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Thursday 14 November 2013

Meet Maia Blog Tour: Translator David Colmer

Photograph by Ronald Hoeben
KBR is delighted to welcome award-winning translator David Colmer as part of the Meet Maia Blog Tour. Australian-born, David now lives in Amsterdam and is one of the world's leading translators of Dutch literature to English. He recently translated the children's picture book Maia and What Matters.

1. How did you come to be a translator?
I grew up in a monolingual family and environment, but I read a lot and quite a few of the books I read were translations, and I remember seeing that as something mysterious and wonderful. Being able to read a book in one language and rewrite it in another struck me as very cool, even if I only had the flimsiest grasp of what a skill like that might involve.

As a young adult I was interested in writing and also travelled a lot, so when I picked up a smattering of a couple of languages, it was natural for me to try to experiment with translation, producing a naive version of a French chanson for instance, in collaboration with a French friend I met at a backpackers’ hostel in Taiwan.

Later still I learnt German and Dutch to a reasonable level and moved to the Netherlands where, shocked by my sudden ability to open my mouth and have something other than English come out of it, I realised that I could put my childish fantasy into practice and make a living out of it at the same time, which was good, because I really wasn’t getting anywhere as a casual labourer.

That was just over twenty years ago and since then I’ve translated millions of words, gradually increasing the literary component of my output until now, when I’m in the luxurious position of being able to more or less choose which authors and books I translate.

2. You've won numerous awards for your translation work. What do you think are the key qualities that a good translator needs?
If I can narrow this to the qualities a good literary translator needs: first and foremost, a passion for literature and excellent writing skills in your native language, which you must translate into. Then you have to have a deep understanding of the language you’re translating from, so that you know just what you’re trying to reproduce. And of course languages and cultures are such complex things that even after decades of intensive involvement they still surprise you and you still make mistakes, so that’s an ongoing process that never ends.

Once you’ve satisfied these prerequisites and start on an actual translation, you need to be patient, perfectionistic and slightly obsessive. You can’t afford to clock-watch. And while obsessing about the details, you have to maintain sight of the whole and how it works as a piece of literature in English, because that is the touchstone, the criterion that must always be satisfied.

3. Your body of work covers everything from poetry to serious works of literature and also children's books. Do you have a favourite genre and do you find you approach the process differently depending on the genre?
I like the variation, so generally my favourite genre is the one I haven’t translated for the longest. At the moment, that would be plays, I suppose, but the jobs I’ve got lined up next are novels.

My approach is always more or less the same. I start at the beginning and work through to the end, one draft at a time. The genre then affects the way the process evolves. With poetry, for instance, you can fly through a first draft and get a whole book done in a week or two. But you know that you are going to have to go through it again and again, maybe dozens of times, and think about some problems for hours or days, maybe coming up with the solution when you’re lying in bed in the middle of the night or pushing a trolley down an aisle in a supermarket. Nonfiction books or novels, on the other hand, take much longer per draft and are much more likely to present problems of specific settings or environments that require library visits, internet research and background reading in an attempt to master the terminology or the tone.

4. In children's books, and poetry, where there are often very few words and each one counts, you can also have added complications such as rhyme and rhythm. How do you go about accommodating this in your translation?
I try to put everything into the translation, but as I said before, the touchstone is that it has to work in English. Unfortunately it’s generally only possible to translate a rhyming, metrical poem as a rhyming, metrical poem with all of the content intact by doing violence to the English language or resorting to tired nineteenth-century poetic clich├ęs like inversion of the grammatical structure or adding all kinds of pointless words to pad your lines. Producing doggerel in other words, and that can’t be the goal of literary translation. 

If you want your translated poems to be fresh and exciting in English, something has to give from a translation point of view, and it’s up to the translator to decide which facet of the original is least important in each case. Generally with ‘serious’ poetry for adults, the content and meaning are sacrosanct and rhyme is the area where you have the most leeway, but with light verse or children’s poetry, where so much of the fun comes from the strict rhythm and regular, full rhyme, you’re often better off taking liberties with the content. Not with the essence of the poem, but with the details. Often it really doesn’t matter if the animal they see at the zoo is a crocodile or an elephant. And it’s usually the case that the original poet was clearly guided by the sound of the words, so if you let yourself be guided by your ear as well, you’re actually translating in the spirit of the original.

Illustrations can be a complication here, of course, and that’s something you need to pay careful attention to as well. My most important children’s poetry translation so far has been a collection of the work of the undisputed queen of Dutch children’s literature, the fabulous Annie M.G. Schmidt, and in that case I was fortunate that it was a new edition appearing simultaneously in English and Dutch, with new illustrations that were designed to fit both original and translation.

5. You're also an author. Do you find it difficult returning to write in your own 'voice' when you spend so much of your time channelling other writers' styles as you translate their work?
It’s hard to say. I suspect not, but I haven’t written any fiction for a few years now, so I don’t know if this is going to be a problem. In fact I’m just about to embark on a short writing break, so this is something I’m likely to find out sooner rather than later. I think a far greater problem is the confrontation with the blank page, something that a translator never has to contend with, and the reason I don’t see translators as 'writers' in their own right. 'Voice' and 'style' are a translator’s specialities and translation hones these skills in ways that should, if anything, be beneficial when writing.

6. To what extent, if at all, do you tend to consult or liaise with the authors of the works you translate?
Dutch and Flemish writers generally have very good English, and with living authors I usually write to them with questions I can’t resolve myself: things like specific local knowledge, ambiguities in the text or dialect words that the native speakers I know don’t understand either. I also raise the issue of any mistakes that slipped past the original editor and how best to resolve them in the translation. With a typical novel these things might come to a total of ten to twenty questions. After I’ve incorporated the answers into the translation and produced a final draft, I offer it to the author to read so they can make suggestions or ask any questions they might have. Some authors like to meet for a couple of hours to discuss the translation, others just glance at it and say, 'Great.'

Poets in general want to look at the translations more closely and I often have long discussions with them. I’m happy to do that and as long as I maintain artistic control it can only improve the quality of the translation. I explain why I have taken certain liberties and the poets explain which aspects are most important to them and most crucial to reproduce. The danger is that poet might want to see more direct parallels between their original and the translation, something that usually results in stilted, literal translation, which in turn is something that makes a native speaker cringe but sounds fine to a non-native. As a translator you need to be patient, stick to your guns and explain things carefully, realising that translation can be a traumatic experience for a poet or author and that even the silliest comment or most cack-eared suggestion can indicate an underlying weakness in the translation.

7. What particularly appealed to you about the story of Maia and What Matters?
Maia and What Matters is moving and funny and deals with important issues like aging and illness in a way that manages to be both childlike and heartening, accepting yet empowering. I’d already been in discussion with Book Island about some other projects and I was very taken by their daring and ambitious approach to publishing and translation, and the way they link the Dutch-speaking world with New Zealand and Australia, so that was another reason for me to jump at the chance to work with them on this book. It’s actually the first picture book I’ve done that’s made it through to publication, but it’s definitely a genre I appreciate and it’s a privilege to be a part of making something so beautiful.

It’s impossible to separate the story from Kaatje Vermeire’s gorgeous illustrations, which are crucial to the book’s impact and depth, but if I look at the writing from a more technical point of view the most striking element — which was immediately the most difficult thing to render in translation — is Tine Mortier’s control over the pacing, the way she alternates between poetic description and colloquial interjections to build up a sense of character and scene. That’s very well done and a fine balance; surprising and original without being confusing or cluttered. I love the way she manages to convey it all so powerfully without having to spell things out. 

Maia and What Matters is available now; Book Island; ISBN 9780987669667; $28.00 RRP. 
Visit the Book Island website and Facebook page for more information.

You can find out more about Maia and What Matters by visiting the following websites participating in the Meet Maia Blog Tour:

Monday 11th November
Beattie’s Book Blog (NZ)
Launch of the Blog Tour

Booksellers New Zealand
Guest blog by Emily Duizend from Story Island about the Story Bridge project

The Caker’s Blog (NZ)
Launch of the Baking and Writing Competition (restricted to New Zealand)

My Book Corner (AU/UK)
Book review and giveaway

Tuesday 12th November
Playing By The Book (UK)
Interview with the illustrator, Kaatje Vermeire, and giveaway

Stephanie Owen Reeder (AU)
Book review

Wednesday 13th November
Wellington Kids’ Blog (NZ)
Interview with the author, Tine Mortier

Munch Cooking (NZ)
Book review and giveaway

My Little Bookcase (AU)
Book review and giveaway

Thursday 14th November
Bee's Bookish Blog (NZ)
Feature: The Missing - books for difficult times

Kids' Book Review (AU) (that's us!)
Interview with the translator, David Colmer, and giveaway

Friday 15th November
Around the Bookshops (NZ)
Book review

Book review and giveaway

Buzz Words (AU)
Interview with the publisher, Greet Pauwelijn, and giveaway