The freedom to look at clouds in a non-predatory way, or the joy of being a translator, by Boris Akunin

  • Blog
  • , Non-Fiction

The annual Sebald Lecture is always just what the doctor ordered, guaranteed to lubricate the translation cogs and stave off thoughts of the February chill outside. This year was my my favourite so far (although if I had a time machine programmed to 2002, then I’m sure Susan Sontag’s would be a close contender).

The 2012 Translation Prizes were announced first, presented by the TLS’s Sir Peter Stothard. Listening to extracts from the commended titles always tends to produce a ‘must-read’ list in my mind, and this year it was longer then ever. The text I was most enchanted by was Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão (published by Dedalus). The sections read out were filled with extraordinary descriptions of ‘being in the world’ , as M J Costa put it, and I was particularly struck by a sentence describing the falling of darkness ‘like a glass of dark beer spilled by the sky’. As well as winning this award, the translator was also commended for the Portuguese and Spanish prizes, for The Land at the End of the World by Antonio Lobo Antunes and Seven Houses in France by Bernado Atxaga. Peter Bush won the Premio Valle Inclán for his translation of Exiled from Almost Everywhere by Juan Goytisolo, which seems to be a surreal, witty and dark novel set in a cyberspace where weapons include an erogenous bomb that incapacitates its victims by excessively arousing them. His reading had the audience rolling with mirth. Also on my list are Vincent Kling’s translation of the German Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi, and Malcolm Imrie’s rendering of Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, a frank and unusual depiction of soldiers in the WWI trenches.

And although this section of the evening could have been an event in itself, next came the Sebald Lecture itself, given this year by Russian author and erstwhile translator Boris Akunin/Grigory Chkhartishvili. He captivated the audience with his witty and subtly inspiring talk on how he first became a translator in Soviet Russia, encouraged by his mother to join the ‘second cleanest profession’ (after medicine). At first, he translated literature (from Japanese and English) only for pleasure and relied on technical translation for his bread and butter, not wanting to be confined to novels from the pre-approved State list. Later, however, he was able to publish many of those that had initially only been read by his friends. After a number of years, he found himself no longer sufficiently challenged by his translation work, and turned to writing. The late 1990s saw the great success of his best-selling detective novels, written under the pen name of B Akunin. In an aside, he told us how many of his peers still treat him as a defrocked priest since finding out he and B Akunin were one and the same. Despite moving on from his years as a translator, he still speaks very fondly of the profession, nostalgic for the days when he could ‘look at clouds in a non-predatory way’. These were the days, he said, when he felt the most free. But if a different challenge draws you, then you follow it: ”You just have to jump higher. Then, one day, maybe you’ll fly and find stars scratching your cheeks.”

He seemed to enjoy telling his story as much as we enjoyed hearing it. Apparently no one in Russia is interested in hearing about his former translation career. Their loss is most definitely our gain.