First of all, congratulations on the very fine translation, which I can recommend to Asymptote‘s readers without the slightest reservation. I was quite impressed by the deftness of your rendering; I found the book ‘unputdownable,’ riveted as I was by your skillful reconstruction in English of Nir Baram’s adman, and the meteoric ascent of his career in 1930s Germany. In fact, other than the odd German word or two every page, the writing didn’t seem to bear any trace of translation, for me at least, as I found it working perfectly well in English, both in terms of the story’s sitcom-like pacing and the sharp, precise English. I’m curious to know how much was lost in translation?
I’m grateful for your compliments, and I’m also very grateful to the editors at Text Publishing in Australia, who went over the manuscript with meticulous care and fine literary judgment. I always had the feeling that they were working with me (and Nir), not against me, with the aim of producing the most readable book possible. I’m glad you think that we succeeded.
With regard to this translation, I benefited from Nir’s input. Translators into English are fortunate, in that the authors they translate usually known the language, so they can correct misunderstandings, notice sentences that one has skipped, etc. Of course, this has a downside as well, because some writers (even Nir on occasion) think they know English better than their translator. Also, the writer always has the feeling that something has been lost, his voice, in the transition into another language. It must be somewhat distressing to hear one’s voice differently from the way one imagined it. On the other hand, sometimes writers discover things about their work when they see it in translation. But they have to accept loss of control inherent in the process of translation.
I really don’t think that, in this case, very much was lost in the translation, because Nir’s style is very contemporary and readable. Translators always try to make up for what was lost in one place by doing something a bit fancy somewhere else. Since I did this translation a few years ago, I can’t remember specific instances of this. I would say that, especially with a book of this length, the translator, like the writer, has the problem of keeping the level of energy high, so that the reader won’t put the book aside. I think it’s harder for the translator to do this than for the author, who has the fun of inventing, whereas the translator is always rendering someone else’s inventions.
One issue of the book is that it the characters are German and Russian, and their Germanness and Russianness comes through in the original, and it must also do so in the translation.
This is a historical novel; as the translator, what sort of preparation did you have to undertake to do justice to the historical period? Did you worry about anachronisms appearing in your language; conversely, did you modulate the English to suit that period?
No. I didn’t have to worry about anachronisms, because, after all, WWII isn’t all that long ago. Nir himself got a lot of advice from people who know about Russia and Germany, and he was very careful to be accurate, in the framework of his novel, and I just had to go along with his hard work. The main problem was both historical and cultural: representing Germany and the USSR in the late 1930s through the war.
It was courageous of Nir to take on this literary project, breathing life into figures he could not have known personally. I think he did an especially good job with the group scenes, the parties and gatherings.
How did you get matched to this project? You said you benefited from the author’s input. How would you characterize the author-translator relationship?
I got matched to this project, initially, through the Hebrew publisher, Am Oved. They knew me from earlier projects and asked me to prepare a sample chapter, which eventually earned a contract for the book. While translating that chapter, I was in email contact with Nir. Later, when I was doing the entire book, he read through the translation and made corrections and suggestions. I have only met Nir personally, in the flesh, once, but we have had a good relationship via email.
In general trust between author and translator is very important. The author has to be confident that the translator has his best interests in mind, that he wants the book to be as good as possible, and that he understands the book well – assuming, of course, that one is translating a living author.
You’ve translated more than twenty books; tell us about the books you have written, and the books that you haven’t written (a la George Steiner’s My Unwritten Books)?
I wrote a book on translation, Thinking Through Translation, which was published by Georgia University Press. I was the ghostwriter for a Holocaust memoir by Trudy Birger, A Daughter’s Gift of Love, which was published by the Jewish Publication Society in the US and has been published in more than a dozen other countries, including, recently, Lithuania. I also wrote, with Professor Calvin Goldscheider, a book about a Holocaust survivor named Shmuel Braw, A Typical Extraordinary Jew, published by Hamilton Books. I published two books, a novel and a book of memoirs and reflections, in Hebrew, and I published three books of my own on Amazon: Site Report, a novel; Between Vesuvius and Aetna, a travel book; and Problematic Guru, conversations about jazz with Arnie Lawrence. I also published a book of poems, Giving Myself Away.
A while ago I started a novel about a man who was supposed to be at work in the World Trade Towers on 9/11 but, in fact, he was sleeping with his girlfriend. He decides to play dead and escape from an unhappy marriage, but it turns out to be harder than he had imagined when he impulsively decides to let his wife think he is dead. However, the novel got stalled, and I don’t think I’ll ever finish it or try to get it published. So that would be my unwritten book. Recently I’ve been more involved in music and pottery than in writing.
Another translation of a novel by Appelfeld is due to come out pretty soon, and I’m working on a long and lively novel by Gail Hareven. I find it difficult to do writing of my own when, as a translator, I’m in the head and heart of another writer.
Who is the translator you most admire and why?
I wouldn’t say he’s the translator I most admire, but my friend David Dollenmayer (we were roommates at Princeton more than 50 years ago) is an excellent translator from German and has been doing fine work with difficult writers. I can read German (with more difficulty now than when I was a student), and I have always found it extremely difficult to translate from it. David’s translations are fluent and natural. He doesn’t get tangled up in the complexities of German syntax, and he gets the tone convincingly. Recently he translated 2 novellas by the Austrian author, Michael Köhlmeier, conveying the contemporary feel of that writer very nicely.
I have to admit that I don’t like reading books in translation. My French is excellent, and I can’t imagine reading something French in translation. I once met David Bellos, who translated Georges Perec, whom I have read in the original. I don’t know how Bellos did it.
Also, a friend recently lent me a rather old volume of stories by the great Japanese author, Junichiro Tanizaki, translated by Howard Hibbert, who was a professor of Japanese at Harvard. I was very impressed by the way Hibbert managed to convey the strangeness of traditional Japanese culture and yet produce a readable text.
Jeffrey Green is a writer and translator living in Israel. He has a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard, and has also published, among other things, a novel in Hebrew, a book of poetry and a book about translation.
Lee Yew Leong is the founder of Asymptote, winner of the 2015 London Book Fair Award for International Literary Translation Initiative. As Asymptote’s fiction editor and editor-in-chief, Yew Leong has presented a newly translated story or poem in The Guardian every Tuesday since November 2015. Based in Taipei, he works as a freelance editor and translator of contemporary Taiwanese literature. Winner of the James Assatly Memorial Prize for Fiction (Brown University), he has written for The New York Times, among others, and currently serves as one of the judges for PEN International’s 2016 New Voices Award.