Friday, 22 February 2008

Being Translated and Being the Translator

Once again, the good old Guardian books blog provides me with fodder: an article by a writer about reading the Russian translation of his own book. Daniel Kalder writes:

"It's an eerie feeling - I can't quite trust this other Daniel Kalder. His eyes are a different colour; I think he has a flick-knife in his pocket. He doesn't always say exactly what I'd like him to. But we're close enough that I'm happy for him to slouch off, provoke, intrigue and entertain that other group of readers I was secretly writing for in his own peculiar way. And also, of course, to annoy and offend the ones I wasn't writing for."

The writer feels alienated from his own writing, because the words have passed through the medium of the translator. He doesn't name the translator, perhaps afraid to offend him or her because some of the article is quite critical of aspects of the translation. But I found it a fairly balanced account of what it must feel like to be translated. I think the moral of the story is that translators need to have some form of communication with the author during the translation process, if only to deepen their understanding of the text. And of course to reassure the writer that you're not just tinkering amateurishly with his or her work of art.

Which brings me to last night. Selim Özdogan's reading in the beautifully decayed Festsaal Kreuzberg was packed! I was lucky my friend had saved me a seat. It was unlike any other reading I've been to, as Selim alternated between reading from the amazing novel Die Tochter des Schmieds, as yet unpublished short stories and short texts, and just talking in what seemed a very self-assured way about himself, the rest of the world and how he sees it. A kind of Selim Özdogan show, and a very entertaining one. You may be relieved to find out that there was no DJ session after all, despite what it said in the listings magazine.

The novel came out a few years ago now, but has been given an unexpected push by its inclusion in the film The Edge of Heaven. Oh, and I just happen to love it. I've translated an extract and am hoping to place it in an online magazine at some point in the near future - more as and when. It's about a father bringing up his children in 1950s Turkey, and his daughter, who leaves Turkey for a future in Germany in the penultimate chapter. It's told in a slightly dreamy style - but without "orientalising" - with what I'd have to call "flash-forwards" for want of a better word - moments when the narrator reveals the future of the protagonist Gül:

"But she will often think back to this first day. She will remember it when she sits at an electric sewing machine in Germany, sewing bras in piecework. Four hundred to four hundred and fifty a day, while her workmates rarely manage more than three hundred and fifty."

In a lot of his short prose, I felt the author reveals a hell of a lot about himself, probably compounded by the chatty bits in between. And translating a text makes you feel even closer to its writer than just reading it. I, at least, feel I have to think about every choice the author has taken, why this word in particular, which rhythm has she chosen, what is he trying to say here? My Özdogan translation is one of the first where I've had proper contact to the author without some middle-man in between, and that was very rewarding. For instance, the book plays a lot with terms of endearment, and it was hard for me to judge whether they were "translations" of things Turkish parents call their children or were originally "thought" in German. So it was very helpful to be able to ask the author directly. And he looked over my translation in the end and made a couple of very useful suggestions.

But despite this communication, the process of translation is still fairly one-way. It's the translator who has to crawl into the writer's head and make herself comfortable in there, after all. Part of what we do is to step into the writer's narrative persona and imitate that in our own language. And in general, the author has little or nothing to do with that process. Add to that the fact that authors are generally fairly high-profile in the media whereas translators lead a shadowy life, rarely venturing from behind our desks into the limelight, and the level of knowledge the two parties have of each other becomes extremely tilted.

So the moment of actually meeting the author is very odd indeed. I often feel like a kind of stalker, having followed someone's often quite intimate thoughts and of course taken a close interest in what they get up to in general. Selim summed it up - unknowingly - for me when he said, "It's strange to put a face to someone you've only spoken to by email." And I had to kind of shrug and say, well, I knew what you looked like...

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