The worlds I never knew existed

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  • , Non-Fiction

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been to several thought-provoking translation events: Literary Translation Day at the Free Word Centre, a conference at the British Library entitled ‘Literary Translators: Creative, Cultural and Collecting Contexts’, and a talk by David Bellos at Foyles to launch his book Is That a Fish in your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything.

Questioning the way we define translation, and how we go about it, got me thinking about why I’m a translator. And I realized there were two different sets of reasons: those that originally motivated me to seek out and take on my first commissions, and those that mean I can’t imagine ever wanting to stop. I’m planning to blog soon about how the next generation of literary translators can be encouraged and supported (inspired by both by the mentoring scheme I’m participating in, and my experiences teaching at Queen Mary), so I’ll talk more then about how I got into it. Today, though, I’m thinking about that second set of reasons.

In an article in the recent PEN publication ‘Taking Flight: New Thinking on World Writing’, TLS editor Peter Stothard wrote: ‘We like to find books that tell us of worlds we do not know, or have forgotten or been encouraged to forget.’ I couldn’t agree more. Through my translations, I get to find about worlds I never knew existed, or worlds I knew existed, but perhaps wouldn’t have thought of exploring without a particular impetus. So far, my literary (and occasional non-fiction) translations have led me to research the terrain of Mount Aconcagua, mountaineering, various periods in art history, Guatemalan fauna and flora, specific goal sequences of games in the European (football) Cup of 1979-80, Jewish prayer rituals, mining, and much, much more. And all going well, spring of next year will bring even more discoveries with a particularly fascinating novel in the pipeline. I’ve always loved research, so translation is a perfect way for me to combine this with playing with words and language…

Questioning the feeling, cultural context, rhythm, cadence, history and register of words is one of my favourite pastimes. Before I started working as a translator, I used to debate the linguistic challenges of German books I read, translating them in my mind. Now I get to do it for a living. The osmotic, fluid nature of language is a wonderful thing; learning new languages offers you fresh insights into the ones you already (or don’t yet) know. My quest to learn Latin American Spanish in my spare time has not only brought back some of my long-forgotten Italian, but has also helped me with teaching German to students who already speak both English and Spanish; it gives me more material to reach out to them with, more comparisons and similarities.

I love that particularly challenging words or concepts in texts loll around in your subconscious and then occur to you in the most unexpected of moments or places; the notebook I keep next to my bed is not for recording dreams, but the long-sought-after words or fully formed sentences that pop into my head at 3am..

There are undoubtedly a number of challenges that go hand in hand with being a freelance translator: the predominantly solitary work, relative financial instability at times in comparison to monthly pay cheques, frustration when you struggle to find a UK publisher who shares your passion for a particular book. But when I sit down at my desk, more often than not, I feel free. Free in the knowledge that I’m doing something I’m passionate about, and happy that it didn’t take me too long to figure out what I wanted to do in life. It’s a constant learning curve, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I know I’ll always be able to grow as a translator; there will always be more out there for me to discover: more literature,more authors, more languages, more words…

Finally, given the place I’m choosing to share these thoughts, I couldn’t sign off without mentioning one of the best aspects of all of this. Before I started out, I could never have imagined just how friendly and extensive the literary translation community would be. Meeting up and sharing ideas at readings, book fairs, conferences and events is an integral part of what we do. And it’s not just these actual meet-ups, but the online community too; blogs, twitter and translators’ forums ensure that inspiration and encouragement is always at hand.

I love being a translator, and especially right here, right now. With so many people passionate about bringing outstanding foreign literature to the English-language audience, I couldn’t think of a more exciting time to be part of it all.