Chinese whispers

As someone who’s made a (poor) living from academic translation in the past – I now make a poor living from editing my own dear language into UN-speak – I’m deeply impressed by good literary translators. I would never have read some of my favourite authors (Balzac, Bernhard, Perec, Saramago, Sebald, etc.) without them. I look at the Italian-to-English work of Tim Parks and William Weaver and a dozen others and marvel at how they manage to convey sense so effortlessly from one language to another. I do have some files of translations of poems by Pasolini and Sandro Penna tucked away, made in those heady youthful days when I felt it my duty to do such things, and I’ve translated a chunk of a wonderful novel by Renata Crea, a friend of mine, for the sheer pleasure of seeing it work in a second language (as it splendidly does), but I’d shy away from anything more, well, contractual. I think I’d get in the way.

Which is why it feels odd to discover that a short piece of mine, titled The Growing, is about to appear in a very smart-looking left-wing weekly in the Netherlands called Vrij Nederland (Free Netherlands). In Dutch. In the whole world of my acquaintance, I know two people who will be able to read it, so I may have to ask them to back-translate it for me in the hope that something amusing emerges. It usually does. Repeated back-translation can effectively send a text haywire, to the general hilarity of those involved. The story itself is creepy and part of a longer thing I’ve been working on for, effectively, years now. One day, who knows? it may appear in English too.

I remember being disappointed some years back when The Barcelona Review did a story called The Time it Takes because I was under the impression they translated everything they published into both Spanish and Catalan and I was dying to see what it read like in both. But my impression, alas, was wrong and the story remained as it was. And now it feels oddly incomplete.

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