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From the Translators: On “Regeneration”

By Jethro Soutar

In “Regeneration,” it’s said that Juan, the chief protagonist, “feared the loneliness of his apartment more than he did the tedium of the bar.” Like most writers, we translators revel in the loneliness of our apartments: we choose to work alone, in a darkened room, with no one to talk to or interact with. We like to develop our ideas in the comfort of our solitude, where our hopeless first attempts go unseen and our naïve blunders go unshared. We like to present our efforts to the rest of the world only when they’re fully formed and carefully articulated. The collaborative process fills us with horror. The concept of co-translation is an abomination.

Except that I rather like it. Two minds are better than one when it comes to finding solutions, and four eyes are sharper than two when it comes to checking for phrases that “sound translated.” Four hands are also faster than two. A co-translation often comes about due to necessity: one translator is pressed for time and calls in someone else to help with the legwork.

But beyond the practical benefits (and the chance to claim credit for all the neat turns of phrase while disowning anything awkward), working as a team can be liberating. You can be more experimental in a co-translation, safe in the knowledge that your colleague will act as a buffer if you go too far; you can try an idea out on your co-translator that you might not dare present as a final choice to an editor.

Of course, this only works if the two translators respect one another. Ruth Clarke and I have done several translations together now, so we’re comfortable making suggestions and calling one another to account. I’m a few years older than Ruth, and a little more experienced as a translator, but I don’t like for there to be a “senior” figure. Obviously somebody has to take responsibility at some point (you can’t argue about whether it should be “starts” or “begins” forever), but it should be a matter of common sense and compromise rather than deferral. Ruth and I are from the same city (Sheffield), and I think that helps. I wonder whether it gives us a “common ear.” It certainly gives us comradeship, confidence, and grounding (Sheffield doesn’t suffer fools gladly).

The co-translation process changes from assignment to assignment, depending on the task at hand and other commitments. On “Regeneration,” we went page by page: I’d make tracked changes and comments on the page Ruth had just done, while presenting her with a first-draft translation of the next page. We then tidied up our own pages and pieced them all together, reading through the whole thing several times to make sure the narrative voice was consistent throughout.

The back-and-forth of ideas can be an illuminating process. Changes are accepted and rejected, comments are replied to and acted upon, and a dialogue is established as the co-translators fight their corners and wonder “why didn’t I think of that?” Here’s a typical exchange:

Draft One:

“A memorable dinner,” Jovino said. “You can’t imagine the things we ate: clam chowder, lamb skewers, turkey in chocolate sauce . . . asparagus quiche,” Armando continued, “and cake with yellow grapes and mandarin cream.” Then he looked at his watch. “Oh!” he said, and quickly put on his jacket.          

Comment: an unforgettable dinner?
Reply: I like memorable--slightly more pretentious . . .
Reply: feast?
Reply: yes, so maybe unforgettable is better

Comment: I think we should try to keep the punctuation as it was in the original, that's to say absent

Comment: I'm presuming it's a mandarin orange, which we do say, but I wonder if it will confuse the Chinese obsession later . . .
Reply: Are yellow grapes green grapes?
Reply: No, white are green but yellow are yellow.

Comment: mole? though it's a Mexican word. Or “in a cocoa sauce”?
Reply: You do see “venison in chocolate sauce” on menus and that's not mole.
Reply: Where’ve you been dining out? Has The Grindstone gone gastro?
Reply: It's my brother's favourite! Anyway, as we don't have the recipe, stick to the original.

Final draft:

It was an unforgettable feast, Jovino said. You can only imagine the things we ate: clam chowder, lamb skewers, turkey in chocolate sauce . . . Asparagus quiche, Armando joined in, cake with yellow grapes and orange cream. Then he looked at his watch. Oh! he said, and quickly put his jacket on.

The above dialogue merely mirrors the internal dialogue translators have with themselves, of course. Indeed you often find the queries your co-translator raises concern the same things you were unsatisfied with yourself, or that their suggestions are the same options you considered. Which can be reassuring. Perhaps co-translation is ultimately a chance for word geeks to communicate with fellow obsessives. A chance to leave the loneliness of our apartments and take our tedium out for a drink at the bar.

Published Apr 1, 2014   Copyright 2014 Jethro Soutar

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