Wednesday, February 27, 2008


In communication with a translator friend, Okla Elliot, recently, he expressed uncertainty whether he wished to be a writer first and translator second or vice versa.

This reminded me of a conversation I once had with the excellent translator of the fine Dutch novelist, Marcel Möring. Her name is Stacey Knecht, and she comes from Brooklyn but had moved to the Netherlands and was now translating Dutch literature into English.

I, too, had done some translation of Danish literature, and my conversation with Stacey clarified something for me. At that time – late ‘80s/ early ‘90s – I was a kind of half-hearted translator- rendering stuff from Danish into English for no reason other than that I could not really fathom the impact of Danish poetry or fiction unless I got it over into my own native English. But I tended to be an impatient translator back then. I wanted the pay-off fast and if something didn't seem right, I would consider taking liberties to make it what I saw as right. A translation that I did of a Klaus Rifbjerg poem for the magazine Frank, Rifbjerg referred good-naturedly to as “enthusiastic.”

And occasionally I have made the kind of mistakes that are called howlers. Obvious, glaring errors that evoke a howl in the knowing reader. I did this with a couple of poems by Thorkild Bjørnvig once – translations that were destined to appear in Tel Aviv Review. Thorkild was not only a wonderful poet who had an amazing life (for more information read his book The Pact – about his friendship with Karen Blixen – a.k.a. Isak Dinesen, known no doubt to some as Meryl Streep), but he was also, in my experience, an incredibly kind man who wore his very large reputation lightly. When I sent him my translations, he wrote back saying that they were excellent and he was very happy with them; however, he added, they are not about foxes but about ravens. (The word for fox in Danish has a resemblance to the word for raven, and I blundered right into that mistake because I had not carefully taken the time, eyes and mind wide open, to check and check again my translation.)

Stacey was clearly a more dedicated translator than I. We met at an international conference at Kasteel Well in the Netherlands, where I used to teach, and she was attending my fiction workshop because she wanted to focus more on her own writing for a while. Ironically, Marcel visited our workshop and gave a reading from one of his books – The Great Longing – in English, Stacey's translation. It was wonderful –students and faculty alike were enthralled. Afterwards we sat in the salon of the castle – named for the fifteen-year-old daughter of the house, Sophie, who had died nearly 500 years before – sipping cognac from snifters and talking, and Marcel was encouraging Stacey to go on translating his fiction. For an author to lose an outstanding translator is a great loss.

I said to Marcel, “She’s good, huh?” and he said, “The best.” So I asked Stacey, "What does it take to be as good a translator as you clearly are?" and she answered, "You have to put yourself second."

I've never forgotten that. Now when I put on my translation cap, I remind myself that it must be a humble one, that while I'm translating, I am less important than the person I'm translating, that I come second. Of course I have to let my instinct and my intuition into the process as well – otherwise, the translation will be slavish and uninspired. But I must maintain that humility which will have me read and reread and reread and keep looking at words, hunting for the words that I translated quickly and facilely so that my eye might see them fresh, might see through the easy mistakes one makes, the false linguistic friends, or the easy mistaking of a present tense for a past, of a present tense used to indicate future. Actually, this process has also helped me in editing my own fiction – because it has made me more patient at revising my own stuff now, too, and even at proofing it.

Since most of the people I translate are still alive, if there is something I don't understand, I will contact them and question them about it to try to get it right, as close as I can to the original. And I always submit the translation to the author for final approval. Not all translators do -- some even have it in their contracts that they have the final say, and this can result in bad feelings.

Most Danes are good at English and can get a sense of it if you didn't quite catch something in the poem or fiction, and most are willing to work with you in the interests of getting it right, but without trying to usurp your "sovereignty" as the English-speaker in the relationship. Some will call in third parties to review the translation, and that can rankle, particularly if it is, for example, somebody’s cousin who happens to be good at English or born in Bath or somewhere – and Americans, as some find it amusing to remind us yanks, do not speak English. Sometimes the consultant called in is an academic with a lot of knowledge of English but little imaginative facility in deploying that knowledge.

Nonetheless, even in these cases, it behooves the translator (behooves me I should say) to resist the urge to fly into a Donald Duck like rage and simply dismiss all the “suggestions” out of hand. Because sometimes something valuable is brought into the process, sometimes something that you did passably is made better. And those moments call for a repositioning of the humble cap on the skull and, again, putting oneself second.I think for most people who aspire to be artists, their own vision is hard-pressed to put itself second to the vision of someone else. For this reason, I satisfy my wish to translate mostly with short works -- individual poems and stories, only occasionally a book. I have translated scores of poems and many stories, but of my approximately 28 books, only three are translations, and two of them are not quite completed yet. While I work on them, they come before my own writing. But those are short stints.It is indeed an honor and honorable work to render a piece of good writing, of art even, from another language into our own. It makes us a kind of messenger of the gods, a semi-divine go-between.

But although it is a pleasure for me to be able to do that, I have no doubt about it: I am a writer first.As a writer, sometimes you get a taste of being translated. Sometimes it is into a language that you have not a jot of understanding of, so you can only trust. I've had a few stories in the former Yugoslavian magazine SVESKA (which funnily enough means, very nearly, ‘prune’ in Danish, but ‘notebook’ in Serbian) and could only trust the translator because I could not even read my name in the Cyrillic lettering.

With Danish it is another matter. I do have a fair mastery of it and cannot resist involving myself if someone is translating something of mine from English. Once someone was rendering one of my stories into Danish and sent it to me for review. There was a sentence where I had incorporated a phrase from Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" -- "the melancholy, long withdrawing roar" -- by which of course I meant the sentence to have an echo of the loss of faith as reflected from Arnold's magnificent poem. That sentence in my story had not been translated in any way resembling those words, and I suggested that she find the standard Danish translation of Arnold's poem so that the sound and sentiment of that line could be retained. She thought I was being fussy. "No one is going to notice this anyway," she said.

My current translator, Birgit Fuglsang, however, is a dream, and she makes me understand how much hard work it is to BE translated when you have a good translator who wants you to be fully satisfied with the result. Which keeps me honest when I am translating, too -- wearing the humble cap, keeping myself second.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

No comments: