Other People’s Words

IMG_0842For some years when I lived in Denmark, I worked as a translator. Viking ships, Bronze Age barrows, Greenland mummies, Renaissance castles, modern housing developments, pig farming –any book, article, or film that came my way was grist for my churning translation mill.

Translator’s method

Fueled by endless cups of coffee, I would plunge into a text red-hot. I never read it beforehand; that would have spoiled the fun. No matter how dry the text – no matter how many pottery shards, residential modules, or pigs — the challenge was to do a rough translation as fast as I could type. Faster than I could think. My electric typewriter clattering and buzzing, I would race through a text in a marathon typing bout. Afterwards, I would settle down with my well-thumbed dictionaries and thesaurus for the quiet pleasures of editing and revising, polishing and perfecting the text.

Literature’s stepchildren

Translators are literature’s stepchildren, ignored and anonymous, however necessary as a writer’s bridge to a wider public. Still, it was thrilling for me to translate. It was an ongoing education in Danish language and culture; it also tuned my radar to the nuances of my own language.

As a translator, I was always questioning. How do I express exactly what the author meant? Should I sacrifice beauty for clarity? To what extent should I edit an author’s text, smoothing an awkward phrase into elegance? Danish appears to be an earthy, straightforward language but how could I convey its subtle understated subtext, the irony coded into the simplest word?

Translating was exhilarating, even addictive. But it wasn’t writing. It was other people’s words.

Writing is a slow process. No readymade sentence– not even the merest phrase — awaits you on the blank page. Not so easy to find your own words. Sometimes, though, it helps to think of it as a kind of translation, from the elusive language of one’s own mind and heart.

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