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Textual Satisfaction

The addictive rewards of literary translation

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Few people are lucky enough to have a job so enjoyable that it’s addictive, but I can genuinely say that I do. I am a literary translator, making ‘French books digivolve into English books’ as my then seven-year-old eldest explained to her friends during the Digimon craze. The work is so rewarding that I feel physically different when I’ve spent a day at my desk and, despite the sustained effort of concentration, I emerge energised. I recently started translating a whole book again after several months of other commitments, and the rewards have been taken to a whole new level: the text is constantly on my mind, nagging at me with delicious but infuriating insistence. I crave its company with a giddiness akin to missing a lover.

A fellow translator, Shaun Whiteside, gave this tongue-in-cheek admission of his own habit in a talk about his work:

‘Hi. My name’s Shaun, and I’m a translator […] I started translating quite casually, recreationally at first, the odd short story at parties, the odd essay […] Before I knew it, though, I was translating quite seriously, mainlining fiction, nonfiction, classics, until I found that translation had completely taken over my life.’

What is it about literary translation that makes it so addictive?

Having compared my work to a lover and an addiction, I will now make a more prosaic comparison — gardening. The only other time that an experience completely unrelated to sex and romantic love elicited that sense of longing in me was many years ago when I came into possession of a beautiful but very neglected walled garden. The physical work of revealing the long-obscured layout of box hedging was extraordinarily absorbing and rewarding. I always left reluctantly, feeling lighter, my tired limbs singing, and all I could think of was when I would next be reunited with the dark flesh of that soil.

In The Book of Delights (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020) Ross Gay describes time spent in his garden as ‘an exercise in supreme attentiveness’, and the late Derek Jarman, in his diary-cum-memoir Modern Nature (Overlook Press,1994) says, ‘The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home.’ These two quotes highlight the paradox of mindfulness, in which intense focus and in-the-moment awareness produce a sort of weightlessness and loss of self. As with the physical endeavour of gardening, the cerebral gymnastics of translation mean that the translator cannot fail to work mindfully — it is in fact the translator who gets lost in translation.

I find that this exhilarating loss of self happens regardless of how difficult my work is. When the source text is straightforward with unsophisticated vocabulary the process can achieve the fluidity of copy typing. This very fluidity can produce euphoria in one of two ways: I can either be blissfully lost in the momentum of it or, conversely, aware of and smugly thrilled by my own competence, like a surfer catching a good wave and thinking, ‘Get me, I can DO this!’

At the other end of the spectrum are truly intricate and demanding texts in which I must look up or check swathes of vocabulary, tease away at sentences to ensure I’ve truly understood them, do some online research to illuminate obscure references, decide which order would best suit the complex sequence of clauses in English, and have the courage to break up sentences altogether if that will better serve the English version. This multitasking with countless interconnected micro-decisions is quite a workout for the brain and – as with any workout – even if you don’t enjoy it at the time, you get a buzz afterwards.

One of my favourite examples of this sort of work is an excerpt from Joris-Karl Huysman’s 1884 novel À rebours (Against the Grain). In this passage the narrator describes Gustave Moreau’s painting Salomé Dancing Before Herod just as Salomé begins her

lubricious dance […] diamonds attached to her person glitter against the moist gleam of her skin; her bracelets, girdles and rings flash fiercely; her triumphal robe is stitched with pearls, leafed with silver and woven with gold, and forms an ardent pairing with the jeweled gold-work of her breastplate, whose every link is a precious stone, its fiery snakelets crisscrossing, teeming over her dusky flesh, her tea-rose skin, like gorgeous insects with resplendent elytra, shot through with carmine, flecked with sunrise yellow, emblazoned with steel blue and banded with peacock green.

This brief passage took me the best part of an afternoon to translate. It’s only one sentence but one so littered with clauses and images that it was a long time before I felt I had done it justice. And seven years later I still wonder whether I properly grasped or conveyed what the diamonds were doing: in the French the diamonds were qualified with the single adjective ‘attachés’ (attached) flanked by commas, and this could simply mean that they were attached to one another and could therefore have been described as ‘strings of diamonds’. But the French sentence was structured so that Salomé’s skin is mentioned first, followed by the ‘diamonds, attached’ so they could conceivably have been attached to her rather than to one another. I battled with poor resolution images of the painting online and plumped for this interpretation, but then needed to clarify what they were attached to, because in English the phrase works better with the description of her skin at the end. So, I needed – and wanted – to bring in some hint at her skin, her corporeality earlier in the sentence, hence my ‘attached to her person’. It’s taken me a whole paragraph to explain how I translated just one word; the heat of battle with gnarly problems like this can be thrilling.

Translating is also enormous fun. In translation workshops there’s always a lot of laughter as people jostle and juggle with the exact meanings of words, and there’s much joy to be found in recreating jokes, word games and dialogue in translation. Dialogue can be especially rewarding when you have that sense of having nailed a character’s voice. Fabrice Caro’s Le Discours (Gallimard, 2018) is the very droll inner monologue of the slightly pathetic first-person narrator, Adrien. At one point Adrien wants to listen obligingly to the sad story his mother is telling but is distracted by his phone vibrating in his pocket — surely the long-awaited reply from his beloved but cruel Sonia. His words in French translate literally as ‘It’s tragic, but you see, right now, Sonia’s just texted me’. When I translated an extract from the book the combination of ‘but you see’ and ‘right now’ felt clunky and, anyway, ‘right now’ is tautological with the ‘just’ of ‘has just texted me’. Then I had one of those mini eureka moments that happen again and again with translation — I thought of the current and slightly wheedling idiom ‘here’s the thing’. Now the sentence sounded natural and true to character: ‘It’s tragic, but here’s the thing, Sonia’s just texted me…’

And that mini eureka moment could well illuminate the source of my addiction. I believe that every word successfully translated comes with the same subtle dopamine hit as, say, solving a crossword clue. And every sentence is worth so much more than the sum of its words, because each micro-decision about word order, tone and redistribution of clauses also earns a reward. Translation is like a three-dimensional cryptic crossword because there are so many possible correct answers, but they’re all interconnected. What’s more, each ‘hit’ is paired with a frisson of adrenaline because, as I walk the tightropes through that three-dimensional grid, there’s a niggling fear that I could get something wrong and fall through the gaps (what were Salomé’s diamonds attached to?). Then, when the tussle is over – just like with a lover or a particularly recalcitrant elder root – there’s a dollop of endorphins to give me a buzz.

Mindfulness plays its part then but, as with so many addictions, this one boils down to chemistry: the translator reaps a chemical reward for having the courage to tackle the original text and do it justice; and for knowing when the translation is spot on, when, as W. B. Yeats said of poetry, it ‘comes right with a click like a closing box.’

Adriana Hunter spent four years at a French school as a child and wrote three works of nonfiction before ‘discovering’ the first book she was to translate. She has now translated nearly 100 books, mostly works of literary fiction, and has won or been shortlisted for numerous awards.

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