I was recently listening to two episodes of ‘The Essay’ on Radio 3 , an excellent series, this week coming from that treasure trove that is the Hay Festival. The series is called “Why I write” and the two writers were Horatio Clare and Daniel Hahn. Both are brilliant writers and speakers, and Daniel is also a literary translator. It struck me that the reasons for writing and the reasons for translating are very closely related. Horatio Clare talks about the need as a writer to tell stories that otherwise would not be told, to allow the reader to ‘experience the same wonder …(or disgust)’ and this is much the same sentiment as the translators’ need, described by Daniel Hahn, to ‘proselytize’ , to want to share a marvellous book, but of course the translator has to rewrite it in a different language to make that happen. Crossing borders, bridges, giving a voice to those that would otherwise be unheard , writing and vitally, translation, does all these things , as Italo Calvino points out, the translator is his best ally. The challenge of giving a new voice to a work is part of the joy of translating. Hahn offers the analogy of the cheese sandwich; you have to recreate the taste and experience of a cheese sandwich but using totally different ingredients or words to that effect. It is those ‘words to that effect’ that matter so much. The translator is rewriting, recreating a new work in a different language but he or she has to make sure that that the experience of eating the newly created cheese sandwich inspires the same wonder (or disgust )as the original.
I have always been an avid reader of French literature. There have been certain books, certain authors that I yearned to translate , that proselytizing feeling again, because of their writing , the stories they tell; Romain Gary is one, although sadly copyright issues make that unlikely. Laurent Mauvignier is another. And so many more. My last attempt at a novel was ” La muette” by Chahdortt Djavann – http://wp.me/p6bd5b-8. This was another case of a book that had such an effect on me when I read it that, although I can’t say I wanted to share the wonder,I knew it was too important to ignore. Of course translating something and then finding someone who shares your enthusiasm is another story….I am still looking for that publisher. Perhaps I am using the wrong ingredients, perhaps editors don’t like cheese sandwiches any more, but there are so many brilliant stories out there waiting to cross the Channel, that is one of the reasons why I translate.