring to mind is ‘cosy’, but then applied to a positive social situation like a party rather than furniture or woolly jumpers.
[2] A bakfiets is a bicycle with a large box attached for transporting things.
[3] Bitterballen are balls of ragout coated in bread crumbs, served as bar snacks.
[4] Coat/jacket.

PS Lunch with the press went on until almost half three. I only had an hour and a half to write this letter. I’m out of time to work lexicon into it…

ONE LANGUAGE.
20-11-08

Dear Anna,

It was great to read my letter in English. I recognised my words in your translation, but you were clearly present too. You’ve already said more than ‘almost the same thing’!

Now the first day and a half is behind us. We’ve spent a bit of time together: four writers and six translators from different countries and different backgrounds. When we talk to each other we frequently switch between Dutch and English without thinking. Sometimes Spanish, French or Italian words get mixed in. It sounds like a sort of Esperanto: first I say this, et alors je dis quelque chose d’autre, and finally also una palabra en español, because I can’t translate that quickly enough in my head, and I hope that Abdellah and Federica get it and can think of the English word for me.

In this mishmash of languages I wonder whether we’d be better or worse off if we only had one language for everyone in the world.

I imagine in a world of internet and globalisation, a world language wouldn’t easily split into different languages (as Latin and others did in the past). Dialects would develop, but for the rest we’d all use the same words.

I realise in proposing this hypothesis I’ve wiped out your profession in one fell swoop. Sorry about that! I’m just fantasising. But now I’ve suggested it… what do you think: would we understand one another better if we only had one language? I’m picturing a world in which between six and seven thousand languages, millions – billions – of words become extinct. Book shops reduce their rows of language courses and lexicons to one shelf.

I wonder if there would be fewer misunderstandings, or more in fact. Perhaps translators would then continue to exist in the form of mediators. People who help others understand each other better. Because having just one language would make communication even more complicated. The less words there were in the world, the more important it would be to have a good command of the meanings and nuances of those words used. Translators would be language experts, who knew the language inside out and could explain the correct meaning perfectly.

And another thing: after all the old books had been translated to the new world language, literary translation would no longer be necessary. How do you feel about that? … Would you want to live in this hypothetical world, without your English-Dutch lexicon, without your profession, but knowing that you can travel all over the world and have a chat with anyone?

Tomorrow I’ll let you know what I think of this vision of the future.

Have a good Crossing Border day,

Laia

P.S. I know, I said one question per letter… It turned out to be two in the end.

1) The translator also wishes to thank Abdellah for his French assistance.

LETTER TO THE TRANSLATOR OF THIS LETTER
10-11-08

Dear Anna,

I’ve been asked to write a few columns in Dutch ‘on being translated ‘. I received the assignment in English, and I’m wondering how I should word it in Dutch. What is ‘on being translated ‘? Is it ‘vertaald worden’? Is it ‘vertaald zijn’? (1) I speak English and Dutch, but neither is my mother tongue. So I can’t adequately judge the nuances hidden in these three English words, and their possible Dutch equivalents.

Of course, you know these things. That’s your area of expertise. Since my book was translated, I’ve kept in touch with several translators, and I’ve really come to admire the work you do. I’m so intrigued that a couple of months ago I bought a book about it. It’s an essay by Umberto Eco, and the title in Italian is: ‘Dire quasi la stessa cosa ‘. I read it in Spanish (‘Decir casi lo mismo‘), and would make so bold as to assert that Umberto Eco calls translation: ‘Saying almost the same thing’.

You’re going to say almost the same thing as I do. You’re going to translate my daily columns for The Chronicles into English, and then we’ll have two texts which say almost the same thing. Isn’t it difficult to say ‘almost the same thing’ without saying ‘something different’? And can you ‘say almost the same thing’, if you disagree with the original text? In other words, as a translator, can you translate a text if you don’t support what it says?

I realise I’m asking you a series of questions you can’t answer. That’s a shame, since you’re the one on the other side of the theme ‘on being translated‘, and have a different perspective.

Since I have no way of entering into a dialogue with you in my letters (which reach you in the guise of columns), I feel the urge to test the boundaries of translation. I’m not planning on making your task impossible, but I am curious as to how you resolve certain problems. But what do you think of the idea? Do you want to explore the limits of translation with me?

Pity, I’m asking you questions again, and again I realise that you can’t respond, that your answer to this letter will only be a translation of all my questions. Or… I have an idea.

I’d like to make the following proposal: we’ll communicate by code. In each of my letters I’ll ask you one question. You’ll be able to answer that question implicitly in your translation.
How?
I’ll always use the word woordenboek somewhere in the text. You have two options for translating this word. If you translate it as dictionary, it means your answer to my question is ‘yes’. If you translate it as lexicon, it means your answer to my question is ‘no’.
The first question is: Do you want to explore the limits of translation with me?

I’m looking forward to meeting you in The Hague soon. Have a good journey to The Netherlands and don’t forget your dictionary!

Laia

(1) Inelegant as the use of footnotes in translation can be, I feel compelled to take this liberty, both to attempt an answer to the question and to give non-Dutch-speaking readers some insight. The issue involves two ways of expressing passive in Dutch, using the auxiliaries ‘worden’ (more or less literally ‘become’, describing a process) and ‘zijn’ (‘be’, describing a state), ‘vertaald’ in either case meaning ‘translated’. The English phrase ‘on being translated’ does not make this distinction.