Doorways and Gateways #2

What came first:

the gate or the door?

To stand and to wait

at a door or a gate

is the perfect expression

of humanity’s progression:

closing and enclosing things

fencing things and rowing things

or even to take offence

at what is without or within

this gate or that door.


A Short Story Told in Fragments

This week I’ve been attending the BCLT Summer School (British College of Literary Translators). I’m privileged enough to have gotten a scholarship through doing the Literary Translation course at UEA. Non-stop talks and workshops on creative translation Monday to Saturday! And somehow I’m still managing to teach and work on my dissertation in between. And what a perfect week to pick to be constantly on Zoom in the bakingly hot spare room, sun glaring through the glass? A heatwave week with temperatures pushing thirty degrees every day. I am English. Thirty degrees is ten degrees too high, if you ask me. On a beach in Crete? Thirty is splendid. On Zoom in Stowmarket? No, thank you.

Anyway, the creative writing workshop this morning was on fragmented short stories: short stories that the reader pieces back together by reading several subjective accounts. We worked small groups and had to pick a situation, and then write four police testimonies from different people in different voices, each not telling the whole truth or with something to hide. We picked a situation: a protest, during which a shop burns to the ground. I was the shopkeeper. This is my testimony. What am I hiding? That’s the question:

Shop burns down in Greytown: Shopkeeper’s testimony 

I was watching the situation unfold out of the front window of my shop all morning. People were wearing dark clothes, balaclavas and waving clubs and knives. It was all quite terrifying, really. Of course, I didn’t open up the shop that day, I wasn’t going to invite trouble. I sell furniture, so nothing was going to spoil if I stayed closed for one day, if you know what I mean. Of course, I can understand why they were angry, why they wanted to go out onto the streets that day, but whatever happened to peaceful protest, no masks, out in the open? 

I was inside, with the lights off, making used of the shop being closed during the day to do an inventory in the back room when, all of a sudden, I heard a humongous thud and a crash from out front. I’d pulled the bars across the shop window, so the brick hadn’t been able to completely smash through, but it’d made sizeable fractures in the shatterproof glass, like a spider’s web.  

At that point, I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t call the police, no doubt they were all busy with what was going on across the city that day – and, anyway, even if I had called you at that point, how would you have gotten to me in time? The protestors, or rioters by this point, were thick outside my doors like sardines in a tin and moving so slowly it could have been the highway to Woodstock! 

That was about when I started to smell the smoke. Lightly at first, like someone had burned toast. Then more and more strongly, like a BBQ gone wrong, and then I knew that someone had set fire to my shop. My shop, full of flammable, priceless antique furniture! I couldn’t have been more devastated. The shop was my life’s work, my father’s life’s work, my pride and joy! 

The fire was set at the front of the shop, around the door and the wooden windowframes. That’s where the smoke started pouring from first. I immediately knew it had to be one of the rioters. I tried to keep it at bay with the fire extinguisher on the wall, I emptied its whole contents, but the fire was just too strong for it. It greedily devoured all of that tinder-dry, antique wood. I had to abandon my shop and escape through the back door before things got too dangerous for me in there.  

The alley behind the shop is quite quiet, but I could still hear the distant shouts and screams of the protestors from the Main Street in front of the shop, like a pack of wild hyenas. I called the emergency services, I tried to get through to the fire brigade, but of course the line was always engaged. It was chaos all over the city that day. I had to watch as my livelihood burned to the ground.  

By the time the fire brigade arrived hours later, there was nothing left to save. There’s nothing left for me now but to just pick up the pieces and move on, I guess. But I hope your catch the bastard that did it. 

Prose Translations

‘River’: A Creative Translation Project

This is a start of a collaborative project working from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘River’. It’s a translation chain, which means that, as the first link in the chain, I have translated Duffy’s original poem into German, providing a back-translation in English and a commentary. The next person in the chain will work from either my German text or my English back translation, and so it goes on, until eventually, everyone on our course has made a contribution. How exciting!

Here’s my response:


Bei der Biegung des Flusses

fängt die Sprache an, sich zu ändern,

ein unterschiedliches Geplätscher,

sogar ein unterschiedlicher Name für den gleichen Fluss.

Wasser überquert die Grenze,

übersetzt sich,

aber die Wörter stolpern und fallen noch zurück.

Und da, am Baum genagelt, gibt es Beweise.

Ein Wegweiser in neuer Sprache,

barsch am Baum.

Ein Vogel, nie vorher gesehen,

singt von einem Ast.

Eine frau auf dem Pfad bei dem Fluss wiederholt ein komisches Geräusch,

um den Vogelgesang nachzuahmen,

und seinen Namen danach nachzufragen.

Sie kniet sich hin für eine rote Blume,

pflückt sie,

später wird sie es vorsichtig zwischen den Seiten eines Buches pressen.

Was würde es dir bedeuten,

wenn du mit ihr dort sein könntest,

deine eigene Hände im Wasser baumelnd,

wo blaue und silberne Fische über Steinen hinwegflitzen,

Brocken, Kiesel, Schotter,

wie die Bedeutungen von Wörter,

einfach verschwinden.

Es fühlt sich so an als ob sie schon irgendwoander ist,


einfach wegen Wörter;

sie singt laut ihren Unsinnsgeschnatter,

und lächelt und lächelt.

Wärst du wirklich dort,

was würdest du auf einer Postkarte schreiben?

Oder in den Sand kritzeln,

in der Nähe von wo der Fluss ins Meer fließt?

Back-Translation into English

By the bend of the river,

starts the language, to change itself,

a different babble,

even a different name for the same river. 

Water crosses the border,

translates itself,

but the words stumble and fall still back.

And there, nailed at the tree, there is evidence.

A  signpost in new language,

harsh on the tree.

A bird, never before seen,

sings from a branch.

A woman on the trail by the river repeats a strange sound,

to imitate the birdsong,

and to ask his name after.

She kneels down for a red flower,

picks it,

later she will press it carefully between the pages of a book.

What would it mean to you,

if you could be there with her,

your own hands dangling in the water,

where blue and silver fish flit away over stones,

boulders, pebbles, gravel,

like the meanings of words,

simply disappear.

It feels as though she is already somewhere else,


Simply because of words;

she sings her nonsense-chatter loudly, 

and smiles and smiles.

If you were really there,

what would you write on a postcard? 

Or scratch into the sand,

close to where the river flows into the sea?

Original: Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘River’

At the turn of the river the language changes,
a different babble, even a different name
for the same river. Water crosses the border,
translates itself, but words stumble, fall back,
and there, nailed to a tree, is proof. A sign

in new language brash on a tree. A bird,
not seen before, singing on a branch. A woman
on the path by the river, repeating a strange sound
to clue the bird’s song and ask for its name, after.
She kneels for a red flower, picks it, later
will press it carefully between the pages of a book.

What would it mean to you if you could be
with her there, dangling your own hands in the water
where blue and silver fish dart away over stone,
stoon, stein, like the meanings of things, vanish?
She feels she is somewhere else, intensely, simply because
of words; sings loudly in nonsense, smiling, smiling.

If you were really there what would you write on a postcard,
or on the sand, near where the river runs into the sea?

Commentary: ‘Fluss’

In my translation of ‘River’ into German, I decided to focus more on playing with the format other than the words themselves. My initial rough draft was a lot of fun to produce because I ironed it out over a Zoom call with my German partner, looking for grammatical errors and any clumsy word choice or formulations. This was my first attempt at ever translating a poem into my second language, so I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of asking a native speaker’s advice.

I think the drafting process is a really important aspect of translation that, unfortunately, often becomes invisible by the publishing phase or the final version. We delete and type over our process, but I think the process should be celebrated just as much as the finished product. Here, I’ve used scans of my initial draft as a background to my translation to highlight the fact that all translation is a palimpsest. We work over and over our initial ideas. 

I have played with a few aspects of the words, but my main focus here was creating something visual. I printed out my final version and cut the lines into strips, arranging them in waves on the page. I then overlaid the poem with my own biro doodles and used watercolour brush pens to add a splash of colour.

When it comes to language, I have changed Duffy’s reference to ‘things’ in the third stanza to ‘words’, as I disliked the vagueness of ‘things’ and enjoyed the focus of this poem on translation and language. I’ve made up a word in German: ‘Unsinnsgeschnatter’ (nonsense-chatter) cannot be found in any dictionary, but German is intensely malleable and flexible, inviting the writer to neologism. The new word caused Jannis, my co-editor, to break out in a smile, and I don’t think this poem wants to be taken too seriously.

 In the final stanza, I’ve added the verb ‘kritzeln’ (scratch) to accentuate the image of writing into sand, and Duffy’s use of ‘clue’ as a verb in the second stanza has been replaced by ‘nachahmen’ (to imitate/mimic), as I thought this suited birdsong very well. ‘Clue’ (Hinweis) as a verb (hinweisen) would have taken on a whole different meaning in German, as it means something more like ‘to indicate’, or ‘to point something out’ instead of ‘to figure something out’, which is what I think Duffy intended here, although I cannot be sure. I also really enjoyed the beat the introduction of ‘nachahmen’ created across these two lines, with the threefold repetition of ‘nach’.

Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction- Settling on a Time Period

This week, my brain has been buzzing trying to settle on a time period for my historical fiction project. It has to be something I love, but I was torn between choosing something completely new and going over something I already studied at BA level. Diving into a new historical era would be exciting, but re-visiting an era I’ve already studied would make the weight of research easier. Here is my shortlist so far:

1) 1930s Moscow during the Great Purge

One thing I am certain about is that I want to write from the point of view of a woman. I have studied the USSR briefly during first year, and I have a personal interest in the topic, so I think I could have a good stab at making a believable setting. My extremely basic knowledge of Russian and the Russian psyche does put me off though.

I would be writing from the point of view of a party functionary’s wife during the terror that was Stalin’s Great Purge. She suspects that she and her husband are being closely watched by the KPD, but her husband is trying to keep her in the dark about it. I could cover their arrest, questioning and harrowing journey to the Gulags in Siberia. I am wondering whether it would just be far too depressing to capture the reader’s attention.

Image result for moscow 1930s

2) Kent, 1381: The Peasant’s Revolt

I studied the Peasant’s Revolt in second year, so my background knowledge is still solid. I think the it’s a fascinating historical period because, for a brief few weeks, the whole social hierarchy threatened to turn itself on its head. I would write from the point of view of a woman caught up in the revolt. Maybe she owes money to the local Abbey and Bishop, as many did. Maybe she is an indentured labourer (villein) tenant, an unfree resident who owes labour every year as a form of tax and who cannot move or marry without the landowner’s permission. She travels with the mob to London where they successfully storm the Tower for the first and last time. I am sure women were involved in the uprising, and have subsequently been skimmed over. It would make for a fascinating area of research, but I’m sure the documentation will be both scant and highly biased towards the ruling classes.

Maybe her husband could be captured and hanged for taking part in the revolt, and she lies to save herself. I think women are still far too often either presented as long-suffering, self-sacrificing, virtuous beings or shameless whores, with no grey area in the middle. It’s the classic ‘two Marys’ approach: the pit or the pedestal. I want to write an ambitious and morally ambiguous character, just like so many male historical figures.

Image result for 1381 peasants revolt

3) Badley, Suffolk 1348: The Black Death

I also studied a module on the Black Death in final year. The next village to my hometown in Suffolk was completely wiped out during this pandemic, and it never recovered. There are barely a couple of houses left there to this day. It would be interesting to see if there are any records of the Black Death at this time. Sometimes you get lucky and some rolls remain with names and dates, and sometimes they are lost to history. Again, the documentation here is likely to be scant and I would have to think hard about how I would be writing the dialogue. Middle English is almost unintelligible to the modern ear (think struggling through Chaucer). On the other hand, it would certainly be a challenge to try to get under the skin of an ordinary female villager at that time. Maybe she survives as her whole family perishes. Again, it’s likely to make an extremely depressing episode, but happiness is rarely a source of inspiration for writers.

Image result for 1348 black death

4) Wittenberg, during the German Reformation, 1517

I think it would be far too challenging to try to write from the perspective of Luther himself, but it may be possible to write as if you were someone close to him. However, I haven’t studied the Reformation in Germany in any depth, apart from the first translation of the Bible into German, which wouldn’t be very useful here. The weight of research here would be quite daunting, and I would have to grapple with the nitty gritty of Reformation thinking, and there was often only a wafer of difference between the new Protestant way and Papist orthodoxy (if you’ll pardon the pun). Another complicating factor is that there was no one stream of Reformation thinking: Tyndale’s assertions differed from Luther’s, which differed from Calvin’s which differed from Zwingli’s. It would be extremely difficult not to confuse any of this, and I’m not interested enough in theology to pull it off. So I’ve abandoned this idea before it really had a chance to germinate.

Image result for martin luther

5) Edwardian Britain: The Suffragettes

I’m almost certain I’m going down this alley of research. I’ve never actually studied the Suffragettes (gulp), but I have more than a passing interest. I’ve read Caitlin Davies’ Bad Girls, a history of Holloway Prison, and I’ve recently listened to a couple of podcasts by Fern Riddel on Kitty Marion, the most badass Sufragette you’ve never heard of.

I think we far too often see the Suffragettes as a peaceful, middle-class movement, when a good proportion of the activists were militant and working-class. We often conveniently forget about their targeted bombing campaign. Many of their contemporaries saw them as terrorists.

Luckily for me, Kitty Marion left us extensive autobiographical papers which have only recently received the attention they deserve, having been published in their own right and having been the focus of Fern Riddel’s book, Death in Ten Minutes. I think it would be great fun to re-write some of these episodes as historical fiction, either from the perspective of Kitty Marion or by inventing a Suffragette closely based on her biography. I think the latter would give me more creative freedom. I would have to do some extensive research into the Suffragette movement and Edwardian London, but I feel like it would be greatly rewarding. I set out to write from a woman’s perspective, so what could be more appropriate a subject than the Suffragettes?

Image result for kitty marion

Reflections on Translation as Writing

The MALT Process and Product module at UEA is a brainchild of Clive Scott’s poststructuralism. It’s about what translation actually means to me and for me. Translators have their own subjectivities which are expressed through the creative medium of translation as writing. Translation strategies come from the text: they come from looking and listening, a close reading followed by a conversation. How does it want to be translated? What is it asking for? It’s great if we can collaborate with the author on a translation, but translation is a conversation with or without the input of the author.

But who speaks in a translation? The answer is both the author and translator. Sometimes it is impossible to unpick the voices from one another, indeed it’s what most translators aim for. Translations where the translator’s voice and influence is evident are often seen as ‘bad’ translations, where fluidity of voice is prized. Translations are a whole composed of manifold layers: layers of voice, layers of drafting and layers of style.

When choosing a work to translate, there’s something called the ‘jealousy test’. Do I wish I had written these ideas in my home language? Do I wish I had come up with something so clever and insightful? If the answer to both of these is yes, and I feel a pang of jealousy at not having done either of these, It’s a good indication I should have a go at translating it.

Defining Translation

Translation is a mode of expression for the translator as well as the author. The author has their words expressed in a new language for a new audience, but the translator is expressing them. It’s also useful to look beyond the conventional norm of interlingual translation, from one language to another, and start looking at other forms. There’s intralingual translation, between different forms and modes of the same language. For example, if I were to write a poem in English based on my response to another English poem, that would be a form of intralingual translation. There’s also adaptation, a translation either from one language into another which is only loosely based on the source language, or a new rendition of a work in the same language which introduces a new cultural or temporal setting, sometimes also known as localisation. For example, West Side Story as a modern American retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Some argue that this isn’t translation at all, I would disagree. Intersemiotic translation is also linked to these ideas. It includes translating a work from one medium into another, such as translating a painting into a work of prose. Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse contains an intriguing case of this, as the protagonist Lily Briscoe eventually manages to capture her vision of the lighthouse and her acquaintances on canvas. Woolf then translates this vision into her visionary prose.

Defining Translators

How do we define ourselves as translators? Do we tell others, “I am a translator and a writer?”, or just “I am a translator?” Is the writing part already clear? Or are there still translators who do not even consider themselves writers? In my experience, it’s far from obvious to others that all translators are writers. Many still see translation as a purely linguistic and grammatical exercise, a uniquely constrained form of word substitution. But Jean Boase-Beier points out that all writing is done under constraints. Authors have to choose how to tell a story. Are they going to write a story as creative non-fiction, using a more detached, journalistic style to relate events? Are they going to intersperse factual writing with creative scenes? Or are they going to turn a project into a novel, maybe even a historical novel? All genres have conventions, and choosing the wrong path for a writing project can result in a huge amount of wasted creative effort, time and money.

Writing can be seen as a conversation just like translation. You are always building on what came before, working from what you have already read. You may be taking inspiration from another style, genre or author, or you may be writing against a particular concept. Translations build upon a source text, they are never the same as the source text.

Translation as Writing

There was a time when I didn’t see translation as writing. At university, the focus of my translation seminars was about being as ‘accurate’ as possible, about figuring out what we had gotten ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Collaboratively, we then used bits and pieces of each of our target texts to create a ‘perfect’ text, a completely ‘correct’ model. I liked the collaborative nature of these sessions, and our tutor was careful not to tell us too often that our suggested translations for a particular word, phrase or sentence was ‘wrong’, but at the same time we got a clear sense that there was a hierarchy of target texts, from best to worst, most to least accurate. There wasn’t much emphasis on the text as a whole, on the way it knitted and flowed together. There was no mention of the translator’s subjective creativity, of what they can bring to the text. When taught translation in this way, even at university, it’s not difficult to see why I didn’t see it as writing.

Computer-Aided Translation (CAT) applications such as TRADOS also didn’t help in this respect. These break up the source text into linguistic blocks, making a text much easier to manage and the words much harder to miss. However, it does make translation feel like even more of a linguistic and grammatical exercise. It was like a balance sheet of loss and gain which had to come out at zero in the end. I don’t currently use any CAD software to translate and I tend to translate straight from the paper copy. I’m not sure about going back to TRADOS after my MA year, I’m conflicted. I am aware that sometimes I miss words despite the best efforts of my conscious mind. However, it seems such a shame to destroy the structure and flow of a literary text in this way by putting it into a myriad of little rows and boxes, because we all know that literature is far more than just the sum of its parts.

The subject matter didn’t help either. We mostly focused on translating journalistic texts and updating and extending Wikipedia articles in English, based on pre-existing German articles. Literary texts were a rarity, a chimera. There were scarce opportunities for artistic flair. But the modules weren’t called ‘technical translation’, they were just called ‘translation’- further emphasising the belief that technical translation focusing on grammatical accuracy was the standard, the norm, and that creative or literary translation was the deviation from that norm.

Translation and Skill

Is it necessary, as Catherine Porter claims, to have ‘mastered’ another language and culture before you can translate well, or indeed should be allowed to translate at all? In This Little Art, Kate Briggs initially responds to her claim with pointed silence. She then goes on to describe her Dutch translation classes for beginners. They are ‘learning by doing’, they are experimenting with language through trial and error. It should not be about elite and exclusive literary performance, here. It’s about the joy of language. It’s narrow-minded to expect a level of literary and linguistic excellence beyond all capability for shortcomings. Translators, when they are even mentioned in reviews, are held to impossibly high standards. An emphasis on ‘mastery’ has problematic consequences.

Feeling Words

Erin Moure’s blog post illuminates what it’s like to feel words. How do we know that the word cabin has ‘longer legs’ than hut? Why do we feel that a cabin is lying down rather than standing up?

Do we, as translators, have the right to change a word to one which resonates more with us, even if it takes us further away from the ‘meaning’ of the word in the source text? I would argue so.

I often teach English as a foreign language where I cannot speak the mother tongues of my students. When we do vocabulary sessions, we start off by categorising adjectives on whether they express positive or negative attributes. What are the connotations of these words?

I ask them to feel the words. I tell them to tell me if they’re good or bad, dark or light. Say it to yourself, and you’ll see. The vast majority of the time they’re correct, even with a low level of English and no knowledge of the word itself. Why does ‘cheerful’ sound breezy, and ‘scaly’ sound creepy and dark? There are not many positive words which start with ‘s’ – there’s something suspiciously sinister about sibilance. Language is intensely and inherently metaphorical. The patterns of sounds represent things. Language is not a reality, just as literature is not a reality, it is an interpretation and an abstraction of reality.

When I look at my finished translation, I think to myself: what made me choose this word and not another? To quote Berman, there are underlying networks of signification everywhere, a genealogy as well as an etymology to words. Every word choice is a manifestation of a hidden network of connotations, collocations and meaning.


Process and Product in Translation: Translation as Creative Writing

2017 Archive Contributors — AA Paris Visiting School

The extent to which translation is and is inseparable from creative writing is a question which modern translation theorists are currently grappling with. Kate Brigg’s This Little Art is the hottest book in translation right now (sorry, David Bellos), and it deals with this question eloquently and thought-provokingly.

This Little Art: Kate Briggs: 9781910695456: Books

Does translation ‘feel’ different to creative writing? Dan Gunn once asked Lydia Davis, which is referred to in This Little Art (pp.197-199). Yes, it does, was the answer. Is the translator a true ‘artist’ in the same way that authors and poets are often referred to as artists? Or are they merely an ‘artisan’ or ‘craftsperson’, someone who does creative yet ‘derivative’ work. Most translators don’t have a clear answer to this question, but most agree that there is some ‘real artistry’ involved (to quote Davis here).

Lydia Davis on Translation –

Is there somehow less risk involved in translation? Knowing that the work has already been done, published, received, and has achieved enough acclaim to be translated in the first place? I wouldn’t agree. Translators are taking a huge risk themselves in translating. If the book is a flop in the target language, the translator often takes the blame for having translated badly, somehow, or having misunderstood the text. If the book is a success, the source text author takes the credit. Where’s the fun in that? Davis, however, argues that there is less risk in translated an established work- each to their own.

Is translation the same as creative writing then? Well, not exactly, because there is often no ‘source text’ when it comes to creative writing, but a literary translator with no creative writing skills cannot succeed. But look at the amount of writing that comes from extant material, Kate Briggs exclaims, that lays claim to being ‘new art’. Re-writing ancient myths for the 21st century, for example – think Margaret Attwood’s Penelopiad (2005). Is this creative writing? Is it derivative? Is it a translation?

The Penelopiad (Canons): Atwood, Margaret: 9781786892485:  Books

In literature, as well as biology, there is no such thing as immaculate conception. All ideas come from somewhere. All stories are based on what we’ve already read. There is no such thing as a ‘blank page’, per se. I notice turns of phrase or syntax of the writers I have read recently popping up in my own prose, sometimes consciously, and there must also be the subconscious footprint of authors I have read and enjoyed in my own writings.

“All writing is to some greater or lesser extent determined by constraints”

Kate Briggs

The shortness of a short story, the detachment of journalism, the syllable constructions of sonnets and haikus, writing a play in iambic pentameter, writing instructions numbered and in order, the rhetorical and referencing conventions of an academic essay: these are all constraints, just like working from a source text. Writers such as Georges Perec set themselves creative constraints via the experimental Oulipo group (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle), culminating for him in writing La Disparition, a novel entirely without the letter ‘e’. The writing of translations may be ‘especially directed and especially constrained’ (Briggs), but it is creative writing nonetheless. We do not see works such as La Disparition as any less creative for their constrained nature, so why do some persist in seeing translation as a merely grammatical or linguistic exercise, as somehow ‘less’ than the source text? There is an obsession with the concept of translation as inevitable ‘loss’ and the translator as a diligent automaton- words in, words out. Knowing a language and translating are two completely different things, just as speaking your mother tongue well does not make you a novelist.

Avez-vous déjà lu… un roman lipogrammatique ? – TEXTUALITÉS

Literary Translation and Creative Writing: Disciplinary Boundaries

Over the past few decades, translation has been undergoing something dubbed ‘the cultural turn’. This generally refers to the process of translation broadening its scope far outside its traditional realm, into areas such as political ideology, feminism and postcolonial studies. The lines between translation and other forms of writing and literary theory are consistently being blurred, and translation as cultural exchange has only been fully appreciated recently, as well as the idea that translation can facilitate, subvert or perpetuate either pre-existing cultural norms or radical new perspectives. Kate Briggs often deals with issues of being a so-called ‘lady translator’ – translation is often seen as a feminised and therefore subservient form of writing. That it has, at least for the last hundred or so years, been done mainly (and ever more increasingly) by middle and upper-class white women has lent credence to a belief of the translator as a sort of housewife hobbyist, an amateur who doesn’t need to be appreciated particularly much, or even paid enough or promptly. Kate Briggs has challenged the view of the ‘lady translator’, and other theorists such as Susan Bassnett and Peter Bush have argued how translation and writing are inextricably linked, and should therefore enjoy a more ‘horizontal’, rather than ‘vertical’, relationship.

Imagining Helen: The Life of Translator Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter
Helen Lowe-Porter, the original translator of Thomas Mann’s der Zauberberg (Magic Mountain) into English and the archetypal ‘Lady Translator’. Her work has often been belittled by (male) 20th-century literary critics and theorists.

Translation as a Creative Writing Process

“There’s something inherently fascinating about trying to take that sentence and make it again in a different language”

Kate Briggs

Kate Briggs did a fantastic interview with Madeleine LaRue here, about the process of writing This Little Art and her thoughts and feelings about translation in general. Translation is creativity with restraints, yet it is also inquiry. Every translation, hell every paragraph of every translation teaches you something. Translating an author is always a rabbit warren of Google searches, yet another tab, tracing quotes, searching for references (what could they have been referring to here?), thesauruses, idiom dictionaries, image searches (how might that have looked?), checking etymologies and collocations, finding connotations, phoning a long suffering German friend (what do you think of when I say this word to you? Is it dark, is it light? Is it high register, low register?). You have to understand every facet of the source text before you can even feel like you got it ‘right’ in translation. And once you know what it all means, you have to put it back together in a way that target text readers would want to read in the first place. That’s where the creativity comes in. You have to use the strengths of your language to your advantage. German sentences can have infamously dense and rambling syntax which has often been used to great effect – think Kafka or Mann’s hugely complex sentences. I personally, think Kafka was a genius and deeply enjoyed die Verwandlung, but I found Mann’s composition so frustratingly obtuse it brought a tear to my eye. German also plays with word order to increase the tension, as verbs can often be delayed until near the end of a sentence, obfuscating its ultimate meaning until you have read the whole sentence, often throwing out red herrings which lead you down a semantic dead end. English sentences tend to be shorter and contain fewer clauses. They follow a more rigid order due to our lack of cases and it’s often impossible to delay the verb. How to translate a German source text with complex syntax, long sentences, delayed verbs and endless clauses into English? You have to get creative (or should I say re-creative?). It’s never going to be the ‘same’ as the original, or even as good as the original in exactly the same ways, but a creative translator can compensate for the differences between languages.

Skoutz-Classics: Die Verwandlung - surrealistische Horrorerzählung von  Franz Kafka - Skoutz
Translators have struggled with Kafka’s first sentence in ‘die Verwandlung’ which uses the intentionally vague noun ‘Ungeziefer’ – meaning something like ‘bug’ or ‘vermin’. It has been translated as ‘cockroach’, but was this too specific from the get-go?

The translator from German is often faced with a Hobson’s choice: do I split up the sentences to make the work flow better for an Anglophone reader? Or do I preserve the strangeness of the syntax in English and hope that the target text reader can get over it, or even learn to appreciate it? This can often lead to a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If you deconstruct the author’s stylistic devices too much, you can be accused of domesticating the translation for the target audience, or even of misunderstanding the author. If you leave too much of the author for the readers to interpret, you risk being accused of doing a ‘bad’ translation which is too literal for the target culture.

Spending this much time with a text throws up another interesting question. Do we have to love the text we are translating? I don’t always love the text. In fact, just like a fleeting fling, my initial fascination with the text can wane the more I am forced to sustain my concentration and analysis. I start to get a wandering eye for a fresh text and new inspiration. But it would be extremely difficult to translate a text I hate, although hate is a strong word. The closest I came was at undergrad, when I was so tightly constrained by the translation brief that I had to choose a GDR author whose writing was academic enough to be translated and read for a conference, so I chose an extract from Günther de Bruyn’s Vierzig Jahre. Subsequently, I loathed every second by the end of the project, and I got a fairly crappy grade. Suprised? I wasn’t. I’ve also written a lot about Jana Hensel’s Zonenkinder despite not particularly liking the prose. To me, the controversies around the text and what the text represented were far more important to me than enjoying the reading experience of the text itself. It threw up interesting questions about the East/West ‘culture war’ (to use a neologism) since reunification in 1990. Western critics, and Eastern victims of Stasi terror, accused the book of seeing the GDR through rose-tinted glasses. I argue that most people have rosy memories of their childhood, as long as it was a fairly happy one. International geopolitics do not feature heavily in the private sphere of a child, even in the GDR.

Roland Barthes: author, I'm sorry

Kate Briggs has also spoken about her developing relationship to the author she was translating, Roland Barthes. She talks about feeling inadequately informed about Barthes to be able to translate his work, a kind of ‘imposter syndrome’ common in translators. Briggs intentionally blends Barthe’s perspectives with her own in This Little Art, highlighting the deeply intimate nature of translation. If Briggs is quoting Barthes using words that she herself translated, who is speaking then? Is Barthes speaking through Briggs, or is Briggs speaking for Barthes? She likens translation to an aerobics class. The translator copies the moves of the instructor, in their own unique way.

“That’s where the dance and the aerobics come in- the idea that these are your moves that I see you make, Instructor. But now I’m doing them. Now I’m taking them on, and testing what happens when I try them. Only this time with my different sensibility and my different body, my different context and historical moment, my different rhythm even…what happens?”

Kate Briggs


The Inheritance: Part 12 (Final Chapter)

I sunk back into the sofa, clutching the mug with both hands and mentally steeling myself. I sat upright and focused on the television. I would not fall asleep. I knew how ridiculous that sounds, because I was aware that sooner or later you either sleep or you die, but, like a wiry mule come to the end of its useful working life, I focused my remaining willpower on plodding forwards and delaying the inevitable. I didn’t even think about leaving. Why didn’t I think about leaving? Maybe it would have followed me, maybe it couldn’t have. It’s a grey area, a question mark, a scab to pick at. I was in its thrall, a Desdemona waiting to be smothered in her bridal sheets. I couldn’t remember the last time I had left the house. It must have been days, at least. Why hadn’t it occurred to me how strange that was? Why had nobody else noticed? I suppose they expected me to be there when they came home, just like the worn-out rug in the hallway. 

I was staring into the pool. No, no, how could this have happened? I couldn’t remember dozing, I remembered watching teleshopping. By that time, I had switched to Coke because my teeth felt furry. I wanted to scream, to cry for help, but I couldn’t. I had to watch, forced into passivity. How did this happen? I should have run, smashed the mirror, taken Freya and Mabel and James and fled. Maybe James wouldn’t have come. I knew he was still sceptical, I knew he still thought it was me up to my old tricks again. The endearing, slightly shameful family nutter. Looking for attention, maybe? Lashing out after our move? I imagined him as an amateur psychologist, nestled in an armchair swirling a brandy and expounding on ‘trauma’ and ‘the subconscious’. My reflection stared back, cocked its head, reading my thoughts. Maybe it was me. Maybe I was it.

I couldn’t even close my eyes to blot out the arm reaching for me. I felt its slimy chill brush my cheek as it wound its fingers through my hair. I didn’t resist when it pulled me downwards, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I was the object, I had lost the war. Well, you couldn’t really call it a war, more like a minor skirmish. 

By the time I broke the surface of the water, I was almost curious about where it was all going. I had once heard that when you have a dream of falling off a cliff, if you don’t wake up just before you hit the ground you would die for real. Did that mean it’s possible to drown in a dream? It was probably just an old wive’s tale. But then again, maybe it wasn’t. Was there anyone alive who could verify that, yes, they had hit the ground under the cliff whilst dreaming and, yes, they had lived to tell the tale?

The water kissed me with its cold embrace. It felt thick, syrupy and strangely resistant. So I had been right all along. It reminded me of those quasi-scientific documentaries I had watched as a child where they had turned custard from a liquid into a solid by walking on it. So this was it. This was my ignominious end. I felt numb, fatalistic, and only slightly annoyed that it was gripping my hair far too hard. I could only see its arm, the water was that dark. What if it ripped some out?

I wish I could tell you that I’m still here, but I can’t. I see you from the other side. Of the mirror, that is. I don’t think I’m dead. Maybe this is worse than being dead. The glass won’t break. I see you both come downstairs in the morning, put on your shoes, go to school and work. I see the thing that is and isn’t me follow you downstairs in the morning, make your sandwiches, feed the dog. I see her drift around the house. I wonder if you sleep with her. I wonder if she smells weird. I don’t think she does any work, because I never see her with the laptop. She’s the only one who looks at me, who sees me at all. She smiles at me as if she’s grateful that I took her place. It must be so liberating for her, like a veal calf let out of the crate, blinking into the sunlight. Maybe she’s not me, after all. Maybe she’s something else entirely. Or maybe I’m not me. I wonder if you’ll notice.


The Inheritance: Part 11

I was in our ensuite studying the purple bruises covering my ribcage when James stormed in behind me.

“What the hell is going on? That carpet cost a fortu-” he stopped when he saw my reflection. I could see his jaw slacken in the mirror, over my right shoulder.

“Don’t ask. I don’t know.” I looked and felt terrible. There was nothing more to say.

His expression softened. Whatever vestiges of husbandliness were still there caused him to hug me from behind and rest his chin on the top of my head.

The purple lesions started around my neck and bloomed over my chest like a livid orchid. I buttoned my pyjama shirt back up. What you can’t see doesn’t exist.

“I’ll stay home from work today and we can talk this through. Just let me call them up. Don’t worry about Freya, I’ll make sure she’s up and make some sandwiches. Just go and have a lie down.”

Curled in the foetal position in bed, I briefly wondered whether Freya called James’ sandwiches patronising, too.

An hour later, and we were still laying in bed facing each other. I had told him everything, filled in all the gaps he hadn’t seen. I had told him about my nightmares, the bare feet in the hallway, and my experience in what I assumed had been the early hours of the morning. I had the slow realisation that maybe I had half an ally in whatever the situation was.

“I thought I must have been dreaming, but then I saw the footprints” I frowned.

He had the grace to look guilty that he hadn’t woken up.

“But I still don’t understand. Who could it have been? How could I not have heard a thing? I’m not usually such a deep sleeper. Should we call the police? Maybe someone broke in.”

“I stopped asking myself questions when I realised I won’t get any answers. Or the truth is scarier than telling ourselves that it was me,” my voice felt flat, emotionless, “but I don’t think this is something the police could solve. They’d just laugh at us or section me.” I frowned, “And besides, an intruder doesn’t explain why there’s only one set of footsteps leading away from the bed. How did they get in?” Thinking about it tightened the cold knot of fear in my stomach. 

James ran his hand through his hair. “This just doesn’t make any sense,” was his captivating and insightful conclusion on the subject. I went to run a bath and he went to make coffee. I don’t know whether he was afraid of me by that point.

I was watching the flickering light of the TV through narrowed eyes. James was dozing next to me. I had laid my head on his chest like back when we were dating. A slight doggy waft reached me, and I realised that Mabel was on the sofa with us too. I closed my eyes for a second, just to rest them. It felt late, and I didn’t want to go to sleep. Not tonight. Not ever. 

I jolted. I must have been dozing, slipping out of consciousness and then hurtling back. It was called sleep drunkenness, I remembered that from somewhere. Maybe a quiz show. What a funny name. I remembered a particularly vivid episode from when I was a child. I was on a caravan holiday with my grandparents, and fell asleep after dinner in the double bed at the back of the van. It was still light outside. I had had a brief but vivid dream of riding my small pink bike with streamers coming out of either handlebar down their pebbled drive, then suddenly going over the front of the handlebars and jolting myself awake in the caravan, smacking my forehead on the underside of a low shelf. For a few seconds, I felt scared, confused and alone until I realised my grandparents were there, quietly watching TV in the front. The same brief panic washed over me now, but within a few seconds I could see that all was well, at least on the surface. Even Freya was there, sunk into the armchair on the other side of the room, scrolling on her phone. Her face was bathed in blue light.

“What time is it?”

“Uhmmmm….”, as if she couldn’t see it right in front of her eyes, “half eleven.”

“Bed”, I managed to mumble.

She looked at me as if I’d just told her to delete her Snapchat. She pushed herself up from the chair and stalked out of the room. How was I supposed to know that would be the last time I’d be able to see her as she could see me? The last time I was in the same room with her, able to touch her, had I just reached out my arm. I should have hugged her then, I should have held her close and told her how much she meant to me. But I had no idea what was coming. 

James was still asleep, his chest rising and falling underneath my cheek. I was jealous, then, of his ability to fall asleep on cue, to slip effortlessly into his dream-world and forget everything else. He never seemed to have anything weighing on him. His face was smooth and slack, no nightmares.

I changed the channel. It was a loud talkshow. Celebrities throwing their heads back, revealing rows of bleached teeth. I wondered if, like sharks, there were lines and lines of huge, perfect replacements waiting behind them in ever-decreasing concentric circles. I turned up the volume, enough to keep me awake, but not enough to disturb James. I crept to the kitchen to make coffee, pressing the button and waiting for the machine to warm up. It looked like a huge, green eye in the half-light. Detritus from oven pizzas littered the kitchen. I tried my best to remember what I had done that day, but drew a blank. No work, that was for sure. No housework either, and no cooking. It felt like a crevasse I had just stepped over, unaware of its existence. I had survived. I listened to the soothing whir of the machine breaking the silence.


The Inheritance: Part 10

I was staring into the pool again. The inky black darkness heaved and sighed, and I could feel the tendrils of another blurred consciousness reaching out, pressing against mine, looking for a fissure to seep into. I could see my own reflection, twisting and distorting itself over the undulating surface as I knelt there, rooted to the spot. It was me, I knew it was me, but it was also apart from me, a foreign body. She was staring at me with a shining intensity. I couldn’t recognise the blacklight in her eyes. I was aware of my surroundings although I couldn’t look up. A row of trees behind me, standing guard. Trunks at regular intervals, fading backwards into the night. I didn’t know how I knew, but I did. Just as I knew it was a clear night, I felt its starlight as clearly as I felt its icy chill. Already it felt rehearsed, as if I was going through the motions of terror, waiting for something different to happen. Like a director at his own performance, watching whether one of the actors would stumble over their lines, reminding the audience that it’s all just a show, really. And we are just waiting for the end.

I could see my reflection reaching towards me, just like last time. There was the slow spread of horror when I realised my hands were still rooted to the banks of the pond, fingernails digging into the frigid earth. This time, I didn’t wake up before her hand broke the surface. My hand? Her hand? Its hand? Dirty fingernails first, then an ivory wrist traced with pondweed and slime inching towards my face. I held my breath, and fleetingly wondered whether that made any sense at all while dreaming. The hand snapped around a loose tendril of my hair, pulling me off balance and breaking whatever had transfixed me. I opened my mouth to scream but only managed a pitiful croak. I was hurtling towards the surface, arms outstretched in a futile attempt to recapture my balance, convinced she would hold me under in her cold embrace until the putrid black treacle filled my ears, nose, eyes and mouth. My hand was first. Darkness, a scream. My scream? How could it be?

I gasped myself awake. The light was all wrong, or lack of it. It was far too dark. But then the darkness moved. Something was squatting over me, black eyes shining. Hands on my chest, pressing downwards. Frozen fingers hooked around my collar bones. The knot of fear in my gut turned to rage. I roared, focusing my entire force of will on one movement, and managed to inch myself upright. The figure leapt off, as if jolted by my sudden reserves of strength. Catlike, it crept backwards, slithered off the bed. It was still in shadow, and avoided the patch of moonlight cast on the floor through the bay window. The bedroom door was ajar, and it slid through in one long, agile movement. It was gone before I could find the switch for my bedside lamp. My hands were frozen numb. Whatever it was had left behind its cloying, stagnant reek. I reached for my chest and realised my pyjamas were damp. It had been dripping on me. I finally found the switch and sank back into my pillow, its warm glow damming my terror. The whole episode couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. I started to catch my breath and take my first tentative steps towards rationalisation. Maybe it was a bad case of sleep paralysis. I had had it before, but never like this. People experienced these kinds of things all the time though, didn’t they? Hallucinations, dread, it was all tucked away in the subconscious. It must have been the subconscious, that mystical playground of stored trauma. I could almost have laughed. I fumbled in my bedside draw, took out a box of tablets I hadn’t touched for a few months. If any occasion warranted a relapse into using drugs to sort out my brain, this was it. There was no glass of water by my bed so I swallowed them dry. I turned over and realised James had slept through the whole thing. It must have been in my head, I told myself, or he would have woken up.

Before the darkness pulled me back, I realised my shirt was still damp.

Grey dawn light filtered through the windows. James was still sleeping. I tried to remember the events of the last few hours, but they already felt hazily distant. I didn’t know whether it was the sleeping pills or my consciousness swiftly stowing away evidence of my madness into little draws upstairs. It was easier that way. 

My throat was parched and my lips felt dry and cracked. I swung my feet over the edge of the bed. All I wanted was to get into my dressing gown, go downstairs, pour myself a glass of water and stare out of the kitchen window but I stopped in my tracks. There were footprints in the carpet. Muddy footprints from small, bare feet. Gingerly, I reached down to touch one. Still damp. An awful thought came to me. I laid my foot on top of it, and it matched mine perfectly. What would have been worse, if it did match mine, or if it didn’t? I didn’t know whether or not to breathe a sigh of relief. Reluctantly, I did the inevitable and started following them. As expected, they lead me downstairs. But there was only one set, leading away from the bed. Nothing made sense any more. I think that’s the moment I gave up. They looked small and almost fragile on that expanse of plush cream carpet running through our bedroom all the way down the stairs. But then I noticed something unexpected. They didn’t lead out into the back garden and the trees beyond. They stopped in front of the mirror.


The Inheritance: Part 9

Before dinner, we were lounging in the living room with some kind of light entertainment on a low volume. Jame’s face suddenly darkened, as if something else had just occurred to him that he’d rather not think about.

“What’s up?” You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

He laughed nervously.

“Have you ever sleepwalked?”

Not an entirely unexpected question, given recent events. But my defences went up anyway.

“Where is this going?”

“I couldn’t get to sleep last night, so I went downstairs to watch TV. I thought you were sleeping when I left. But a few minutes later, I saw, or rather felt, someone going into the kitchen. But it was weird, because I hadn’t heard anyone come down the stairs. But it must have been you or Freya. So I stayed put and didn’t think much of it. Then, on the way back, you stopped in the living room doorway.”

“Did I?” slow dread was creeping up my knees. 

“Yeah. It was definitely you. But you looked funny.”


“I had never seen those pyjamas before.”

“You never were very observant” I managed to choke out. It was now at my throat.

He smiled weakly, “and then I didn’t hear you go back upstairs either. And I had forgotten about it this morning, but it just came back,” he blinked as if dazed, “so I have come to the conclusion that you’re a light-footed sleepwalker.”

By this point, I had managed to swallow once or twice and look him in the face. The thought had already occurred to me too. 

“You might be right” was all I could add to that. My thoughts turned to the last evening. I had been so screen-weary that I’d gone upstairs only an hour or two after dinner. I had done some perfunctory housework and snuck into bed, and the last thing I could remember was James half-waking me when he slid into his side. I thought I had slept like a log until early the next morning. Maybe I was wrong.

“You’re sure it was me?”

James frowned and his eyes glazed over. He was slowly starting to look unsure of himself.

“Yeah, who else could it have been? Freya looks almost nothing like you.” That was true. When we saw her blonde curls and dark eyes, we sometimes used to joke that she must have been swapped in the hospital. But since her temper started to develop, James changed his mind about that. 

“What did my pyjamas look like?” I murmured.

“I’m forgetting already. But long, loose and pale. You looked like an inpatient” he smiled, but it was tight-lipped. 

“I don’t have any pyjamas like that. Don’t you remember what I was wearing when I went to bed?”

“Actually, no. I turned around and you were gone. I thought, finally, I can watch a regency drama without feeling judged,” he rolled his eyes, trying to lighten the mood, but I could tell he was fronting, “but now I know I must have been mistaken. It already feels a little hazy.” Now he was hedging, minimalising, like usual. 

“Hypothetically, If I have been sleepwalking, it could explain last night, and the boots,” I frowned. I still didn’t think I was the sleepwalking type. “But there’s one thing it can’t explain.” I drifted off into a pregnant silence. The gravity of my tone didn’t match the ridiculousness of the subject.

“What?” James was absentmindedly ruffling my hair again. 

“How did the glasses get in the fridge? I had been wearing them that same morning.”

“Aren’t you going to finally admit it was a pretty lame joke?” James nudged me with his elbow but his smile faded when he saw the look on my face.

What other secrets did this house have in store for me? Or was just me? Had I literally become a sleep-walker overnight? Or was it James, trying to rattle me? But why would he? I rubbed my temples. I didn’t believe in ghosts, or omens. There was no need to make life more complicated than it already was. I debated registering at the doctor’s to get a refill on my old prescription, although I hadn’t for the past year. But they probably knew James or his parents. For the first time since my move, the creeping loneliness inside me burst into a jagged blossom of pain. My husband put his arm around me, but his hand felt cold to the touch. 

He cleared his throat quietly. 

“Where’s Freya?”

Shit. Netball club.