In 2013 I translated a book called The Vegetarian, by the South Korean author Han Kang. Then, around this time last year, the novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s not false modesty or a deprecation of talent to recognise that I was sickeningly lucky: The Vegetarian was my first ever published translation, as I’d only begun to learn the language in 2010. The existence of the prize itself — newly reconfigured to celebrate a single book rather than a body of work, and with £50,000 split equally between author and translator — was a credit to those who have long been advocating for our traditionally “invisible” and terminally underpaid profession to be given the recognition it deserves.
The tide does seem to be changing: only this week, Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal became the first novel in translation to be awarded the Wellcome Book Prize, and its translator Jessica Moore was very much part of the story. Last year, and for only the second time, the Arts Foundation included literary translation as a category for their emerging artist fellowships. And the money attached to such recognition is not merely a nice bonus, given that the average UK rate for literary translation still often works out as less than the minimum hourly wage.
Data gathered by Nielsen BookScan proves that translations punch well above their weight in terms of market share: in 2015, only 1.5 per cent of fiction published in the UK was translated, yet this accounted for 5 per cent of total fiction sales. And the rapidly expanding range of translations available, including some of the most wildly popular contemporary authors in both literary and genre fiction — Elena Ferrante, Haruki Murakami, Stieg Larsson, Karl Ove Knausgaard — has dispelled the notion that “translated” denotes some special degree of difficulty or intellectualism. Instead, the fact that only the crème de la crème gets through makes literary translation a byword for originality and excellence — qualities that this year’s MBI shortlist has in abundance.
Of the six shortlisted authors, the closest to household names are veteran Israeli writer Amos Oz and his slightly younger compatriot David Grossman. Both are already well represented in English, largely thanks to long-time collaborations: Nicholas de Lange met Oz when the latter was in Oxford on a fellowship; Jessica Cohen was asked to translate Grossman back in 2003. (Other than personal connections, the most common way for a translator to be paired with an author is when they’re approached by the English-language publisher, as was the case with Megan McDowell, or when a translator falls for the author’s writing and pitches to a publisher themselves, as Charlotte Mandel did with Mathias Enard.)
Familiarity can certainly help the translator, but while A Horse Walks into a Bar is as unflinchingly serious as all of Grossman’s work, moral ambivalence in contemporary Israeli society is here addressed through the figure of a stand-up comic — a new challenge for Cohen. Humour is notoriously difficult to translate, especially the kind that relies on local references, but Cohen acquits herself with aplomb, swapping a Hebrew neologism meaning, broadly, “top percentile bloodsucker”, with the brilliantly barbed “eau de one per cent”. Her translation comes alive outside the dialogue too, capturing the physicality of stand-up with an ease and elasticity that simultaneously avoids the pitfall of ostentatiously varied verbs.
Lacking these obvious technical fireworks, de Lange’s translation of Oz’s Judas is more difficult to appreciate, but that is precisely his achievement. It’s the more muted stylists who leave nowhere for the translator to hide, and de Lange is invisible on the page. As an ordained rabbi, he has a similarly deep understanding of the scriptural background integral to Judas, which follows an idealistic student in the still-divided Jerusalem of 1959-60, and he told me that now, on their 17th book together, translating Oz feels “like putting on a second skin” — seamless fluidity is certainly the reader’s impression.
Two Hebrew translations on a shortlist of only six might seem off-balance; with two Scandinavian, one French and one Argentine rounding up the count, we don’t stray far from Europe — but that’s hardly surprising, given that 80 per cent of submissions for the prize hailed from European countries.
If non-European translations are a minority of a minority, translations of female authors are another. But here, too, a rash of recent initiatives gives cause for optimism: this year will see the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, while August’s #WITMonth is now a fixture in the literary calendar. Female representation on the MBI shortlist is about the same as overall submissions — 35 per cent, which roughly extrapolates to what gets published. For translators themselves, the gender split was 50:50, again reflecting the general trend — though Anthea Bell and Margaret Jull Costa are the undisputed UK doyennes, with the OBEs to prove it.
Dorthe Nors’ translator Misha Hoekstra proves that a translator’s gender is less important than a certain sensitivity. Well aware of the ways in which writing by and/or centring women can be dismissed as “minor”, not award material, he explained: “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is short, ironic and has no weighty meditations on the tides of history. Instead it presents the quotidian yearnings and musings of someone usually overlooked by society and fiction: a middle-aged single woman.”
The woman in question is Sonja, herself a translator of crime fiction, learning to drive late in life. An exchange with her masseuse Ellen features a Danish phrase that literally translates as “clench your buttocks”, but whose figurative meaning is “get a grip”. Smartly noting that the massage context means that the metaphor’s bodily connection is what needs to be put across, Hoekstra told me how he “riffed on the word ‘tight’ and, as Ellen is somewhat prim, added a note of apology to keep it believable”:
“ ‘Your buttocks are hard,’ Ellen says. ‘That’s because, if you’ll pardon a vulgar phrase, you’re a tight-ass with your feelings. An emotional tight-ass, a tight-fisted tightwad. Can’t you hear how everything’s right there in the words?’ ”
Mood and tone are crucial to every translation, but nowhere more so than in Fever Dream, the shortlisted debut by the young Argentine author Samanta Schweblin. Its plot can be summarised in a single line — a woman lies dying in a rural hospital, while a boy who is not her son pushes her to recall the trauma of her recent past — but its achievement lies in its evocation of unease and mounting horror. Megan McDowell’s translation is wonderfully hackle-raising, jerking queasily between semi-officialese and naturalistic dialogue.
McDowell’s bio illuminates another factor in translation’s current flourishing: the opening-up of the profession to those who have neither grown up with nor formally studied their language. Her experience sounds so familiar to me, stumbling into literary translation “mostly the result of a general intellectual curiosity about the world, combined with a lack of ambition in my youth that led me to float around for quite a long time”. Every translator named here has earned their stripes through equal parts talent and graft, and imposter syndrome cannot be unique to latecomers like myself and McDowell, who admits to doubting her own qualifications: “What business does a hick from Kentucky have sticking her nose into Latin American literature?” Hearing her say this was a moment of recognition — sub in “Doncaster” and “Korean” and that’s me.
It would be equally mistaken to imagine that those who come to their source language later in life are any less rigorous — though each will have their own strengths and weaknesses, informed by personal experience: Hoekstra’s time spent translating for a Danish PR firm taught him how to “seduce with English”. Indeed, English-language translations are assessed as English-language novels, without reference to the original; judges put themselves in the shoes of the general reader, for whom, after all, these books are intended.
Evoking the harsh beauty of life on an isolated Norwegian island, The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen is one of those rare translations that stand up to the same kind of stylistic analysis practised in English literature classes. Here, “wont” and “whereafter” sound not like stiff archaisms, but give the sense both of a way of life little changed in hundreds of years and of the novel itself as a kind of sermon, opening as it does from the perspective of a priest. Alliterative phrases such as “might and main” or “rack and ruin” enhance the echoes of the King James Bible, while rarer words such as “faering” and “snath” appear unglossed, maintaining the precarious balance of making the book come alive in the English language without effacing its foreignness. And this extraordinary work is the product of Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, who met at university and have worked together on translations from both Danish and Norwegian, including an earlier book by Jacobsen.
In a sense, all translation is collaborative; many authors are generous enough to recognise that their book becomes something new in translation, the product of not one but two (or in the case of The Unseen, three) extraordinary writing talents. Compass is the third such collaboration between Mathias Enard and Charlotte Mandell, whose decision to never read ahead when she translates (I do the same) works in her favour with Enard’s famously long sentences. “I translate in a sort of mesmerised trance,” Mandell told me, “eager to see what comes next. That way my English re-creates the ebb and flow of the French original, its rhythm and cadence.” But Mandell also admits, especially for the majority of us who work alone rather than in pairs, that translation “can be very lonely at times” — especially as our contribution is often ignored or misunderstood. It’s little wonder, then, that she describes the MBI shortlisting as “nothing short of life-changing”.
The wealth of metaphors for the translator — traitors, handmaidens, human dictionaries — testify to a troubling insistence that we stay in our lanes, backstage, subordinate and self-effacing. Those I interviewed for this piece were uniformly humble, but humility is not mutually exclusive with professional pride. Translators are like authors in many ways — over the course of a book, we’ll agonise over individual words, dream about the characters, wreck our backs and eyes and relationships spending 14-hour days hunched at our computers. But authors do everything translators do — pace, mood, rhythm, register — plus plot, character, and creation ex nihilo; how could we not be in awe of that? I might be Han Kang’s collaborator, but I’m also her biggest fangirl, which hardly applies both ways.
All metaphors are imperfect approximations, but my favourite is that of the translator and author as instrumentalist and composer. The composer’s already done the work — how hard can it be to play? And how much difference can it make depending on who plays it, when the notes all stay the same? Aren’t pianists just frustrated composers? Even the staggering genius of Mozart can be butchered in the execution; it takes passion, dedication and an innate ear for the music of words to make the Martha Argerichs of the translation world. Just as there are acclaimed musicians at all points on the “purist” to “interpretive” scale, the strength of our art form lies in diversity. And all deserve their moment to shine.
Deborah Smith is the editor of Tilted Axis Press. Her translation of ‘The Vegetarian’ is published by Portobello/Hogarth
Photographs: Getty Images
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