Al haar Mantel-vertalingen zijn in nauwe samenwerking met Hilary Mantel tot stand gekomen, maar voor de Veiliger oord-vertaling hebben ze bovendien eerst samen het Engelse boek gereviseerd, waar destijds in de redactiefase pijnlijke veranderingen in waren geslopen. De Nederlandse tekst heeft vervolgens als bron gediend voor de Zweedse, Franse en Italiaanse vertaling en als basis voor de revisie van de Engelse brontekst. Naar aanleiding van hun eerste samenwerking heeft Mantel een artikel geschreven, dat ook is verschenen in In Other Words, de publicatie van schrijversorganisatie English PEN, en op www.boekvertalers.nl.
Like many Britons of my generation, I am virtually a monoglot. I was taught French at school but taught so badly that I had no confidence either in speaking or reading the language; essentially, it was taught to me as an extinct language, like Latin, and no acknowledgement was made of the fact that, within visible distance of our shoreline, millions of happy Frenchmen and women were chatting away.
Again like many of my compatriots, I feel guilty for being so bad at languages, and guilty that I cannot help my translators more. Though usually, they have not asked. Queries have been restricted to a few difficult phrases, idiomatic or obscure. And I have often wondered what is the effect of my work in translation, since often there is no feedback after publication. I know I am a quirky writer, and make use of non-standard English and of different registers and tone; also, my writing is interrupted, or inflected — however you like to put it—by nods and winks to other writers, by quotations not marked by quotation marks, by allusions that probably only a few readers will grasp. I am not a difficult or obscure writer (I hope) but I am ferociously intertextual. Mostly, the sense of the passage remains intact for the reader, whether or not the teasing echoes are picked up. But I suppose some of my translators must think I am a very strange woman.
Wolf Hall, my 2009 novel, has been published in some 30 countries. Until then my translation record was patchy. A particular book would be picked up in one country, but not in another, and I never quite knew why that was: was it the state of the market, or was it that a particular novel seemed too difficult to translate? My publishers changed frequently, and I had no chance to build up a relationship with a translator. Contact would come only when the work was done, and the translator was tidying up after herself. The tone had been settled, the project was almost finished, and what remained for me to do was purely mechanical: it was the equivalent of putting the papers in a neat pile and fixing them together with a paperclip. Only recently, working with Ine Willems on the translations of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, I have realised that there is another, better way. It is possible for two minds to meet, and treat the translation as a new work. The novel then reverts to its unformed, unfinished state, as work in progress.
This seems to me a much better way, though it makes greater demands on both the translator and the original writer. I cannot consider a book finished when it leaves my hand. It must be read, translated, interpreted, and no two readers, even two readers who share a language, have the same experience. A great deal of the power of a book lies anterior to words, and beyond words. The power lies in the images that the word creates, each image unique to one reader and each image shifting, fluid, endlessly renewable. But still, I depend on the translator for the words that will spring that image. In the ideal world, the translator must be more than linguistically skilled, well-informed, well-read. She or he must also be intuitive, and able to align her intuition with that of the writer.
Such paragons are rare (and I think I have found one, though Ine will not like me to boast about her.) Clearly the translator’s task is far greater than that of finding word-by-word, line-by-line equivalents. It is about finding a tone that allows the writer’s personality to shine through the lines. But it is even more than that. We are not just translating a book, we are translating one culture to another. Given that there is generally a high level of technical competence among translators, this is where the challenges lie. The translator must stand back and consider the whole picture. A writer’s native audience has certain underlying assumptions about the world, and these assumptions shape a text, almost invisibly; but they are not necessarily shared by foreign readers. The author may not be aware of her own shaping assumptions, until a translator draws her attention to them.
For instance, my novel A Place of Greater Safety, though written in English, is about the French Revolution. It is now being translated into Dutch. So the question arises, what do the three nations know about each other? Ine has already told me that the Dutch will understand more about the administrative structure of pre-revolutionary France than the English do. Therefore, when describing the job held by the father of one of my revolutionaries, she can be more accurate and precise in Dutch than I could in the English original. That is welcome. But there is a further point, a more subtle one. The English, invariably, think local administrators are funny. They don’t have to say or do anything to amuse; they are just ridiculous by virtue of their position. So, for example, in an American city, a mayor is a person of consequence and is taken very seriously. But to the English, a major is likely to be a pompous individual strutting around in a medieval costume. (Modern mayors don’t do this, but they did until very recently, and it is unlikely we will ever let them forget it.) Now the questions arises, what do the Dutch think? Will they understand why my text, when I discuss town government, takes on a tone of mockery? Are local bureaucrats seen in the same way, all over the world? I don’t know. But I trust Ine to be aware of the issue, and think it through.
I feel enlightened by the discussions we have held, even though we have only been looking at the first dozen pages of the book. It is as if my unconscious assumptions are coming to light: as if the book’s resources are being mined. It feels deeper than any editing process I have ever undertaken, and much more revealing.
Let me return to my young self, struggling to learn French. At fifteen I decided that I would read Madame Bovary in French, just by myself. I did not get much further than one chapter; after that, I read with an English version at hand. If this was cheating, it was still productive; but I don’t remember much about that, I only remember my work on the early pages. It was a frustrating process but also brought me the deep reward that comes from struggling with something just beyond one’s competence: not so far beyond that one feels hopeless, but not a safe process, not a restful one. I remember that I was completely absorbed, and, as one says, ‘translated’ to another time and place. My struggles with the first chapter, my intense and deep striving, stays with me to this day, so that when I reread that part of the book, in English, it seems to me that it is hyper-real; as if the rest of the book is monochrome, but this chapter is in vivid colour. I will never be a linguist, but I am glad I made that effort, because it gave me, in a humble way, an insight into the process of translation. I understood that what I was trying to solve was a multi-dimensional puzzle, and I understood that the key did not lie within the French-English dictionary; it lay within the heart of Emma Bovary. I think most authors, if asked, would say, ‘Be faithful to the spirit of my book, not its letter.’ Conjuring that spirit is an exercise in magic, a magic more potent because most of its operations are hidden.
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