Saturday, 16 January 2016

My Feelings about My Writers and Your Feelings about David Bowie

I had been puzzled by how strongly people feel about David Bowie's death – the street renamings, the pilgrimages and flowers, the deep sadness, the need to share the tiny encounters or the life-changing effects of particular songs or Top of the Pops appearances. I have a different feeling about death to many people anyway, as a fourth-generation atheist, and have struggled to understand people's reactions in the past. A lot of them felt to me as though people thought the dead person was looking down at them and checking they were behaving suitably. Maybe they did think that, I don't know. When you've never entertained the idea of an afterlife that's hard to relate to. But I have at least learned something about the comforting power of ritual and sharing of grief.

So I had been idly reading various people's responses and it began to dawn on me that I had in fact felt something similar to that one-way devotion to someone who is unaware of your existence. And that's the feeling I have about my writers. I spend months or years mentally immersed in their creative work in a similar way to that time spent listening to favourite songs, poring over lyrics, interpreting their meaning, internalizing the rhythm, singing along at the top of your voice, imagining the song is all about you. Such a joyful teenagerly activity, best performed on a single bed with headphones and spots. I know you don't have to be a teenager to do it; here's the last song that did that to me.

And that's very like what happens to me when I'm translating a novel. It's a work of art that's been created entirely independently of me and even if I know the writer personally, which I usually do but not always, I will always know far more about their work than they do about mine. I will always think I know them far better than they know me – and yes, I know that's wrong thinking. But it's still a joyful activity, wallowing in the writing to create my literary cover versions. Sometimes translators do get romantically involved with their writers. I don't know about that really; it's always a secret yearning, I think, but could it ever be a balanced relationship?

None of my writers has died since I started working on them. It will be devastating, I expect. So now I understand the David Bowie sadness better.


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