Searching For the Familiar

An author interviews his translator

Reif Larsen and Niek Miedema

Reif Larsen: How did you first get into translation?

Niek Miedema: I had no qualifications to be a translator whatsoever when I first started. Except knowledge of the English language. I was a book critic and used to occasionally read manuscripts for a publisher here in Amsterdam. One day I was given Ulverton, a book by the English author Adam Thorpe, to read. I loved it, but realized it was virtually untranslatable, as it had so many voices and stretched across well over three centuries in an English village. (The village is actually the protagonist of the book). So I said to the publisher: by all means do it, but get the best possible translator for this. He then asked me to do it. I turned the offer down at once, of course, as I'd never translated anything. It was an irresponsible suggestion on his part and I told him so. But he persisted over the next few weeks until in the end I started to waver. I said I'd try my hand at a few pages of it, but wanted an experienced translator to look at it. The experienced translator was found. He was Harm Damsma. His reaction to my work (I did a page from each of the twelve chapters in the end) was: "Yes, the boy's got talent, but a lot to learn." I couldn't have hoped for more, could I? But he said he was willing to groom me. So this is how it started, and we haven't looked back since. We became a duo of translators and for the last seventeen years have been doing most of our projects together. Including The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.

RL: I've often wondered about the particular qualities that make for a good translator? When Harm said "the boy's got talent" what exactly was he referring to?

NM: Getting inside the author's mind, I suppose. Empathy with what he's trying to do.

RL: But it seems more than this, yes? You want to get inside the author's mind but then you also want to be able to express this mind without getting in the way—to listen, to transform, but not intrude.

NM: Well, you must also have a love of your native language. The language you translate into should never reveal its origins and sound pure. In many ways, translating is like writing, except that someone else has done the construction part of it. But the language has to be reinvented.

RL: What do you mean by reinvented?

NM: When I translated your book into Dutch, the text shouldn't sound like English, even though the Dutch reader will realize that Spivet is speaking and thinking in English all the time. But in the translated text he should speak unadulterated, idiomatic Dutch. So in that sense he has to be reinvented, as if he were a Dutch boy, even though he crosses the Midwest and ends up in a tunnel under Washington DC. Even his dog's name had to translated, to make sure it was not an American dog. In the translation, he is a Dutch dog.

RL: That makes my head spin. I'll have to come back to that particular bit of literary/cultural transmogrification. But in this process of turning young Spivet into a Dutch boy, how do you get inside the book? What's your initial approach?

NM: You read the text and then if all is well you start hearing a voice in your head, just as the author has had to hear a voice. The only difference is this voice speaks another language. But basically the same rules apply. And you have to learn the boundaries of this voice. Some words belong to him, some are favorites, some are incidental, and some are entirely out of the character's reach. I suppose it's a matter of psychology and being able to judge the interior landscape of a character.

Having a visual idea of the character helps too. This may not actually correspond with the image the author had, but it is the image that the character's words conjure up in your mind. When translating The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, which is set in Victorian London, I consistently saw the protagonist, a prostitute called Sugar, as a ravishing, intelligent, very skinny black woman, even though I knew she wasn't in the least bit black. But it helped to lend her a voice. In fact when I later saw the four-part BBC serialization I still couldn't quite believe it was Sugar I saw.

Knowing the author in person sometimes helps, but can also be counterproductive, as he/she shouldn't be confused with the characters. In the case of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet the narrator was clearly a clever but still naive boy, not a well-travelled man like the author.

RL: I'm not well travelled.

NM: Well travelled for an American.

RL: Okay. I'll take it.

NM: With your case, it was useful to meet you and see that T.S. sprung from you, but rather in the way a cartoon character originates from somewhere in its creator's makeup. A streak here or there. In this case it did not help form an image of T.S., but it did facilitate communication about the text. But then you were quite open to communication anyway.

Getting inside a book is obviously easier if the book appeals to you, and I don't think the subject matter makes all that much of a difference. When translating a book set far away (Pakistan and Afghanistan, as in The Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam) or long ago (as in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell), it is far more a matter of trusting and following the author than of projecting oneself into the place or period in question. The author has made that journey for you.

RL: I understand translation from English into Dutch is a bit different than other forms of translation since everyone speaks impeccable English in Holland. I noticed this odd rush to publish books in Dutch almost on the same day as they come out in English. Does this change the way you go about your work—knowing you are translating for an audience that potentially reads both languages?

NM: Those who can read it in English will do so anyway, so I think this whole notion of rushing to beat the English edition is a bit silly. But in practice it means we work from manuscripts a lot and translate books that haven't yet been published in their country of origin. There is an advantage to this and that is you can still discuss the text with the author before he/she has let go of it.

RL: Yes. Let's talk about this a bit, because the whole experience of publishing Spivet into a number of languages was totally surreal for me. I sold the book and suddenly had to confront a bunch of translators and their questions. So I had the bright (or stupid) idea to set up a website where I could answer questions for everyone at once, thinking this would save me time. Of course, making yourself available like that made people ask many more questions than they might do otherwise... not that this is a bad thing. It just became a big project. There were hundreds of questions on that blog, ranging from the minute to the profound. And I often didn't have the answer. What was your experience working with this blog? Was it unique? Did you enjoy having this resource?

NM: We (the Dutch translators) were ahead of the bunch, so the problems other translators encountered had sometimes already been raised by us, but as the peloton progressed they found more and more things we'd overlooked, which was both humbling and very useful. Your blog was not entirely unique as the Norwegian translator of The Crimson Petal and the White set up something similar ('The Petal Peers' he called us), which included the author in the end. I wonder why others haven't done the same thing, as a lot of the questions will always tend to overlap. Asking more questions than one might otherwise have done is not a bad thing, as long as the translators don't bother the author with them. They can help each other and leave the author in peace, can't they?

RL: I loved how there were these little whirlpool side conversations that occurred between translators completely separate from me. I could only help so much and then the translators took over, like hyenas at a carcass. I was a spectator. "What was the word you used for 'dandy fop'? And how did you come to that?" asked the Norwegian translator to another. "Ah, okay, I will use this word spirrevipp." And so on. It was like seeing a group of dancers move across a stage as they watched one another, commented on one another's posture, and then corrected their balance....

NM: It is not often though that a book is simultaneously translated into so many languages. So part of the enjoyment for us was realizing all these laborers of love across the globe were slaving away at the same thing. Not that we could always help each other with practical issues. How could I tell a Brazilian or Rumanian which word to use? But we did clarify things in the English text. And some of them found mistakes, didn't they?

RL: From an author's perspective, confronting your translators is a bit like going to your therapist. They are inevitably the closest readers you will ever have. They consider each word not just as a word but as a potential problem that has multiple solutions. When we read, we gloss over things we don't understand, we often slide from one idea to the next without completely taking it all in. But with translation, there can be no faking. Not only do you have to know what everything means, you have to know it precisely. It means larvae and not pupae. So nothing gets by your translators. And of course they call you on all of your little tics... the ones you were aware of, but also the ones buried deep down. "What is this word 'goose twine'?" asked Manfred, my German translator. "I made it up," I wrote to him, thinking the next question would inevitably be "Well, why on earth would you do that?" I felt very under the microscope, as if everything led back to some twisted Freudian solution. "Okay, okay, I'm in love with my mother! You figured it out!" I often wanted to yell at the blog. I don't think I did more than once, though.

NM: By definition translators will always be your closest readers, for they go through a text more slowly than any editor ever would. Five pages a day is the max. But the feeling of being on the couch at Dr. Spielvogel's is not something you should worry about. I said the translator must empathize and try and express what the writer meant, so any probing questions are only meant to clarify, not to analyze or dissect you as a person.

RL: There seems to be this cultural perception of the translator as this reclusive, misunderstood polyglot who spends his days immersed in a mountain of papers, drowning in the profundity of words. This is not true of course, as I can attest after meeting you and other translators. You are normal people with working limbs and good manners. But where do you thinking this perception of the translator as a golem-in-a-cave comes from?

NM: It's true that a translator's working time is spent in solitary confinement. But one can never be a good translator unless one immerses oneself in everyday language. In the living language that surrounds us. And that means venturing out, going to cafes, the stadium, chatting to strangers, overhearing conversations, in train compartments, waiting rooms, wherever. One of the wonderful things about this job is that no time is ever time wasted, as long as you can soak up language. You build up your resources—a reservoir of language that you can tap into when needed.

RL: I feel the same way about writing. You are always listening to the chatter of others, watching them go about their day, chopping vegetables, talking and not talking. You are trying to understand why a pause is put here and not here, why this is said and this is left unsaid. And I feel least lonely when I'm putting all of these observations into action on the page. But let's go back to your process because this fascinates me. You have a partner-in-crime. Unlike most writers, you work in tandem with Harm. How does this work exactly?

NM: We divide the book into two halves, or seventy-six parts, as the case may be, according to its nature. Harm is better at certain things (ballads, formal language) whilst I'm more at ease with for instance Irish inflections or puns. When we've done our respective parts we send them to each other for scrutiny. The suggestions/improvements and blatant blunders are then taken aboard and next we each decide which changes the other suggested we will accept and which others we won't. The ones we don't accept we list and save up for discussion. That is the best part of the process, as that is where we finally meet and talk. Problems neither of us has been able to solve also end up on the table then. We will never release a text unless both of us can take full responsibility for it and are prepared to defend it, so if we cannot initially agree or even find common ground, we battle it out until we do. This will only work if you're prepared to accept criticism and don't let your pride prevail. Incidentally, it is a fallacy to think two translators will get a job done faster than one. We have long discussions over the things we don't feel we understand or over how to phrase something.

RL: Wow. I wish I had one of those.

NM: Don't writers have first readers they trust?

RL: Yes. It's a bit different though. They are not co-conspirators. They help you clarify, deepen, shift your thinking. They jump your engine, but they do not own the text as you do. "Co-ownership" gives me shivers but maybe that's just me being selfish. Do you ever look back at a translation you "owned" a while ago and say, "Oh my God, I can't even stand it, get that thing away from me before I vomit all over my trousers?"

NM: Yes, all too often. But this may be due to the illusion that we are still improving. There is actually no saying we would do any better now.

RL: When I think about things I've written in the past, I always cringe a bit, but then the other part of me likes that they are imperfect creatures, born out of that time and space, reflective of a particular mood. Their imperfections are what gives them life....

NM: True. So do you think an imperfect book should get an imperfect translation? In a work of fiction the effort of trying to achieve something and perhaps not quite achieving it may give it extra power or charm. But a translator would then probably not find that acceptable.

RL: Hmmm. I think a translation will be imperfect by definition—not just because it is a translation of an imperfect text but because the translator—as much as he or she tries to get out of the way—inserts him- or herself into the text, weighs it down a bit, throws some gristle into the fire. That's okay, I think. Books are touched things; they don't exist in a vacuum. The good ones you can still smell the scent of skin upon them.

NM: The translator feels a servant though. He feels he's the ambassador or representative of the author in a language the author cannot write in. So he owes him a certain responsibility, since the author has to place his trust in him. Whereas the author is only responsible to himself and can therefore (possibly) accept imperfections more philosophically.

RL: Ah! This seems a dangerous road to go down. To think of oneself as an ambassador of anything!

NM: Such is the weight upon the back of us translators....

RL: You are noble beasts. Far nobler than I. But going back to this question of transmogrification that we touched on before and exploded my brain a bit.... I've been thinking a lot about what it is that gets translated in a book besides just the language. It is the beating heart, the feel, the mood, the voice, that untouchable, unknowable quality. You said before that the boy becomes Dutch, the dog becomes Dutch, and the reader knows they are not really Dutch but reads them in their native tongue anyway, all so that they can get at.... what? What's that very essential thing you're after when you translate a text?

NM: The ideal is that the reader should feel he could meet this character any time. So what you translate are basically the words of course, but the words are a means of connecting with the character. I would say the essential thing one's after is recognition. You know how it is when you get to know someone, and you've met them maybe two or three times, and usually about the third or fourth time you meet this person's face is suddenly familiar to you somehow. And then you relax. That is what you after when you translate. This sense of recognition.

RL: How do we cultivate recognition? What changes from that first meeting to then knowing them?

NM: You stop observing so much and you begin to take them for granted. And you begin to see the whole, not details. I can imagine someone shaving off a mustache for instance, like Harm once did, and me not noticing it for months because you simply stop looking at things like that.

RL: But of course to get that level of familiarity in a book all relies on the details themselves. Details described and not described. Each one precise and each one familiar.

NM: The details set the scene. But they are not enough. The details have to be correct, and that is what you spend a lot of your time on, both as a writer and a translator, but the voice of the book is more than the sum of the details, isn't it?

RL: I suppose that sum is what must be translated. And the voice—if it is a strong voice, with authority and precision of movement—can weather the shift in language. A Dutch boy making his way across the Midwest of the US can work perfectly well if the voice is like an old coat you fit into as soon as you slip in that right arm....

NM: The technicians call it willful suspension of disbelief. You see and imagine an American boy, in a thoroughly American context, and you hear him speak Dutch. As if he's in a movie that is dubbed. Interesting. In a way, the director of the Spivet movie has had to do a similar thing, but then with visual means. He translated T.S., but made him into a creation of his own, otherwise it can't work. Imagine what would have happened if you'd done the movie yourself.

RL: I had no problem turning over the reigns of the story to a filmmaker and completely ceding control—it just had to be the right person. I wanted this person to really go for it and realize the book into something whole, complete in-of-itself. The attempt is what mattered. But I also didn't want to take part in this translation from page to screen. I knew enough about film that it would require a complete re-visioning and I was just too close to the text do this. I went and visited the set a couple of times this summer and a lot of people asked me, "Oh, is it how you imagined it?" But this seemed an irrelevant question. It was not how I imagined, but then I never imagined a movie... when I write, my ideas of characters and places are fuzzier than in a motion picture. They are luminous, like ghosts. Of course when I saw the ranch house on set it then became the ranch house. I couldn't quite remember what I had envisioned before. But I felt no sense of "Ah, they are doing it wrong." They were doing things as they must be done for this version, for this translation of the story into images. When a story goes into a new form, it must change in order to preserve its bloody, beating core.

NM: In a way a story emigrates when it is translated.

RL: Yes. It brings itself and all of its baggage but also adapts out of necessity.... I will be able to see the film version myself but all of these other versions of the book living and breathing in languages I'll never be able to read—I wonder about these books. How close are they to the original? I like how one or two of these might be completely different stories than the original. They might even be better than the book I wrote. For instance, I have a sneaking suspicion that Spivet is superior in German to English. The book just needed to find the right language to be told in....

NM: But the original will always be the mother version. An exception might be The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the book by David Mitchell that I mentioned earlier, as that is set in 18th-century Japan on an island populated by Dutch traders and the different accents and dialects they use could be rendered in Dutch and Flemish, where the author obviously couldn't do that in English, so he had to restrict himself to the odd dropped aitch and some folksy touches. But normally speaking stuff is lost in translation and we're grateful for what can be saved.

RL: But I do think mistranslations and misunderstandings can be just as fruitful as the original text itself. Sometimes when I write I feel as if I am purposefully mistranslating myself. That said, if someone read my book in Turkish and told me it was about a twelve-year-old sex slave, I would have decidedly mixed emotions.

NM: The idea of a book needing the right language to be told in is fascinating. But it still is hard to imagine the boy Spivet somewhere other than in America, because he needs the physical space. Traveling from Montana to the East Coast and crossing all that territory is something you simply cannot do in Western Europe without moving across a multitude of cultural borders. But this argument only applies because he happens to jump on a train. If he'd stayed put, could he have been conceived in German, do you think? If you'd had the choice, in the way Beckett chose to write in French?

RL: I can't answer this question as I can only know myself. I'm not bilingual so unfortunately English—with all of its warts and imperial clumsiness—is inseparable from my own thoughts. I sometimes wonder when I read a book in translation whether I'm actually reading the same book as the original. Probably it's a different book. And in the end, that's just fine. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude or Hopscotch in English and it perhaps it is not as beautiful as the original Spanish but it is what it is. It meets me halfway up the stairs. An imperfect creation, like me.

NM: Translators can only exist because of the phenomenon of universality. Human emotions. Shared knowledge. But also something deeply ingrained in the nature of language itself. The will to express oneself. The struggle to express oneself.

RL: After this conversation do you feel any closer to understanding the universal principles of human language?

NM: Not really.

RL: Me neither. Thank God.