Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Translators Are from Tralfamadore

Paul Verhaeghen (b. 1965) is a Belgian novelist, writing in his native Dutch.

His novels include Lichtenberg (1996) and Omega Minor (2004). Omega Minor has been translated into German (2006, Eichborn Verlag) and English (2007, Dalkey Archive Press). The original Dutch version won the F. Bordewijk Award (2005) and the Culture Award of the Flemish Government (2006) as well as the Award for Prose of the Joint Flemish Provinces (2007). The English translation, done by the author himself, won the 2008 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Verhaeghen is also a cognitive psychologist, currently working at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. He studied theoretical psychology at the Catholic University of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) in Belgium. In 1993 he earned his Dr.Psyc. degree with the thesis, Teaching old dogs new memory tricks: Plasticity in episodic memory performance in old age.

Here is what the self-translating author has to say about translators (other than himself, of course):

"..all writing is in essence translation. A writer has a vision, so the argument goes, and that vision is put into words, which invariably soils it somewhat. Groovy little gyrations you’ve got going on there, son, but, woah, wait a minute: They’re totally incidental and totally irreproducible (...) writers and translators have different loyalties. Translation is, after all, a business of rigid motion, with an allegiance to accuracy; writers are wedded to – and I apologize to use this word in polite company – the truth (...) To know the truth, you have to get up early, forego your shower, don a bathrobe or (better still) stay in your boxers, and bang away at the keyboard until your fingers are numb – twelve hours of work done in a single instant, with a single sentence to show for it.

When you write, in other words, the world shifts and moves. You are, emphatically, certainly, positively driven, but you are not the driver. If it works, at the end of the day you may sink into your warm puddle of words, the song that cannot be unsung, blisters of joy on your lips; otherwise you’ll find yourself at midnight weeping into the open fridge, your tears freezing in their ducts. Yes, writers, like all lovers thrown into a fling, are tempted by the illusion of destiny, reaching for a heaven that exists only in their carefully rearranged memories, all the while trying to figure out if reality is more a wilderness of mirrors or a pillar of smoke. If you know where you are going, if the vision is clear, if you know the exact note that will come out when you open your mouth to sing, you are not a writer. Give up on the idea that writers are gods. They have no overview, the mere thought of their omnipotence is laughable, they are most ungracious, and certainly not in the possession of any mercy whatsoever. (Watch them kill their characters!)

In walks the translator. Doesn’t he look a bit like a plumber’s friend, with his suction cup neatly planted on the ground, so eager to teach the writing Earthling many wonderful things about time? Linear or non-linear, it doesn’t matter, because the text is there and the translator ploughs through it at will, and from every angle. The translator is an honest-to-god liar, pretending to believe in a truth that is entirely somebody else’s – yours -- cross-wiring his dreams with the wind that whipped some other fellah’s plains -- yours. The irksome paradox is that in his command of the fourth dimension, the translator becomes shallower, not deeper. He sobs over the death of every character, but not inconsolably so – it’s only a book, and the character lives on, forever on the page. True, the translator is powerless to prevent your mistakes, but he is gracious and merciful towards them. So it goes, he says, and he either shrugs his shoulders or tries to smooth it out. Did you notice that he is stylishly two weeks overdue for a haircut, while your hair gets brutally trimmed every six months by your lover, in your sleep, with very blunt scissors? Did you notice he’s wearing a full set of clothes while he translates, and never skips a meal? He is extraordinarily precise, your translator, he wants to render each and every one of your puns, he wants to bring each of your clever nuances to light – the best of translators are so good, you can’t believe it’s not writing.

This, obviously, is why the Italians call the translator a traitor: He is completely unlike you; he is a smooth-talking interplanetary god."

I don't agree. First of all, we do agonize over words just as much as the writer does. From my own experience, I do three and often four drafts of the same text before I am satisfied (or the deadline looms). Secondly, I am often dishevelled and in my pyjamas while working, and I not only miss meals, but also medical appointments, social events (I just discovered that a friend's birthday was last month, not last week), and professional commitments - simply because I am here 13-14 hours translating something.

Thirdly, my belief is that you cannot be a good translator unless you are a good writer yourself.
The only difference I see is that whereas the writer often does it for love, we do it for livelihood. And that means that we need to do it properly. A stuffed up novel will get forgotten after a few critical bashes on the pages of literary reviews. You can always try and write a better one. But if I stuff up my translation, I simply don't get paid.

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