The last time Josh Pachter posted on this site he talked about his lifelong love affair with EQMM. This time he provides a fascinating look at the process of literary translation. He is himself a writer of fiction, with some four dozen stories in print, but we never realized prior to reading this post what a creative hand he has in the stories he translates for this magazine and other publications. —Janet Hutchings
From 1979 to 1982, I lived in a tiny little apartment in Amsterdam, just outside the city center. (When I say “tiny,” I mean tiny. The place was so small that we—I was married to a Dutch woman at the time—didn’t even have a bathtub or shower. Three or four days a week, we’d bike over to the public bathhouse, where for one guilder—about 40 cents American—we got a sliver of hotel soap, the loan of a towel, and 15 minutes of hot water in a cramped shower stall.)
Although most Dutch people learn English in school and Lydia’s was perfect, her parents and younger brother struggled with my native language, so I decided to learn theirs. I subscribed to the Dutch edition of Donald Duck comics and, once a week, I’d settle down on the tiny little sofa in our tiny little living room and read it aloud. Because the stories were simple and illustrated, and because Lydia was there to help with the harder words and correct my pronunciation, it wasn’t long before I could read and speak (and eventually even write a little) Dutch.
I really like the Dutch language. Where English’s idiosyncrasies are primarily pronunciation based (“tough/though/through”), Dutch’s are more commonly spelling based. I mean, show me another language that includes such amazing words as gaaieeieren (“the eggs of a jay,” with its seven consecutive vowels) and angstschreeuw (“a cry of anguish,” with eight consecutive consonants) and zeeën (“oceans,” with a triple vowel) and Churchilllaan (“Churchill Lane,” with a triple consonant).
Lydia, meanwhile, was a rabid Beatles fan, and through her I met Har van Fulpen and Piet Schreuders, who were both active members of the Dutch National Beatles Fan Club. Har, it turned out, owned a company that published comic books and was interested in American underground comix, and Piet, it turned out, was a graphic designer with an interest in American pop culture.
Har soon asked Lydia and me to translate several Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton comix from English into Dutch, and Piet asked me to translate Paperbacks, U.S.A., his 250-page nonfiction study of the cover art used on American paperback books during the 1940s and ’50s, from Dutch into English. And then Har hired me to translate his 175-page Beatles Diary, and Piet’s friends Guus Luijters and Gerard Timmer brought me in to translate their 160-page Sexbomb: The Life and Death of Jayne Mansfield . . . and all of a sudden I seemed to be a professional translator.
By 1984, I was divorced and living in what was then still West Germany, but I was editing short-story collections for Loeb Uitgevers, a small Dutch publishing house. Peter Loeb was releasing trade-paperback editions of the works of internationally popular Dutch crime novelist Janwillem van de Wetering, and somehow I wound up getting asked to translate two of Janwillem’s Grijpstra and de Gier stories for EQMM. “There Goes Ravelaar!” appeared in the January 1985 issue, followed almost immediately by “House of Mussels” in April, and the next year “There Goes Ravelaar!” was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s Best Short Story Edgar.
And then in 1986 my daughter Becca was born, and suddenly I didn’t have time for writing or editing or translating any more. Instead, my days were filled with changing diapers, and my evenings were spent teaching for the University of Maryland’s European Division on US Army bases in Bavaria.
It was 20 years before I returned to translation.
In 2002, EQMM editor Janet Hutchings launched the magazine’s monthly “Passport to Crime” feature. Janet invited me to locate and translate a Dutch story, and I contacted my old friend Theo Capel, who long ago edited and published a glossy Dutch fanzine called Thrillers & Detectives for which I wrote a regular column about the American crime scene. Theo sent me one of his own stories and steered me to René Appel, “the king of the Dutch psychological thriller,” and all of a sudden I was a translator again.
Since 2004, I’ve translated stories by Dutch authors Capel, Appel, Carla Vermaat and Tessa de Loo, and more recently by Belgians Bavo Dhooge, Bob Van Laerhoven, Bram Dehouck and Pieter Aspe. Bavo talked me up to his fellow writer Toni Coppers, and during the summer of 2013 I translated my first novel, Coppers’ Stil Bloed, which will hopefully be published in the US as Dead Air in 2014.
There are, I think, three basic types of translation: literal, idiomatic, and creative. To explain what I mean, imagine a Dutch story in which a character is served a meal in a restaurant and, when the food is placed before him, says, “Het water loopt me in m’n mond.”
Literally, that translates as “The water walks me in my mouth”—but only a particularly poorly programmed piece of software would translate the sentence that way. Any human translator worth his salt would know that the sentence actually means “My mouth is watering,” and would almost certainly translate it that way, idiomatically.
To me, though, “My mouth is watering” sounds clichéd and stale. I can’t remember ever having heard a living human being use that expression, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never used it myself. So I’d probably want to translate it creatively as “That looks great!” or, simply, “Beautiful!,” or words to that effect.
Creative translation by its very nature requires that the translator take liberties with the original text, and it’s for that reason that I’ve only ever translated works by living authors—and, in fact, by authors who were willing to be consulted during the translation process and to read and comment on a “finished” draft before I’m ready to take the quotation marks off the word “finished.”
In my own writing, I’ve always felt that a good title is essential. Most of the dozen Mahboob Chaudri stories I wrote for EQMM and AHMM in the late ’80s, for example, actually began with their titles. (The last night of Ramadan, for example, is called Eid al-Fitr, which means, “the Night of Power.” I heard that phrase and thought, Ah, that’s a Chaudri title! It seemed obvious that the story had to be set on the last night of Ramadan, and it had to have something to do with power . . . and, sure enough, “The Night of Power” appeared in the September 1986 issue of EQMM and was reprinted the next year in Walker & Co.’s The Years’ Best Mystery and Suspense Stories.)
Similarly, I’m always eager to find attention-grabbing titles for my translations. Sometimes a literal translation seems appropriate. Carla Vermaat’s “Een Lang Gekoesterde Droom” easily became “A Long Cherished Dream” (June 2009), for example, and Bavo Dhooge’s “Stinkend Gips” became “Stinking Plaster” for the September/October 2011 double issue.
Sometimes, though, I’ve had to be more creative. René Appel’s first “Passport to Crime” story, “Bloody Hot,” appeared in August 2006. A few months ago, he sent me a lovely piece titled “Heterdaad,” which is a word that doesn’t really ever get used by itself in Dutch. Instead, it almost always occurs in the phrase “op heterdaad betrapt,” which means “caught in the act.” I thought about calling the story “Caught in the Act,” but René consciously and purposely contracted the Dutch title to a single word, and I wanted to capture that contraction in English. I thought about using “In the Act,” but that seemed awfully bland. Another way to say “caught in the act” in English is “caught red-handed,” though, and, when my translation of “Heterdaad” is published in EQMM sometime within the next year, it’ll be titled “Red-Handed.”
Also coming up in “Passport” is a story by Pieter Aspe, who is currently the best selling crime novelist in Belgium. The story’s called “Vrienden,” which translates literally as “Friends.” Now, I don’t mind recycling a title that someone else has previously used—and titles can’t be copyrighted, so the recycling doesn’t raise any legal issues. Back in 1987, I co-opted the title of a 1957 novel by Australian Nevile Shute for one of my own stories, which appeared in Espionage as “On the Beach.” And, for yet another of my upcoming “Passport” translations, I changed Bram Dehouck’s ponderous “De Redder en de Dood” (“The Savior and Death,” which sounds like it could be a Woody Allen parody of an Ingmar Bergman film) to “After the Fall,” which was the name of a 1964 play by Arthur Miller.
I didn’t like the idea of giving Aspe’s tale of murder the same name as the name of a long-running American sitcom, though, and, since the story is ultimately a story of friendship betrayed, I decided to call it “Friends Like You,” which fits the first-person narrative voice and gives, I think, a nice little foreshadowing of the betrayal and counter betrayal which lie at the core of the piece.
Occasionally, the process of coming up with a good title can lead to changes in the story itself. Last year, Bob Van Laerhoven, another Belgian crime writer, sent me a Flemish story that already had an English-language title, “Chimbote Blues.” I thought the story was great, but explained to Bob that I thought his title was too evocative of the title of Elmore Leonard’s 2010 novel, Tishomingo Blues. I asked Bob if he could suggest an alternate title, but he couldn’t come up with anything he liked. The title “Checkmate in Chimbote” popped into my head, but unfortunately the story didn’t have anything whatsoever to do with chess. I asked Bob if he could “chess it up” a little, and he wound up inserting four or five chess references. I dropped one of them that I felt was a little far-fetched, added one of my own, and “Checkmate in Chimbote” is scheduled for publication in the June 2014 EQMM.
Added one of my own? Yep. One of the things which attracts me to what I call creative translation is that it’s more than “just” translation. A creative translator is also an editor and, at times, even a writer. “Josh isn’t just a translator,” Bavo Dhooge wrote, “but also an editor who dares to participate in the creative process.”
I’m not sure I can explain exactly how that creative process operates, but I can tell you what my goal is. When the original author reads my translation, I want her to think not just “Yes, that’s what I wrote” but “Yes, that’s what I wanted to write.” It’s not enough for me to move the author’s words from one language to another—I want the end result to be a better story than it was originally. And that, again, often involves taking liberties I can only take with the original author’s permission and cooperation.
When Carla Vermaat sent me “A Long Cherished Dream,” for example, I loved the story . . . but was completely disappointed by its ending. I emailed Carla and explained to her that, in American fiction, the “suddenly he woke up and realized that it had all been just a dream” finale has been done to death. Instead, I suggested, why not have the murder be real and not a dream? Carla took my advice and let me rewrite the ending myself, so the original Dutch story and the translation, which appeared in EQMM, aren’t just in different languages but really turned out to be very different stories.
Translation presents the translator with some fascinating challenges.
What, for example, do I do when the Dutch or Belgian author makes a cultural reference that will mystify American readers? In Toni Coppers’ novel Stil Bloed, there’s a moment when a character refers to Canvas, a C.S.I.-like forensic-investigation show which, despite its English-language title, is produced in Belgium and popular on Belgian television. From the title, though, it sounds like it’s an art-history program, which in the context of the scene wouldn’t have made any sense. I did a little research and discovered that C.S.I. itself is popular on Belgian TV—and, with Toni’s permission, simply substituted C.S.I. for Canvas.
In the same novel, on the other hand, there’s a passing reference to Father Damian, a name which every Belgian would instantly recognize but which most American readers wouldn’t know. In this case, there’s nothing equivalent to substitute, but the reference itself was too important to simply drop. So I added in a line of explanation, changing “brought home the body of Father Damian” to “brought home the body of Father Damian, the Belgian missionary who’d spent two decades ministering to lepers in Hawaii before dying of leprosy himself in 1889.” Enough explanation, I hope, to prevent the reference from being distractingly cryptic, but not so much as to interrupt the flow of the narrative.
And what about jokes that are funny in Dutch but simply not funny in English, and brand names of products that exist in Europe but are unknown in the US, and those moments when a Dutch or Belgian character suddenly inserts a word or phrase of English into her dialogue, which is something that Dutch and Belgian people often really do? And what about gezellig?
Each of these situations requires a decision on my part. I may need to look for an alternate joke which American readers will laugh at. I might want to use the Dutch brand name to preserve a sense of foreignness but need to quickly and unobtrusively explain what the heck the product is. When a Flemish character switches briefly to speaking English, maybe I’ll switch instead to French.
Fortunately, I haven’t yet had to deal with gezellig. If you should ever get invited to a Dutch home for a drink or a meal, the word is almost guaranteed to come up in the course of the evening. “Ah,” your host will sigh happily, “isn’t this gezellig!” Ask him what he means, and he’ll probably say “cozy”—and that’s the way the word is normally rendered into English. But it’s not quite right, and the Dutch state of gezelligheid is famously, notoriously, untranslatable. The closest I can come is to say that it’s the feeling of complete comfort you get when you’re as at home in someone else’s house as you would be in your own, except you’re allowed to feel that way in your own home and not just in someone else’s. Can you imagine having a character in a story turn to his dinner guests, though, and say, “Ah, don’t you just feel as comfortable in my home as you’d feel in your own?”
I mean, eeuw.
I think the biggest challenge of translation—for me, anyway—is the capturing not just of plot and character but of auctorial voice. Just like Bill Pronzini’s work sounds different from Robert Barnard’s, Tessa de Loo’s work sounds different from Bavo Dhooge’s—and neither of them sounds anything at all like me. So my job is to get inside the original authors’ heads and figure out how they would have written their stories if they were only fluent enough in English to write them in English.
Since the Dutch and Belgians all study English in school, they can read it fairly easily. And the highest praise I can get from a story’s original author—the praise I’m always shooting for—is when, say, René Appel emails me after reading what I’ve done with his work and says, “The story gives the impression of having been originally written in English and only coincidentally taking place in The Netherlands.”
Way back in 1976, when I was twenty-five years old and had seven EQMM and six AHMM stories to my credit, Writers Digest Books published a volume called Mystery Writer’s Handbook, edited by the wonderful Lawrence Treat. On page eight of that volume, Larry quoted me as saying “I hate the act of writing, but I love having written something.”
Today, almost 40 years later, it’s translation that allows me to enjoy the feeling of having written something without having to go through the agonizing act of actually writing.