Faking it well

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 8.35.20 PMA long time ago, I used to know an amateur German actress in Berlin who did dubbing jobs for film. She once said that, before a certain client would give her a job, he asked her whether the subject matter was ‘too close to home’. If so, she was told, she shouldn’t take it on: emotional breakdowns cost expensive studio time.

I asked a friend of mine who does commercial voice-overs whether this anecdote rings true, and he said: ‘I should imagine, if anything, that having gone through a certain experience would help an actor. He could work it into the job somehow.’

There it is in a nutshell: a professional actor knows how to use emotional experiences in his work. For an amateur, it could lead to an emotional problem.

I have recently started thinking about the job I do and what kind of effect it has on my psyche. It started when I experienced what it was like to translate a text that was not ‘too close to home’, but too harrowing for me to sleep properly at night. Most translators from the German have had disturbing texts land on their desks in the course of time, given the nature of the past ninety years of German history and the English-speaking world’s undying fascination with it. But while many translators might take this in their stride, I began floundering with this text. It was about Auschwitz: perhaps because it was written in the present tense, perhaps because of the details of parts of the text, I found myself procrastinating for hours before I could sit down and start work. I talked about this to a translator friend, who advised me to spend 10 minutes a day before I started work, just to jot down the feelings that this text was producing. Just for my own sanity.

In the end, fate intervened and I stopped translating Auschwitz stories, but I started thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do this exercise anyway, given that novels and short stories rarely contain easy subject matter – at least not the kind I like. And given that I am back to my ongoing project of translating Brigitte Reimann’s first volume of diaries, which is nothing short of an emotional roller coaster.

I started reading the diaries back in 2011 on holiday in France. No one had warned me: I was supposed to relaxing away from work, but I was avidly reading Reimann’s accounts of her adulterous affairs, bouts of alcoholism, marital scenes, and chain smoking. I don’t remember when drinking vodka shots in the late afternoon suddenly seemed like a great idea. I also started smoking in earnest. It was as if Reimann’s had got under my skin. What I’m trying to say is: it’s probably worth paying attention to what jobs you take on. They can have a profound effect on your life.

A few years ago at the LCB, I listened to Christian Hansen’s talk on how a translator has to get onto character when he starts work, and check periodically that he is still in character until the job is done. And Christian Hansen’s blog on translating Bolaño quotes Musil’s A Man Without Qualities: “Wann verstehst du einen Menschen? Du mußt ihn mitmachen. Mit-machen! Das ist das große Geheimnis, Ulrich! Du mußt sein wie er: aber nicht du in ihn hinein, sondern er in dich hinaus!”

The art, according to Hansen (and Musil’s character echoes this) is not to enter the character – as a translator, let’s say – but to let him enter you. On reflection, wouldn’t translators certainly benefit from some kind of training in acting? I’m not sure exactly how to let a character enter me as opposed to me entering him, but I would like to learn: how to develop speech patterns, vocabulary, and syntax different to my own. The biggest hurdle, and one that I often read about, such as in this recent interview with the Arabic translator Humphrey Davies, is that translators are often hemmed in by their own style:

‘The idea of a translator developing his own style is antithetical to the whole idea of translation. The translator is supposed to be listening for the voice that is in the text, which is not, by definition, his voice or her voice.’

And as actors choose roles they feel drawn or suited to, so a translator should be honest about which kind of texts s/he feels capable of working on: if, as Davies describes, you are not interested in translating a book after reading 20 pages, it’s probably advisable to ‘toss it’. This is not arrogance; nor is it a comment on the financial reality of literary translators who are unlikely to be asked again once they have turned down a book, if they are asked in the first place. It is simply extending the metaphor I’ve been using throughout. Can you stand on stage, day after day, and be a character you are not interested in? How are you going to hide this from the reader, or convince a publisher that your lifeblood is in it?

What does it do in the long term to a translator’s psyche to translate texts that are not just difficult, but even abhorrent? Texts featuring morally repugnant characters, subject matter that is vivid and disturbing? Without any kind of skills to protect you, a translator might end up being host to a voice that has outstayed its welcome.

For anyone interested in more secondary reading on the art of literary translation, here’s a reading list from Chad Post’s Three Per Cent website.

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