How do you translate a thriller written in a language you can’t speak?
That was the challenge I faced when I undertook to translate prize-winning Belgian author Patrick Conrad’s novel Starr (now published in English as No Sale).
Patrick has written a dozen thrillers and “romans noirs”, published several volumes of poetry, directed several movies (including Mascara, starring Charlotte Rampling and Michael Sarrazin and shown at Cannes) and is also an accomplished painter. Starr had won the Diamond Bullet award for the best crime novel published in the Dutch language. But Patrick, who lives in the South of France near where we have a holiday home, could not find an English-language publisher for it. It was Catch-22: no publisher would consider it unless they could see it in English, and no professional translator would touch it until there was a firm publishing deal (or they were paid up front).
Starr is a book about a man’s obsession with old movies – clearly a subject close to Patrick’s heart. When I looked at the novel I realized I could more or less understand it, even though I don’t speak Flemish (the Belgian variant of Dutch).
The reason is that I do speak German, and English, Dutch and German are all related. Dutch is somewhere in the middle, and resembles German in grammar, word order and vocabulary.
So in the first line of Starr I realized that Dutch “onschuldig” was the same as German “unschuldig” meaning “innocent”. In the second line “spreekt” is like German “spricht” and English “speaks”.
I had three advantages. At university I had studied comparative philology, the science of how languages are related to each other, so I knew what differences to look out for between Dutch and German. I’ve learned several other languages too, so I’m generally aware of how foreign, especially European languages, work. And after university I did a professional course in translation, from which I learned that a command of your own language is as important as knowledge of the language you are translating from. In fact in written translation, unlike spoken interpretation, you only translate into your native language, never into a foreign one. In a way, you’re not rendering the text from one language into another, but starting afresh, asking yourself: if the author was writing this in English, how would he have done it? What would this character be saying if he was speaking in English.
The point about Dutch and German is not as outlandish as it seems. Some people would argue that Dutch stands at one end of a continuum of dialects that runs through Germany and Austria to the mountain dialects of Switzerland. Dutch doesn’t look like German on the printed page, because as the national language of the Netherlands and Flanders (the Flemish part of Belgium), its spelling has been standardized by the authorities to reflect the local pronunciation. If you think about it, our English word “Dutch” is related to the German word “deutsch”, meaning… “German”.
I had to quickly pick up a passive knowledge of the basics of Dutch grammar and vocabulary, but that was easy enough with the help of a good textbook. I wasn’t aiming to speak Dutch fluently, just make sense of what I read. The differences between Dutch and Flemish (roughly comparable to those between British and American English) were not an obstacle, as they are more noticeable in the spoken language than in writing. I didn’t need to buy a Dutch-English dictionary as there are several good free dictionaries on the Internet.
It’s not quite as simple as I’m making out. Think of the way English sometimes changes the spelling of words. For instance if you were translating from English and looked up the word “calves” in an English-Dutch dictionary you might not find it; you would have to know it was the plural of “calf” and the final consonant changed in the plural. Dutch does this much more than English. Final consonants change or are doubled with endings, while the double vowels expressing a long sound are often written singly when endings are added. Dutch, like English and German, has strong verbs that change their vowel to indicate tense – “begin, began, begun” in English, “beginnen, begon, begonnen” in Dutch. Understanding these rules was crucial to working with a dictionary, which often only shows the basic forms of the noun or verb, not the ones with changed vowels or consonants.
Of course, if I had looked up every word in the dictionary I would still be at it, so I had to be confident enough to guess words on the basis of German, if I hadn’t learned them in my textbook, or come across them earlier in the translation. But here was another trap for the unwary translator, so-called “false friends”. The French word “déception” doesn’t mean “deception” but “disappointment”. German “Fleisch” doesn’t mean “flesh” but “meat”. I had to be on guard against words that looked like a familiar German one, but were slightly different. So for example the Dutch word “zat” looks as if it might be the same as German “satt”, meaning “full” (after eating), but in fact means “blind drunk”.
A dictionary and textbook will only get you so far. To make sense of a foreign language, you have to understand a host of cultural references that only long study will bring you. Normally when you study a foreign language you spend time in the country, and absorb these things. Think how many expressions in everyday spoken English come from the Bible or Shakespeare e.g. “labour of love”, “thorn in the flesh” “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, “sign of the times”, “a foregone conclusion”, and many more. A good translation should pick up on them.
Here again, the Internet is an incredible resource. My cultural references were quite mundane. For instance, how would I translate Belgian police ranks. I had decided at the outset that I was going to use British not American English, because as a Londoner I was completely at ease with British English, whereas attempts to get colloquial in American might not have worked. (Even though the main cop in the novel sees himself as a Belgian Dirty Harry.) Amazingly, I found a website that gave the British equivalents of Belgian police ranks. So “hoofdcommissaris Fons Luyckx” became “Chief Superintendent Fons Luyckx”.
The book, like most of Patrick’s novels, takes place in Antwerp. You could almost say that the city is one of the characters. It was easy to get a sense of place by browsing on the Internet to read about Antwerp’s history, recent news and tourist attractions, even though I’ve never been there. Much of the action takes place in an (at the time) run-down sleazy harbour district called “Het Eilandje” – literally “Little Island”. I decided to call that “Docklands” – the name of a similar district in London, which like Het Eilandje has been the site of a big urban regeneration project. Other Antwerp place names, like “Groenplaats” (literally “Green Square”) I kept in the original to preserve the exotic flavour that is important in translations of foreign thrillers.
I was even able to reflect Patrick’s style by trying to imitate the rhythm of his sentences. This could be quite difficult, because Dutch word order is not the same as English. But a text comes across through its sounds as well as the meaning of the words, so I thought this was important. (A recent article in the New York Review of Books http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyblog/2013/feb/04/listening-for-jabberwock-translation/ argues that most translations don’t pick up on this aspect.)
All these techniques would not have been enough on their own, but I had the luxury of working closely with the author. I would send him each chapter to check as I completed it, and he could help with any slang terms, Antwerp dialect or puns that I was having difficulty with. At the end, we sat down together over a weekend and went through it as a whole, again and again, polishing the translation. We even made some changes to the original, adding a prologue and working on some lines of poetry at the end of the book. Although Patrick’s written English is not up to doing his own translation, he speaks fluent English, so he could check whether the translation was accurate and got across what he was aiming for.
The English publishers, Bitter Lemon Press, then had it checked by their own copy-editor, and chose a new title No Sale – a reference to the 1960 movie Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor that is one of several to feature in the book.
To use one of those Biblical expressions, this was a labour of love, as the publisher was unable to pay for the translation, and I am just on a share of royalties (so if you haven’t read No Sale buy your copy now). Normally, a translation of this kind would be subsidized by a Belgian government agency called the Flemish Literature Fund, which promotes Belgian books abroad. They circulated the text to their usual English translators to certify its quality. These people found it wanting, however, even though the author and publisher were happy with it, and they criticized not only the translation from Dutch, but the use of English, despite the fact that I had worked as a journalist for Reuters for 30 years. So the fund did not pay up. I’m sure the prospect of an outsider disrupting the cosy cartel of Belgian literary translators had nothing to do with it.
No Sale has sold quite well in the US and UK on Amazon and through other channels. But Bitter Lemon Press is a small firm and sadly can’t take on any other of Patrick’s books. So if you know of any other publishers looking for gripping, humorous and well-written thrillers set in Antwerp, let us know!
Jonathan Lynn is a former Reuters correspondent and editor and studied translation at university. Patrick Conrad’s No Sale is the first novel Lynn has translated. He lives in Geneva.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)