Thursday, 6 March 2014

Spanking Sibylle

The author-translator relationship has always been a tricky thing, for me. A translator reads so intimately, spending months inside the very guts of each book, that it can feel as though we know the writers rather than their work. We don’t, of course, because the writers aren’t involved in the process, only their words. It’s a huge disparity, this imbalance of knowledge. 

I’ve written about it before, based on this quote from Richard Howard:
The relationship of the translator to the writer is an erotic relationship always, and you learn something about the person that you’re working with in an almost plastic, physical way that you can almost never learn about your friends.
Yet what Howard doesn’t mention is that the relationship is almost entirely one-way, unrequited. There are writers I've been translating for a long time (not necessarily for publication), who feel like beloved old spouses whose tics I've grown accustomed to, there are some who I've fallen out of love with, most I delight in, and every new writer comes with a frisson of excitement. And those first meetings! Every single time, such high expectations and then such aching disappointment, like a bad date.

One of the worst moments is when they don’t seem grateful enough. A German book in English is unlikely to make anyone rich, but it will get the writer invited to exotic and desirable locations. It will also frequently get the writer’s book translated into other languages, which is no doubt also good for the ego and the travel anecdote collection. Of course writers may be unaware of how much effort translators put into getting certain books published, or they may assume that publishers the world over were already aware of their work and would have snapped it up regardless. Translators are prone to a kind of petulance at being overlooked and underappreciated, I think, and I am no exception.

I was telling a friend about the difficulties as I see them, and she commented that it all sounded rather Downton Abbey. With me as the below-stairs staff and the writers as the upstairs lords and ladies. In the most extreme cases, I have all this intimate knowledge about people who are only peripherally aware of my existence. I make my living by providing a service, something that takes years to learn and skill to perform, but that is sometimes taken for granted by the people I serve. I am exaggerating, but that’s how it feels at times.

I told a writer I’ve translated about the Downton Abbey comparison and she sympathized. But, she pointed out, her mother had always responded to being dismissed as a housewife with a Goethe quote:
Dienen lerne beizeiten das Weib nach ihrer Bestimmung!
Denn durch Dienen allein gelangt sie endlich zum Herrschen,
Zu der verdienten Gewalt, die doch ihr im Hause gehöret.
Ellen Frothingham rendered it as:
Early a woman should learn to serve, for that is her calling;
Since through service alone she finally comes to the headship,
Comes to the due command that is hers of right in the household.
At the time it comforted me; perhaps the servants and housewives of the world, through serving, do have power over others. But now it’s not helping matters. I don’t want to be a conniving, scheming, unhappy Miss O’Brien. Not that I want to be above stairs either, but still. It all ties in with Sherry Simon’s Gender in Translation, as far as I remember, in which the translator is eternally connotated as female because of her invisible, serving role.

But there it is. Although in my case they’re the exception, there are author-translator relationships that really don’t deserve the term “relationship”. And yet, my name is tied to their names and when I read their names I am interested in what they have to say. So when a writer I have translated comments publicly that copulation is something that ought to happen between men and women for the purpose of procreation and that it would be wise to ban masturbation and that she is inclined to consider children created by artificial insemination “semi-creatures”, “half human, half artificial I don’t know what”, especially if they’re born to lesbian mothers, and in the same speech compares the Nazi Lebensborn programme favourably with artificial insemination – when that happens, I am as ashamed as I would be if that writer were a relation of mine. Of course, every right-minded reader in Germany is up in arms that an award-winning writer could push such a fundamentalist agenda, and the kindest conclusion is that the writer herself is not in her right mind. Perhaps the only consolation, for me, is that said writer is one of the few of those I’ve translated who probably doesn’t even remember my name.

So this is my way of stepping discreetly out from below-stairs and distancing myself. I don't know if it's the right way to go about it.


Frankfurt1 said...

Love your honesty Katy! Fascinating insights into the role of the translator and great Downton analogy.
I just saw Sibylle in breakfast t.v. trying to retract her comments ... scary woman.

kjd said...

Thank you.

David said...

I haven't read her. How much of her bizarre mindset is reflected in her writing?

Anonymous said...

I hope you feel a bit better now for having done it, very discreetly too, I might add, like any well-trained denizen of the below-stairs world.

kjd said...

Hi David,

That's a good question that critics are beginning to address now. Georg Diez in Spiegel Online ( and Gregor Dotzauer in the Tagesspiegel ( say yes, to some extent. But of course she writes fiction and has never addressed reproductive medicine in her books.

Karen said...

Katy, what a wonderful article about invisibility! I love the Downton Abbey comparisons. At least there, upstairs is shown trying to behave :-)

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I simply noticed Sibylle within breakfast every day capital t. sixth is v. attempting to withdraw the woman's remarks... frightening lady.

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