In my early days as a writer, a German novelist friend told me the story of his novel’s translation into “American.”
“There was only one translator from German to English in all of the New York publishing world. The translation was so appalling that I paid for a new one myself.”
“How awful,” I said with the required sympathy. But silently I thought, isn’t one translator enough?
The question pinged around in my brain until a few months later, when I first met my formidable, straight-backed, keenly critical Dutch translator, Jenny de Jong.
“Your book was a nightmare for me,” she said, with what I soon learned was customary Dutch frankness mixed with customary Jenny brutality. “I translated the whole book from beginning to end, realized that I had it wrong, threw it away, and started over again from the beginning.”
You did what?
“What do you mean,” I said out loud, “you had it wrong?”
Thank god I didn’t tell her, but at that time I imagined that translating a book meant changing the words more or less one at a time from one language to another. If I’d thought about it a bit more, the total idiocy of this would have been obvious. Although a hopeless linguist, I did study French for five years in school, and Hebrew as a child in Sunday school, and a term or two of Spanish as an adult. So I knew, of course I knew, that translation has nothing to do with word for word translation.
“The voice!” Jenny nearly shouted at me. “I didn’t have the voice right.” She looked at me (not for the last time) scathingly, with an expression that said, “well, you may be able to write a vaguely interesting book, but you really are a bit thick aren’t you?”
She was right.
What I didn’t know about translation was enough to fill a great number of (very thick) volumes. It had never occurred to me when I studied English literature at university, for instance, that when Pound “translated” his Cathay poems from Chinese to English, that he didn’t speak a work of Chinese. Poetic-translations-once-removed wasn’t a concept I had ever really considered. And now that I’ve been associated with the world of translation for going on decade, and observed first hand the care with which particular translators are matched with particular novels, I have finally caught up with my German novelist friend’s outrage.
These days, I spend a lot of time trying to stay on the right side of my beloved translators, but it’s often in vain.
My second novel, Just in Case, made Jenny very angry.
“First of all,” she wrote me, “I don’t know what you expect me to do with that title. Can you please in future not give your books names that are impossible to translate into Dutch. Secondly, I am very disappointed in the draft. It really does not work.”
She was right. It did not work. We had sent it out a bit too early, and it needed that last edit, the last tightening of the screws that often makes the difference between a flabby ineffective novel, and one that’s watertight, airtight, and basically … just … tight. I went back and worked on it for another month and sent it to back to her, directly this time.
“Well,” she wrote. “It’s OK now. But honestly, your continuity! You don’t mean to tell me that butcher shops are open on Sundays, do you?”
I adore Jenny. Perhaps it’s the American in me, but if there’s anything I can’t stand in a relationship it’s an excess of politeness (this goes double for my relationship with editors and translators). No danger of that here.
Since writing my first novel, I have never been able to relax until Jenny reads the manuscript. If I get her OK (on form, content, title, etc.) then I know the book is OK. Even if the critics, agents, or publishers don’t agree.
I have, of course, told her this. In response, she frowns and tells me I’m an idiot. But I can see underneath that she’s pleased.
Jenny never e-mails me with questions about tricky bits of language. Which is interesting, because the language I use is a peculiar mix of American and English vernacular, and one of my most frequent copyediting requests is to change a particularly original expression “out of English into a more familiar American usage” – or vice versa. And more often than not, I have to tell the editor that the expression is neither American nor English, but just something I invented.
“Dear Meg,” wrote my wonderful German translator in regard to There Is No Dog, (another title that drove the translating community to despair), “could you please explain to me what is ‘squishy woo woo?’”
Ah, squishy woo woo. Well, I explained, it’s sex, obviously. But it’s not an actual expression, I made it up. It has overtones of nursery language as in, “woo woo, I can see your underpants” and relies on onomatopoeia in a slightly gross childish way with the word ‘squishy.’
Brigitte Jakobeit, who (based on the number of German literary awards my translated books have won) must surely be a genius of a translator, did not send me the sort of scathing reply I might have had from Jenny. I received by return mail a simple (dare I say Germanic?), “Thank you.”
It was during a weekend with Brigitte in Hamburg that my understanding of the difficulties that translators suffer expanded exponentially. She was working on a translation of a well-known and well-regarded best-selling American writer’s latest novel, and I was working on a draft of my latest. We worked quietly, one room apart.
“Meg!” she called about every ten minutes, and I duly trotted next door to see what the problem was, proud to be able to help with the American idioms. But what she showed me, time and again, were sentences that made no sense at all in English.
“It’s grammatical nonsensical,” I told her, again. “It’s just words that don’t add up to anything at all. It’s terrible writing. That’s what it is.”
And off she’d go with a sigh. Squishy woo woo was beginning to look positively benign.
I don’t know my Indonesian or Korean or Japanese translators. And I do sometimes wonder how my Catalan translator dealt with a character called Justin Case. But mainly, I sit at home quietly and wait to hear from Brigitte and Jenny, with their separate verdicts, on the quality of the writing and the plot and the number of annoying (and surely unnecessary?) uses of language that simply have no equivalence in Dutch or German.
My regard for them, my admiration and gratitude, has few outlets. I tell them frequently how much I love them.
And I’ve made one of the main characters in my new book a translator.
I am terrified to show it to either of them. There is no doubt in my mind that I’ve got the characterisation precisely wrong.
This article first appeared in issue 40 of the BCLT journal In Other Words.