Translating Heart and Soul — John Hodgson

I have just read Southeaster, a novel by the Argentine writer Haroldo Conti. For the translator, Jon Lindsay Miles, working on the book was clearly a labour of love. He describes ‘the sense of enchantment we know when reading the best stories’ and writes out of this enchantment: the rhythms of his prose imitate the lap of water in the reed-beds of the Paraná delta. The book smells of boat bilge and unappetizing river fish grilled on open fires. The translator, after visiting the delta has taken the trouble to research fishing techniques and kinds of nets, and the inner workings of boat engines. With what pleasure, I imagine, he must have held this water-logged landscape before his mind’s eye as he recreated this book in English under the parching white glare of the Andalusian sun (for he lives, he tells us, in the province of Jaén).

Or take the case of E.A.Goodland, translator of the Brazilian modernist classic Macunaíma by Mário de Andrade, who came equipped for his task after many years exploration in the Amazonian rain forest, canoe trips down the Rio Negro, acquaintance with Amerindian communities, and a lot of experience of ticks, ants, and mosquitoes. These translators have identified heart and soul with their author. Rather like actors following Stanislavsky’s system, they have tried to feel what their authors felt.

This is what a translator is often supposed to do.

In 1684 Wentworth Dillon Roscommon, one of the first translation theorists in English, remembered now only in the shadiest of academic groves, advised a translator to ‘choose an author as you would chose a friend.’

United by this sympathetic bond,
You grow familiar, intimate and fond;
Your thoughts, your words, your styles, your souls agree,
No longer his interpreter, but he.

Is this perfect union always possible, or even advisable?

The first book I translated was Second Sentence by the Albanian writer Fatos Lubonja, who spent seventeen years in prison during the time of the communist dictator Enver Hoxha. In this ‘documentary novel’, Lubonja describes how, while already serving a seven-year sentence for ‘agitation and propaganda,’ he and a group of other inmates were re-arrested within their prison camp, and put on trial for conspiracy against the state. Two of the group were shot, and the remainder given additional sentences of sixteen to twenty-five years.

It is a wonderful book, grim in subject matter but teeming with life. It describes the survival strategies of the crowded camp inmates, their hopes and fantasies, and their disillusion and endurance. It is morally clear-sighted, principled and compassionate at the same time, and totally without pathos. The author avoids self-preoccupation by concentrating on the fate of his friends, the supposed ringleaders of this non-existent conspiracy. That these are ‘revisionist’ pro-Soviet communists in Hoxha’s idiosyncratic Marxist-Leninist state means that the book eludes any ideological pigeon-hole. In literary power, it is the equal of anything by Varlam Shalamov or Herta Müller.

Of course, I gave this book my all. At the time, I had never been inside a prison of any kind, let alone a forced labour camp in the mountains of Albania, and I relied entirely on Lubonja’s vivid descriptions to conjure up the cold, the hunger, and the brutal regime in the copper mine. However, as I pressed ahead with my work, the psychodynamics of this enclosed, all-male society became naggingly familiar. I had spent my adolescence in a British boarding school, which, as W.H. Auden discerned, was a miniature totalitarian society. The cast of characters from prison life were there too: the sneaks, the toadies, the tarts, the rebels, and the more or less brutal representatives of the authorities. The regime had been austere, bordering on the squalid — a kind of Gulag with semolina. Some of my feelings and memories of that time found a resonance in my response to Lubonja’s work.

Of course no trace of this personal echo is evident in the resulting English text. I mentioned to the author that my own experience had given me a kind of psychological entrance into his book, but he was understandably unimpressed by my comparison. If I had pressed my case further, he would have had every right to protest at the translator hi-jacking his book. Perhaps a translator who is ‘no longer his interpreter, but he’ is overstepping the mark.

My next schooling in the nature of a translator’s commitment was not literary. I became an interpreter at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Instead of fathoming the mind of a writer, I found myself interpreting face-to-face for people, many of whom had suffered the most appalling crimes, or indeed perpetrated them. Their interpreter was their ears and mouth, a discreet, anonymous, but still responsive presence. It was important to establish a relationship of trust, not only calmly supporting witnesses who were trying to relate the circumstances of their trauma, but also in the case of suspects. Here too, it was my job to reassure the interviewee that their words would be interpreted fairly and accurately, and that I was as much their own interpreter as their interrogator’s. In fact, these people, some of whom were later convicted of serious crimes against humanity, were generally quite affable. They did not come conveniently coloured by a lurid aura of malignity.

I spent some months as a simultaneous interpreter in court, and recall a disconcerting experience. The court proceedings were regularly relayed to television with a time lapse of thirty minutes. I was leaving the building after the end of the day’s session, and heard over the television monitor in the entrance hall a voice, describing in the first person the experience of an Albanian village woman being raped by a soldier. It was my own voice, gentle and concerned, like a vicar by a bedside. Like many simultaneous interpreters, I retain very little memory of what material had been travelling into my ears and out of my mouth. Also, I was not acting the witness, who was tearful and distraught, but conveying what she said.  My loyalty was to the accurate transmission of her utterance. It struck me there was a lesson here for the literary translator too.

Lately I have translated Ismail Kadare, a well-known writer whose books have appeared in over thirty languages. He is Albania’s leading cultural export. Kadare was famous even under the communist dictatorship, with whose censorship he had a complicated and devious relationship. During that time of vice-like ideological control, he succeeded in giving the Albanians something to read. Kadare is fond of pointing out that most literature in human history has been written under severe censorship — Shakespeare included. While Fatos Lubonja was in prison, Kadare survived through tactical agility, and it is not surprising that on the literary scene today there is no love lost between these two writers. I like to insist that a translator has to stand above such considerations.

Kadare’s work does include subtle criticism of the dictatorship, sometimes deeply encrypted, and sometimes hidden in plain sight. A simple example of the latter strategy is in a poem about the Albanian stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair:

Come and see what happens to a country
When a communist party in born.

— lines which underwent a startling reversal of meaning in 1990.

Freed from the pressure of censorship (which paradoxically was also an organising structure), Kadare has tackled previously taboo themes, especially metaphysics and sex. His excursions into the paranormal have baffled his public, and sometimes me. Occasionally, readers have asked the author for explanations, which he refuses to provide. I am reminded of poor E.M. Forster, who received persistent letters from A-level students asking him what really happened in the Marabar caves. If Kadare, quite reasonably, refuses to explain his books, neither must his translator, who is not a back door into an author’s mind. It is my job to convey Kadare’s enigmas, not solve them.

Communist Albania was a puritan place, and Ismail Kadare has  only recently written about sex, and in a way very different to any sex as it has been or might be to me. What is going on here, I have wondered, I have had to ask around, and have felt relieved that my mother is not here to read the book. I have found the words, and translated fairly. It is not my book, but the author’s. To translate, it is not necessary to become ‘intimate and fond’. Your loyalty is to the language and the text.

In recent years in Britain, there has been a movement to improve the status and visibility of translators. This is a good thing, for in the past we have been blamed for a lot of things, from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to the division of Christendom. Our leading translators have earned respect and a certain amount of fame. A reader, noticing that a book has been translated by Margaret Juli Costa, Anthea Bell, or Robert Chandler, will see these translators’ names as guarantees of quality. But readers will probably have little idea of how these translators have grappled imaginatively with their texts. The experience of the books they translate may be close to them, but it may also be far away, and they may enjoy the imaginative flights into alien regions that translation involves.

But remember too the anonymous interpreters with their headphones, many of whom have taken oaths to take their secrets to the grave, but who leave a small part of their soul behind them in their unobtrusively placed booths.


John Hodgson studied at Cambridge and Newcastle, where he wrote a PhD on John Cowper Powys. He taught in several Eastern European countries in the time of communism, and since then has worked as a translator and interpreter for the U.S. government and the UN.

Image: Old Posters on Old WallZachary Korb, Creative Commons.