Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Kindly Ones

Bilingual writer Jonathan Littel (he has dual citizenship —American/French) wrote his novel Les Bienveillantes (2006) in French. Dutch literator Peter Steinz reports that Littell had no interest in producing the English version of his successful novel himself.

It's understandable that the author after five years of research followed by six months of actually writing is finished with the book, and has no interest in translating the text.

The chance that the original creator of a manuscript fashions another version of his own book for his readership in the other language is great. A translator however, is bound and bonded to produce a version in the other (second, third whatever how maniest) language that's true to the original text.

When a writer is not fluid in, or even familiar with the language into which his work is translated, he will have to trust the ability of the translator and accept what others say about the translation.
According to Steinz Les Bienveillantes was beautifully translated in Dutch (De Welwillenden) by Jeanne Holierhoek and Janneke van der Meulen (Arbeiderspers). Steinz by the way considers "The Kindly Ones" to be the "nickname" of, rather than a euphemism for, the nasty Furies (Aeschylus - Oresteia).

With all respect for translators (what a tremendously difficult job they have), I find it terribly difficult to enjoy reading novels in translation when I know the first language in which the work is written my self. I'm bothered by the constant critique of my inner editor who questions everything that's being said. That is, I constantly find myself translating sentences back into the original language, wondering, is this really what s/he wrote?

Personally I don't know how Littel manages to distance himself from the translation of his work into English, arguably either his first or second language (born in the US he received part of his education in France, and went to college at Yale).

It makes me think of Jan Willem van de Wetering, who once told me that he worked on both versions, Dutch and English simultaneously on two laptops. Working on two versions at the same time, is laborious and time consuming, yet in the end you have two manuscripts. And you'll rest assured that each says exactly what you had in mind.

There's something to say for letting go though. Especially since there's always the danger that if you translate your own work after the final version in one language is finished, that you wind up with a truly different book.
Question is, would that be a danger?
Perhaps the author's, let's call it —transversion— from say English to Dutch, can then be translated into English by a Dutch English translator. Wouldn't it be interesting to see whether we'd wind up with an identical twin, or a fraternal one?

In the US The Kindly Ones is published by Harper Collins and expected March 3, 2009.

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