Late in the process of translating a novel, in trying to work out the best way of expressing in English a metaphorical turn of phrase by the narrator, I asked the author earnestly:
Regarding the sandpapery hands, are the mosquito and hornet the tender souls in this image?
And the author responded:
nobody but us would ever make any sense of this question 😂😂😂😂😂
That exchange, and the contrast, make me think about how I’ve been handling the novel itself throughout the translation process. Manhandling its tender soul. From the first moment of picking up the closed box of the novel (unexpectedly heavy for its size) and shaking it — first gently, then more vigorously — to get a sense of how many parts it has, how tightly or loosely connected they are, what they’re made of.
Then opening the box, thrusting a hand in, rummaging around, taking hold of characters and situations one by one. Feeling them up, squeezing (gently!), grasping, getting a grip.
I began the first draft in November, then had to put it aside for other obligations, and I described the unease of stopping part way as a feeling that the characters were stuck in a loop, repeating the last action or expressing the last thought I translated them performing or uttering. Or that characters who’d been introduced but not been seen for a while were chilling out in a waiting room in some corner of my skull, listing through back issues of magazines, or biding their time backstage in a greenroom sipping coffee, trying not to touch their face (not to mess up their pancake make-up, sheesh, COVID-19 wasn’t even a blip on our radar back then), twirling their hair, fidgeting, waiting. “Is my cue ever coming?”
And then what about my tender soul being slapped around by the harsh realities of the novel? (And tickled by the pleasant ones, of course, but I’m cherry-picking for the sake of the metaphor.) I think of my work not as translating words but as depicting in English the images I see and the sensations I feel when reading the original. So there I am wandering around in the imagined spaces of the novel, straining to hear a conversation in a dizzying nightclub, jostling my way through a crowded outdoor market, cautiously opening doors in an abandoned apartment, ducking when the crystal starts flying. Studying the faces of the characters — are they sincere, are they joking, what are they hiding? We translators can be bruised by the things we see and feel in the work we translate, especially those of us who have never known deprivation or seen war first hand.
Just as readers can. If we’ve done our jobs well.
Catherine the Great and the Small
translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać
from Katarina, Velika i Mala by Olja Knežević (VBZ, Zagreb).
Coming soon from Istros Books, London.
Read an excerpt of the original.