Gained in Translation (and how I lost the ‘dude’)May 7, 2012
Interesting. I wonder what this is about? That was my initial reaction when I opened a package from my publisher the other day and saw Przepowiednia Szeherezady. I was thinking that another writer must be as equally obsessed with Scheherazade as I am. Perhaps she had read The Night Counter, and had liked it so much she had written a book length analysis of it. Perhaps that was why my name was in big letters under the beautiful Nubian princess on the cover. We can all be delusional for a few seconds.
The Nubian princess on the cover I immediately recognized was not me. However, it took me awhile to figure out she was indeed my Scheherazade from The Night Counter. This was in fact the Polish translation of The Night Counter, with one of the main characters literally photographed in a way I had never imagined her.
Being as The Night Counter’s characters are fiction, I had never seen a photograph of any of the characters in the book outside of my head. Nor did I ever contemplate how hard or easy it would be for the characters to master life in Polish. Now sometimes in the space they forever inhabit in me, I can imagine them whipping up some witty repartee in Polish. At least I hope it’s witty and true to themselves. But no one ever really knows when it comes to translation. Indeed, how Dobromila Jankowska (the translator) heard them in English might be different than how I heard them, and therefore they might be slightly different people in Polish. Just like real humans, characters become slightly different when they move to a different language, let alone a different country. Even my English doesn’t sound the same here in Abu Dhabi as it does in the US. There are words I don’t use often now—“dude” mercifully high among them—because they sound foreign in English here and maybe I speak louder and slower.
Humor, which is more based on culture and language, than drama is probably the hardest thing to understand in translation. In Germany, The Night Counter family is apparently quite funny. I only know this from sitting at readings in Germany in which I would read in English to relatively stoic responses –I could have been reading a new political manifesto for Europe. But when the translator read the German version, the laughter told me they were not thinking of The Night Counter as a manifesto, at least not one they took seriously.
The Night Counter became Feigen in Detroit (Figs in Detroit) via translators Nadine Psuchel and Max Stradler. My German editor at Auf Bau called Max a replicant because he can translate in several languages faster than anyone she’s met, run marathons and raise a son on his own. Max did the first literal translation and Nadine went in and made the characters authentic in German. At least that’s what everyone who has read the translation tells me: They said Nadine was able to deliver fully dimensional characters who sounded like they’d always been speaking German suitable for their phobias and demographics.
When I met Nadine, we clicked instantly, bonded by the hours we had both spent pondering every word in the book, something that creates a natural intimacy, as probably no one else has ever had to be so close to what goes on in my head. We also had similar sensibilities, key to good translation. Here is an exchange, unedited, between us when she was doing the final pass at the translation:
Nadine: On page 84: “Yeah, we could call it the International Dateline,” he said. “Sometimes these ideas just come to me. The entrepreneur in me, I guess” (Zade talking about a new cooperative partnership in his match-making services). The pun with date doesn’t work in German so we thought of him proposing the name “Achse der Liebe” – “axis of love”. But of course this would have a more political undertone so what would you think of that version? (We could also leave the name in English. Date in the sense of rendez-vous is known in Germany, so the pun would be lost but the name itself would make sense, maybe with a slightly different wording in his next sentences).
Me: I love axis of love. It would have been better in English, too.
Translation is complicated, but it also made me understand my own language more–and I got to understand my characters better in talking about them as German speakers. But perhaps on the other hand its simple. When I met my Norwegian publisher last year, I asked her why she had bought the book for this country with one of the highest per capita reading rates in the world. “I loved the story,” she said. “I could see it in Norwegian.”
That’s it really: translation at its most noble is love of sharing stories and information. Some of the best things I’ve read in my life originated in languages I only know how to say “thank you” in. If I have any doubts about how translation makes life better, I only have to look at the woman on the cover of Przepowiednia Szeherezady : Scheherazade understood stories and the importance of them for survival. That’s why she’s been in translation for centuries, some translations recognizable to how I know her, and some less so–and one day soon, she’ll find herself saying “dude” in someone’s interpretation of her.