It is always a great thrill to hear that your book has been sold into a foreign language. It is something of a mystery, too, because the countries you think might be interested in your work are not necessarily the ones who wish to publish it. So you get the wonderful news from your agent and a few months later the contracts arrive, but the baffling thing is that once you sign them, the line generally goes dead. You may or may not be sent a copy of your novel in translation the following year. You almost certainly won’t be forwarded reviews. Sometimes you wonder if they ever even published the book.
My experiences of being translated are akin to throwing a penny into the well and never hearing a splash. Which is a worry. So much care has gone into divining the right word, and I often have recourse to words that mean nothing outside of Ireland. Indeed, some of the words mean nothing outside of Dublin, and the scuzzier parts at that. Gee, for example. What did the translator in Tel Aviv make of the word gee? How about the one in Budapest? Did they confuse my gee with an American one? I want to tell the translators that the Americans mean gee as in gosh but Dubliners mean it as an offensive term that refers to a vagina. But it’s not as bad as cunt, I would hasten to add. A Dublin gee has a ribald ring to it, whereas cunt is just plain nasty. A Dublin gee is, however, worse than a twat, which is a type of British gee. And then there’s gee-bag, another term of abuse of which certain of my characters are fond, although I’m not entirely sure how to spell it. Does it have a hyphen? Geebag looks wrong. So does gee-bag. But gee-bag looks less wrong. And what does gee-bag mean? How would one translate that? Vagina-bag? Or a bag of vaginas? But no translator has ever asked. A poet who was cross with me called me a cratur once, and every Irish speaker I’ve run it past has a slightly different understanding of the term, so I can never quite be sure of the depth of the insult intended. This is the problem with local argot. Only a
local can understand it. It bothers me that, of the contracts I have signed with foreign language publishers, only one translator has ever come back to me with queries, but she had found errors in the text, so it wasn’t a translation issue, as such, but, rather, copy-editing. It did, however, prove that she had read the novel closely and I took solace from that.
I had a brief discussion with my French editor a few months back regarding the translation of the wordplay upon which a major plot twist hinges in my most recent novel, The Devil I Know. ‘We don’t know how we’ll translate that yet,’ was the answer. I am hopeful that a solution can be found but I couldn’t claim to be holding my breath. There’s wordplay in my second novel, Tenderwire, too (the title, another wordplay, had to be ditched for the Dutch edition—it became De Violiste, The Violinist; and it has just this minute occurred to me that I have no idea what Tenderwire is called in other languages) concerning the name of one of the characters who turns out to be a bad guy, and when the narrator sees his name printed in block capitals on a note he has left her, the letters rearrange themselves on the page to reveal his nasty nature. The British and North American editions read:
Which translated into Dutch becomes:
Doesn’t quite work, does it? The Hungarian translation is slightly closer to the original anagram:
But it still isn’t right and it never can be. As for the Hebrew edition? I can’t even find that bit on the page.
I was at a conference of translators a few years back at which several Irish writers were invited to read their work to give a flavour of how it should sound. A copy of Ulysses was on display that someone had spent almost as long translating as Joyce had spent writing it, and which reminded me of the old Joycean gag which I’ll repeat here as it compounds the kind of difficulties I’m skirting around:
Writer No. 1: Did you hear Finnegans Wake is being translated into Chinese?
Writer No. 2: From what?
One of the translators at this event, who was named after a god of antiquity, told Sebastian Barry during the Q&A session that his novel, A Long Long Way, was too, well, Long Long, and that it would get even Long Longer in translation, so would Sebastian mind if the translator trimmed it a little? Sebastian was adamant that he would mind. The fact that a translator would see fit to ask such a question sends a chill down a writer’s spine. What are they doing with our texts? Unless we’re proficient in that language, we’ll never know.
Readings in foreign countries generally involve the writer reading a paragraph or two in English and then the translator taking over. To make it easier on the audience, I generally gravitate towards reading the bits that always get a laugh, but the bits that always get a laugh in English don’t always get a laugh in translation. Why is that? Either the sense of humour is different in non-English speaking nations, or the translation has lost something. This can work in your favour. I know one author who has told me that they get much better reviews for the Italian editions of their work than they do for the English.
I was recently part of a reading tour in Germany consisting of three Irish writers and one translator. It was the usual format of the writer reading a bit in English followed by the translator taking over and reading the piece in German. After the first event, the translator—who had not translated my work, but was instead reading the German of another translator—asked me for my manuscript because the translation was, he said, wrong. Before the next event, he reappeared with loads of questions and the original German translation covered in scribbled notes. Of our discussion, all I can recall is the debate around the line: The men were padding around the boardroom. ‘Were they walking around in bare feet like animals?’ the translator asked me. ‘No,’ I said, ‘they’re padding. You know, like padding. Like, I don’t know… padding?’ Padding was the word I had needed and I couldn’t think of another. ‘Well,’ said the translator, ‘it says here The men were walking around in bare feet like animals.’ Which detonated a whole series of questions like: why on earth would men be barefoot in a boardroom? And isn’t there a German word for padding? Why are they inserting a simile when I haven’t used one? What else is wrong? Perhaps there is no German equivalent of the verb padding, but is mangling the sentence the only answer? Possibly. Having said that, the piece was just for the purposes of this reading tour, not for publication, so the usual degree of care may not have been applied.
I spend three years on each of my books, interrogating every last word to make sure it is the right word, inasmuch as there can ever be a right word seeing as language itself is in flux. A writer is essentially trying to pin down a mirage, because as soon as you attempt to set your ideas and characters onto the page, the maddening fact is that they mostly evaporate. The introduction of a foreign language frustrates that process further still.
And yet there is a bond of trust between a translator and a writer. Everyone who devotes their lives to literary fiction—the editors, the copy editors, the translators and the writers themselves—is doing it out of a love of language. All of us have learned the hard lesson that although we may be better educated than many of our peers, and work as hard if not harder than them, we are unlikely to ever earn as much and will never enjoy security. We do it because we have a shared vocation, a conviction that Man’s greatest invention is the sentence. As I write this, The Devil I Know is being translated into Hungarian and French. I am delighted that this is the case. To the translators involved, I say to you that my door is open. Ask me some questions. I will do all that I can to address your queries because, like most writers, and like yourselves, I want the best for my text. I want to get it right. I want you to get it right. So please get in touch. Say hello. Don’t leave me standing here by the well with my ear cocked listening for the splash of the penny and hearing just the whistle of a metal disc falling through the cold, clammy shaft.