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S2: When I was able to work in cafes like sitting there with the laptop, I actually works and sometimes Saturday scuse me, do you mind if I ask you a question? Pardon me. I’m a translator, and I would always be something like, OK, you now have someone ask you a question. And instead of saying, I don’t know, you say, uh, so what is that called?
S3: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, June Thomas, and I’m your other host, Ramona Lum.
S4: Remon, the voice we just heard belongs to Damian Serles, who is a writer of both original works and translations, though today the focus is on translating. I’m very excited about this conversation. But before we get to Damian, I know from previous episodes that some of your favorite books are works that first appeared in languages other than English. As a reader, do you think you approach translations differently from works that were written in English? I think I did.
S5: Or long have. You know, and that this conversation with Damian challenged how I think about this. You know, I had this lingering sense that was probably imparted to me by some know it all who once said something like this to me, but that to read a work not in its native tongue is somehow not the same. That it isn’t as good, that it doesn’t count, but even as I say that it seems like nonsense, you know, like I can’t learn French well enough to read Balzac, you know, never mind learning Japanese or something. I’m just not smart enough and there’s just not enough time.
S4: You are smart enough to do anything for money. So I just want to challenge that. Going to give some pushback back. But yeah, time and choices. I will I will permit. So who is Damian Searls. Was he written and translated.
S5: So Damien has translated more than 40 books from German, from French, from Norwegian and from Dutch, including the works of six winners of the Nobel Prize in literature. Damien also works in English. He edited a volume of Henry David Thoreau Journal, and his own writing includes a book of short stories called What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, and a biography and cultural history called The Inkblots, which tells the story of the creator of the Rorschach test.
S4: Wow. And what was your relationship with his work before this interview happened?
S5: Well, in 2013, Damiens translation of a work known as Anniversaries, which is a set of four novels by the German writer, oh, gosh, now I have to pronounce his name Ouvea. Johnson was published in this country. And in her review in the Times, Pearl Segal wrote, It is a novel that swallows reality as noisy and demanding as the world itself, which is really quite an endorsement. Quite. But actually, I think I met Damien sort of indirectly because his publisher for his translation of Patrick Modiano is Yale University Press. And I think Damien had seen me praise Modi’in, his writing on Twitter and had asked the publisher to send me a copy of that book when it appeared. So we had this kind of very collegial exchange through the mail. Seems very old fashioned and it was so lovely. So I’ve always remembered that and I’m so glad I was able to speak to him for this show.
S4: Yeah, I’m looking forward. Before we get to the interview, I also want to mention that Slate plus members will hear a little something extra from your conversation. What will that be?
S5: I did that thing that I love to do on the show, which is ask our experts about their kind of dream projects. And you’ll also hear Damien talk a little bit about how he has spent his time in quarantine. And I can pretty much guarantee it’s going to make you feel like you have not been working hard enough in your own quarantine that well, that’s pretty easy.
S4: But if languages are involved, I am extra ready to be wowed. OK, listeners, if you aren’t yet a member of Slate plus, I just want to know, what are you waiting for? Support Slate’s journalism get ad free podcasts and access to exclusive content like those great extra questions to do. So just go to Slate dotcom slash working plus. OK, let’s hear Remans conversation with Damien Searls.
S5: Damian, you’re a writer and a translator, but I’m principally interested in the latter, so I’m going to begin with a really basic question, which is how many languages do you speak?
S2: Well, first, thanks for having me here. And I’ll begin with the really basic answer. But it’s not really the right question because I only write in one language, which is English. And I think people often think that being a translator is much more about knowing the other language you’re going from, as opposed to being able to write well in the language you’re actually producing a book. So I translate from several languages, but I don’t speak them all perfectly. I’m not a native speaker of any of them. I didn’t grow up bilingual or anything. So it’s in a way a little less impressive than it sounds to translate from multiple languages, because as long as I can read them, the question is how well can I kind of give that out in an English text? So I translate from three or four German, French, Norwegian and Dutch. German is the foreign language I know best French. I’ve lived in France. I can speak it. OK, the other ones I read more than I speak. You know, I probably would have trouble like ordering a hamburger in a restaurant in Norway, except that they all speak English.
S5: But it’s so interesting to me that you are talking about an ability with these languages that has to do with them yielding to you on the page, but not necessarily functioning in daily life, as you said, like, could you make a grocery list in Norwegian? Could you order in a restaurant in the Netherlands? So what is that tension? And am I wrong in thinking that the sort of like elementary education model of foreign language in this country anyway, really prioritizes an ability to speak as opposed to read?
S2: I kind of think there are different ways that you can learn a language, and I mean, I know people who never read a grammar book or a textbook and just like take a trip to Barcelona and go for it or used to when trips were possible. And there are other people who don’t learn kind of in conversation, but who like to do the exercises and memorize the endings and all that kind of thing. And I think, you know, language instruction in the US is pretty bad and it starts much later than it should because kids learn languages really easily. And there’s certainly other ways you could do it. But I think that in college or as a grown up, if you’re trying to learn a language, you can just sort of find the method that works for you, especially now that there’s YouTube. So if you decide to learn Arabic, you could spend all day, every day for the rest of your life watching children’s books, read our back or news broadcasts or whatever, and just have all that language flowing into your ears if that’s how you learn it.
S5: What was your particular path? And was was it German? That was your first experience of non English?
S2: Yeah. You know, my first experience was probably the Spanish on Sesame Street. I guess my first first experience, my mother only spoke English at home, but grew up Jewish in South Africa. So there was a certain amount of Hebrew, Yiddish, Afrikaans, other languages that were out there. And I kind of, you know, knew that there wasn’t just one language in the world from the beginning. But I didn’t grow up speaking any of those. I took Latin in middle school. I took French at some point for a year or two and never really liked it. I took a year of Russian sort of freshman year as a requirement and I thought that was pretty cool. So I knew about cases and endings and, you know, the fact that there are different languages. But then I took my first German class near the end of college because I was a philosophy major and writing about a German philosopher and wanted to read them in the original and also liked German writers, Kafka, Rilke, that kind of thing.
S5: You said something that I’m so struck by at the very outset of our conversation, which is. That to some extent, your work as a translator relies on you having. An ability to work as a writer, full stop in English, which is the language we’re talking about, but just that, that it’s about being a writer as much as it is about sort of technically transposing a word or phrase from a different language into our own. Is the act of translation technical or creative, or is it both?
S2: Yeah, I, I think it’s more creative. You know, you usually know what it means in the original or if you don’t, you can ask someone, you can check another dictionary, you can talk to a native speaker if you have some kind of antenna and are tuned in to wait. I must be missing something here like this. Can’t be what’s going on. Then you can ask someone, hey, is this an idiom that I haven’t run across or whatever? So the hard part is really rarely understanding. You know, the kind of what the word means, which is sort of, I think the level that most people who haven’t done translation or haven’t really thought about translation think in terms of it’s like you have to be a dictionary who figures out what it means. But what’s really going on is you have to figure out how to say it in a different language. So even on that word level, you really often, like, know what it is, but you don’t know what it’s called. So, like, here’s an example, like in an old fashioned elevator with an elevator operator, there’s the metal door that’s attached to the actual building. And then in the elevator that goes up and down, there’s another kind of expandable wooden clattering kind of gate. So what is that called? That’s the translation problem. Like you read it and some character turns around to face the whatever this is and you don’t want to say face the front or face the door, because that kind of loses some of the texture. You know, that collaterally gate thing is so evocative of, you know, old elevators 40 years ago. So so what do you call it? What is it? You know what it is. But what’s called. Yeah. And then how do you look it up? Because you don’t know what it is. So you can do an image search for parts of elevator or something. But like, you know, that might not actually work. And so that’s even on the word level, not talking about voice or rhythm or anything like that. That’s what the kind of translation problem. Do you know what it is?
S5: No. What is it called now?
S2: I’m dying to know what it’s called is a scissor gauge, because if you picture like pairs of scissors up and down, like expanding into the diamond and closing. So, I mean, I actually when I was able to work in cafes, like sitting there with the laptop and the dictionary site and working on it, and I actually would sometimes say to scuse me, do you mind if I ask you a question? Pardon me. I’m a translator. Do you mind if I ask you a question? And it would always be something like, OK, you know, if someone asks you a question and instead of saying, I don’t know, you say, oh, yeah, yeah. So what is that called? Like, if you were writing that, someone replied, Oh yeah, they’re not grunting. They’re not like whining. They’re not. Kind of slurring, you know, there are a half dozen ways I could describe that, but which one is best for this book or this character in this book?
S5: So I want to hear just about like the very basic process, you mentioned this already, but you’ve got to read the work first and then you break it into its component parts. Do you go sentence by sentence? Do you talk to the writer or do you talk to other scholars? Do you consult a contemporary dictionary? Do you consult if you’re working on a German novel from the 20s? Are you looking at a German dictionary from the 1910s? You know, like, how is that working?
S2: I don’t talk to authors when they’re dead, and I personally have sort of ended up doing a bunch of kind of canonical literature. So a lot of dead, dead writers, which means, though, that their scholarship. So in other words, I’m not going to ask Thomas Mann what he thinks, but there are eight thousand books about this Thomas Mann story I could read if I wanted to know if someone has hired me to do a book that they want to do. And I haven’t read it yet, I probably. Won’t read the whole thing first. I’ll just do it as I go along, because why take the time to read it another time when I’m going to be reading it so closely as I go through? But usually I have some context for it. It’s either a new work by an author I’ve translated before or at least an author I’ve read or something, or I’ve read the first 20 pages of the book before agreeing to do the translation. You know, if it’s me coming to a publisher saying this is my favorite book and it hasn’t been translated, like, can we please do it then? Of course I have read it before already. Yeah.
S5: So you sort of touched on this before that part of your territory as a translator has been working with canonical writers and tuks, and I want to ask you a little bit about a really big project that you worked on that was published in English in this country in 18 by New York Review books called Anniversaries. It’s a quartet of German novels rendered for the first time completely into English by you. It is about 17 hundred pages in total. I mean, I’m curious to know what you make personally as someone who cares about books, because clearly you must to do this job about your responsibility there, that you are the person who is doing this for this writer who is no longer alive.
S2: Yeah, I’m glad you asked about that. I mean, that’s really the sort of book of a lifetime for me. It was hard in a way to come back emotionally because like after you’ve climbed Mount Everest, what do you do? You know, you just like tackle your thirty seventh project. That’s like sort of the same as one through thirty five. Is that all there is. So this book I have to say a little bit about what it’s about. It’s a German mother and daughter character. It’s a male writer, but female main characters and just unbelievably incredible characters. You so know them and care about them, including the kind of precocious 10 year old daughter, which is a really like high difficulty level move as a writer. If it goes wrong, it’s so terrible. But if it goes right, it’s so amazing. So they have emigrated to New York City and they’re living in New York now and now being nineteen sixty seven to nineteen sixty eight. The reason it’s so long is because every day for that year is a chapter of the book. So there are a lot of chapters. But each chapter is this like three or four page miracle of some combination of the mom’s memories of the past day to day life in New York. They read The New York Times every day. So a lot of them have sort of news stories collaged in or bouncing off the other storylines. So the other thing is that the place where they live in New York on the Upper West Side is three blocks away from where I grew up. So the park that they see out their window on Riverside Drive and go to and where they meet their first American friends and all this kind of thing is literally the park that I went to every day after school, four years of my childhood and everything about the neighborhood and the subways and all that stuff. I wasn’t around in nineteen sixty seven and sixty eight, but my childhood was kind of a lot closer to that than it is to now. And so in terms of responsibility, I mean it’s my childhood, it’s a German novel, but it’s it’s super realistic and details and observant and subtle. So even though it’s a German novel, it’s kind of the great New York novel, it’s sort of up there with another country by James Baldwin and whatever kind of New York novels you want to name for this one, partly because it is so long, there had to be sort of a lot of funding for the project and it wasn’t an easy sell to a publisher. So there it was less about what’s my responsibility to it and more like how can I make this happen? You know, I think it’s a great book. I think it’s very relevant to our times today. And I think it should be in English. And I think it’s wonderful to read, you know, what can I do to make this happen? It wasn’t it wasn’t so much like there were, you know, 20 potential candidate translators. So how do I stand out as the one who will do the most justice to it? It was like I was I was trying to do it.
S5: Is this a book that is well known to German readers or is it less well known in the original context?
S2: It’s quite well known. It’s the author. His name is that Johnson spelled Johnson just like Lyndon Johnson. The author is very canonical. His first novel, which is much shorter, is kind of regularly on the best books of the century lists in Germany near the top, taught in all the schools and stuff like that. This one, being longer, is less read. But on the other hand, what I do want to say about it is. I have met lots of people who’ve read it and almost all of them to a person say it’s the absolute favorite book they’ve ever read. They’ve read it four times. And it you know, it accompanies them through their whole lives. And these are not scholars. These are like people I meet in New York publishing or business or diplomacy or just, you know, whatever. It really is a real living book with a story and stuff you care about, not like Finnegans Wake or some kind of monumental thing.
S4: We’ll be back with more of Roman’s conversation with Damian Searle’s. One of the things we’d love to do with the show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a big question about inspiration or discipline or anything at all. Send them to us at working at Slate dot com or give us a ring at three or four nine three three work.
S1: And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts.
S4: Now let’s return to Roman’s conversation with Damien Searle’s.
S6: I can’t help but feel almost this act of mourning.
S5: For the books that we don’t know about in this culture that are, as you describe, right, like not as you say, not oddities or intellectual curiosities like Finnegans Wake, which are, you know, big and important, but like unreadable. But a book like like Ferrante actually is a good example where it’s like a great yarn, a really good story that can just, like, completely change how you feel about books. And it’s the kind of thing you feel really passionately connected to throughout your life. And there are so many from so many cultures that we just won’t see as English readers.
S2: Yeah, yeah, that’s true. I mean, that’s perhaps more true for English readers because English is the dominant world language and because related to that there are proportionately fewer translations into English than there are out of English. Yeah, most places around the world will have a better sense of American literary culture and trends than vice versa because of the dominance of English. Yeah.
S5: You know, language is something that really that changes, so do you as a translator have to make your peace with the knowledge that you may not be detecting like some subtle wordplay or some cultural context? Even if you’re talking about a book that set in 1967, 1968, which is not so long before you were born, that there could have been a very specific kind of cultural reference, a very specific kind of turn of phrase.
S2: Whose meaning is just lost over the decades? Well, you know. If it’s something that I really don’t feel like I understand, I won’t translate it, I mean, I won’t agree to do it. You know, if it’s about some, like, social scene that I have. No. Context for knowledge of, but most of the books I read, I read them as a reader and they know and I get something out of them, I get a lot out of them. And so if I can convey what I get out of them, then. If I do it well, someone will be able to read the translation and get as much out of it as I got out of this great book that I read in the first place. So I don’t get too hung up on if there’s some, like, little. It is a more little nuance that I miss because, you know, I try and catch as much as I can, and if I miss it, I miss it. You know, this is part of the question you asked before about knowing the other language. There certainly is another school of thought where what really matters is how perfectly you know, the language you’re translating from. And, you know, there are people who kind of brag about like I grew up on the same street in the same year as this author, I’m translating. So that’s my language and I totally get it. And yeah, that’s great if you are then able to write it in English. So nothing against. Detailed expert knowledge, but ultimately, in my view, sort of side of the debate I’m on, it matters more if you can can actually write something that people want to read and that kind of sparks off the page in the way that you want literature to do.
S5: Damien, your description of translation as an act of writing and not as sort of like a technical matter where you’re transposing a unit from one language into the next is very different from anything I personally have heard. And also, it feels like it embodies like a philosophical difference about the act of translation. Is that something that you’ve always felt about your work, that it doesn’t matter about getting it exactly right? Or is it something you’ve come to as you’ve done this work longer?
S2: I think both, but I think you have to start off with a certain carefree or reckless. Just decision to go for it, and so I think that is an important. Prerequisite to being a translator, unless you’re very much in this kind of technical, I’m the only person in America who knows ancient Albanian, so I’m going to translate the Albanian ethic or whatever, you know.
S5: So I’m in the act of having my most recent book translated into a bunch of different languages, and I got an email yesterday from my Swedish translator. In the book, I refer to a swimming pool as an attractive nuisance, which is a phrase in American law which holds people who own swimming pools liable for the death of children who wander onto their property and drown in the swimming pool.
S2: It’s a very specific term term, but that’s like inherent vice title.
S5: Exactly. Is actually a legal term or like eminent domain. It’s like it’s the kind of thing that sort of makes sense to an American reader, will sound vaguely familiar to an American reader who’s ever, like, taken out homeowner’s insurance or something like that. And my friends, I don’t know how to tell my translator what to do with this phrase. And I guess I decided that maybe it just doesn’t matter that maybe it’s not really advancing anything beyond my own desire to have used that phrase when I was writing the book. Like maybe it doesn’t mean anything, maybe it doesn’t carry anything.
S2: I’ve written books as well that have been translated into other languages and people have sometimes asked me again before having that kind of conversation that you and I have been having, like, oh, are you going to translate it yourself into German? The answer being absolutely not. I don’t write in German. Then they’re like, Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. Well, are you going to review the translation? And my answer is no, because what I’ve learned from experience is if it’s a good translator, you have to trust them. And if it’s a bad translator, it’s beyond help and you’re not going to fix it. So there’s no upside. There’s no gain to me spending my time like checking. Yeah. For your case with the Swedish translator, my advice to you would be to tell them that. But don’t tell them what to do. Yeah. Yeah, it’s up to them. I mean, it depends on the kind of texture they’re creating for your whole book. You know, what I feel like as a translator is. You decide what’s important and then that’s what you translate for. If it’s snappy dialogue, then maybe you won’t use some term that sounds really formal and arcane in English because that breaks the conversation. If it’s some kind of instruction manual, you have to use the exact right term or if it’s producing a translation for university press of some work of scholarly significance, then maybe you have to add a footnote saying this thing is none of those are failing to translate it. Those are all just picking what you think is important. So it’s really up to the translator, not up to you to decide in the Swedish book, you know, is that piece of texture. Same with the scissor gate. Yeah. You know, you can lose the scissor gate and no one will care or know or you can keep it because you think that that adds to the book. And so that that’s my advice to you. Like, tell them the information, but then it’s up to them.
S5: David, you translated a novel by one of my absolute favorite living writers is the French Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano. The book you translated was a novel called Sundays in August. I personally don’t have any language other than English. And as I just said, Modiano is one of my favorite living writers. And I feel like there are these purists who will say, no, you haven’t really read him because you’ve only experienced him in translation. You know, in his body of work is so big that it has multiple translators because English publishers have been sort of trying to catch up after Modiano won the Nobel Prize. So I’ve read your translation of this book, and there’s no I don’t think there’s another one rendering this particular book into English. I’ve read a handful of his other translators and his other books. Am I getting Modiano or am I getting the sort of simulacrum of Modiano?
S2: Yeah, you know, I think that’s a kind of overdefensive reaction to some sort of insecurity that’s been instilled in you by this kind of technical vision of, you know, is it ninety nine point seven percent accurate or is it ninety nine point eight percent? You know, why wouldn’t you be getting Modiano again? You know, there is a different layer when you read someone who wrote in English. Well, they’ve been edited and somebody put a certain cover on it and they’ve been reviewed in a certain way and they exist in the culture in a certain way. And you’re either reading it in a course where the professor’s framing in a certain way or you’re not. And the bookstores decided to stop it and promote it in a certain way. And so, you know, you’re not in some pure ideal mind meld with the author either. Yeah, I guess the best analogy there would be performing music. If you listen to Glenn Gould, are you listening to Bach or not?
S5: That is a really tough question. That is a really tough question.
S2: Well, there’s no real answer, right? Because the answer is, is both like you’re listening to Bach. As good as you can ever listen to Bach, there’s no better way unless you just read the score. But maybe that’s the worst way or unless you play it yourself. But maybe that’s the worst way. On the other hand, Glenn Gould is not going to be playing at the same way as everyone else will be playing it. So if you have 10 different recordings of the same piece, you’re listening to Bach in ten different ways. But you’re not, like, not listening to him, you know? I mean, I guess that’s what I would say about the Modiano. Like, how could you better read Modiano? I mean, what’s the sort of ideal that you’re going to go back in time and be born in nineteen twenty nine, I suppose.
S5: But you know, like I can’t think of another way really. How do you evaluate a translation to. That’s the other thing, especially with a writer like Madonna who has multiple translators and I hear people say this all the time. Or did you like the translation. Do you like this new book? And I don’t really have a perspective on it because I’m reading obviously I’m reading the language and thinking about the the way it’s working. But I’m understanding that as the choice made by the author and the translator, even if it is sort of something that’s happening as a duet without my realizing it.
S2: Right. That’s another one of those mysterious questions. Right. Because I, for example, judge and feel like I can judge translations even if I don’t know the original text, even if I don’t know the original language, you can sort of sense is this artistically motivated stretch of the language or is this some weird deformation of the language where it just doesn’t sound right? Like people wouldn’t say bad translations from different languages tend to go wrong in ways specific to the languages. So, for example, translations from Spanish might sound really flowery because Spanish has a Latin vocabulary and Latin words are flowery and English, even though they’re not in Spanish, they’re just the words. So if you have all this like the Felicity of the maternal, you have the love of the maternal, you know, then you’re like, wait, that’s not right. Even though Felicidad is just happy or happiness or whatever. Spanish isn’t one of my languages, so forgive all of that I just said. But, you know, or translations of Chinese poetry can sound like FOGIE because they have a different grammar with the subjects and tenses and things like that. And you can just kind of tell if this hasn’t clicked. And so I would again encourage you to like, let go of this inner schoolmarm who’s telling you you don’t have the right to judge a translation. If it’s a book you like, then it works. It’s good if it’s something that, like you’re bored and confused, then like it didn’t work and it’s true, you may not 100 percent know. Was it the author or the translator? A bad translator can actually make you think that the author is bad without meaning to, of course. But again, you don’t have to have this kind of like. I’m not able to judge a translation because I haven’t done this or that skill. Why not? I mean, you judge every book you read, you like it, you don’t like it.
S5: Damien, this has been such a great conversation. I really, really thank you for your time. It’s really clarified a lot for me about how I think about translation and really helped me think it through in a fresh face.
S6: I really, really appreciate your time. Thanks a lot. It’s my pleasure.
S4: That was fascinating. I have a bit of experience in the world of literary translation myself, having spent some years in the 1990s working at a tiny publishing company called Women in Translation. But Damien’s still blew my mind with some of what he said. I really appreciated his attitude to translation, which I think could be summarized as the first priority is getting the vibe of the original work right. Or you could put it another way. Writing skill is more relevant to the job than proficiency in the original language of the text. Would you agree with that?
S5: You know, this struck me as a really fresh perspective on translation, although I should say that I perhaps never really bothered thinking through the issue before. You know, it’s such a remarkable idea. It seems obvious to say that you can have works in one language by two very different writers. Let’s take Henry James and Mary Gaitskill. So rendering those two books in Arabic would be about a lot more than just getting the individual words right. It’s about style and mood and reference and so much else. And so it was really interesting. You heard Damien speak of it as that.
S4: Yeah, I loved how you asked him about the translator’s responsibility, which feels quite profound. But there’s also something very generous about the act of being a translator, of using your skills in the service of someone else’s ideas.
S5: Absolutely. I could not agree more. I think it’s work that you can only do if you truly care really deeply about books. You know, I mentioned in this conversation that I’ve been corresponding with my Swedish translator, you know, when he told me just this morning that he’s also recently finished the translation of Orwell’s 1984 from the English and Swedish. You just the idea of bringing that work into a whole other language, I just find that’s so daunting and remarkable and as you say, really generous.
S4: Speaking of your Swedish translator, I’m so glad that you asked Damien for advice on responding to his queries. When I worked at a different but related publisher, SEAL Press, we often got questions from translators about our books. And I remember that the only ones that really felt important to answer were ones that were about proper nouns have a very clear memory of receiving a fax from a German translator asking about a Seattle street that came up a lot in a mystery that involves sex workers. It was being used as a sort of Cinecitta key, but if you didn’t know what Aurora Avenue was, it didn’t work. So I was glad that they asked about that. But on the whole, it’s something that you kind of want to stay away from, as you said, or as Damián suggested. Can you share more about the kinds of things your Swedish translator asked about?
S5: Sure. Christian, who is my translator, asked me about the word volunteer, which I use in the book. And in a botanical context, a volunteer refers to a seed that takes root where it hasn’t been planted. So that’s either an unfamiliar term in Swedish or Christian happens to not know the language of gardening. It’s a really interesting question, though, and I really liked Damien’s response to this particular challenge, which is that, you know, you can’t actually do it all, as you’re saying, like a certain street. And Seattle will always mean something to people who live in Seattle that can’t possibly be imparted to a reader who lives in Tokyo. And and the inverse is true that when we read, you know, a book by Murakami or a book by Modiano, we may not understand the nuances attached to place name. And, you know, that’s OK. You don’t get to know everything.
S4: Yeah. And maybe it’s better if you don’t you don’t want to get too caught up, in the words, but instead in in the paragraphs of the pages of the chapters are just the whole vibe. That’s kind of that’s how we read books. You mentioned having read several different translators, takes on Patrick Mariano’s work. When you were reading the work of different translators, were you kind of aware of their taking different approaches?
S5: I’m not sure that I was. You know, Modiano is a writer with a sort of blunt style, and the particular spell of his work for me is and how incredibly confusing the narrative is. So the language is really direct, I think, to underscore how baffling the stories usually are. And I’m just so pleased that there are so many different translators on the case, you know, helping get a very long backlist into English. It feels like a gift. And honestly, it feels like a miracle.
S4: Yeah, if we could remove any linguistic challenges with the aid of a magic wand, is there a book that you would like to translate? And I would also add that we can use another magic wand to allow that translation work to take no time whatsoever so you can still devote all of your creative time to your own work. But OK, what are you going to translate for us?
S5: You know, so many of my favorite books were written in other tongues. I’m thinking of like the sort of ever shifting top 10 list I carry around in my head. And I think four of them come from other languages. One is Junichiro Tanizaki, the McKerracher Sisters, which was written in Japanese two books by Thomas Merton, but in Books and the Magic Mountain are on my top 10. Those are both written in German. I’ve already mentioned Patrick Modiano. Those were all written in French. Jenny Erpenbeck has a masterpiece of a novel called Go Went Gone, which was also written in German. But the truth is that those books have all been really beautifully rendered for us into English and they don’t need me.
S4: But what I think it would be to have a Rumana translation in the interview, you mentioned that Americans do not prioritize language learning. I’m curious if your own kids are learning languages or plan to when they’re a bit older.
S5: I mean, I think it’s so telling that we heard Damien speak of Sesame Street is the first experience of a foreign tongue. It’s absolutely true that kids are so porous. And if we had any sense as a nation, kindergarten instruction would include Spanish or French or German or, you know, Arabic, Mandarin, you name it. I just think of our populace would be so much the richer for it. My older son, who’s in sixth grade now is learning French and he loves it. And he’s really a natural, but he’s not shy at all. So he’s very eager to jump in and he’ll try and pronounce anything. And I think that that particular attitude really helps. Yes. And I can tell, like even over Zoome, that his teacher is just delighted with the way that he will just, like, go for it, you know? Yeah. I would love to have his brother start learning French, too. But then unfortunately, my entire household, except for me, would be able to speak to one another in French, which seems like it could just really be a disaster for me.
S4: You know, that just sounds like the perfect language learning motivation to me. I think the entire household, Paul, in France would be fantastic.
S3: Listeners, if you enjoy this show, please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate plus members get benefits like zero odds on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working to learn more. Go to sleep. Dotcom’s working.
S5: Plus, thank you so much to Damien Searls for being our guest this week and as always, enormous thanks to our fantastic producer, Kim Andrews.
S3: We’ll be back next week for a conversation between Isaac Butler and choreographer Annie B. Parsons. Until then, get back to work.
S5: Slate plus listeners, here’s a little something extra from this week’s conversation with Damien Searle’s. I’m curious to know what’s the work that you would like to have the opportunity to translate?
S2: I don’t have anything else on my bucket list the way anniversaries was. There are other projects that haven’t found a publisher yet that I’m interested in. There are some other shorter texts about the main character of anniversaries that haven’t been translated. There are also just kind of random other things I run across. There’s a French, Japanese. Poet and prose writer, so born in Japan but lives in France, who wrote this kind of amazing diary of the Fukushima disaster and her processing of it kind of in real time from France. So she wasn’t in Fukushima. She was in Paris. But hearing the news trickling out through the media, and that’s kind of rolling cascade of different crises and stuff like that. And one of the things she really explores is you never know that it’s the day before a disaster because it hasn’t happened yet. You only know about it afterwards. But nowadays, being after a disaster is always being before the next disaster. So you’re always before it, even though you sort of only know about it in a circular way or something. It’s very interesting. Hard to summarize. I try to get a publisher interested in that book. The tenth anniversary of Fukushima is coming up in March. It was March 2011. And in our world today, I find the book very timely and moving as we are embroiled in a never ending, roiling series of climate, health and political crises. So, you know, there’s one that I try to get people, publishers interested in and nobody, nobody bit for whatever reason yet. So even though the 10th anniversary will come and go, I still think it’s a good book. And I and I hope that I can find some publisher for it. So my answers to your question are kind of in that category. Like, that’s that’s not that’s not my bucket list.
S5: So you’re not you’re not burning to do a new English translation of the Magic Mountain or some seminal classic work, not burning to.
S2: But I mean, I, I do that too. So I’m not doing the Magic Mountain. I’m actually doing so. Because of very. Byzantine copyright law in America, that’s mostly because Walt Disney Company bribed some congressmen to keep Mickey Mouse and copyright for a long time, books that were published before nineteen twenty three are public domain and you can retranslate them. So, for example, I retranslated Herman Hess’s Damiens Since I am Damián and that’s no problem because it’s pre nineteen twenty three so every publisher can do whatever they want. That’s why there are a lot of different editions out there. That’s why there’s delver classics. But the best Thomas Mann story was from nineteen twenty five so it never entered public domain and could never be retranslated. So there’s a very old translation by Tilo Porter. She called it disorder and early sorrow. And that story is just the peak of my canet up there with Anna Karenina or James Joyce, the dead like you name it. It’s funny, it’s wise, it’s moving, it’s sad, it’s deep. It’s hilarious. And I kind of wanted to translate it for twenty years, but you could never get the rights to it because they were owned. But it’s coming into public domain. And so I finally am going to be able to translate it. And because it’s only about, I don’t know, thirty, thirty or forty pages long, it couldn’t be by itself. So the publisher is like, oh, you have to make a selected stories and you have to include death in Venice because everyone expects death in Venice. So I am doing selected and a new selection of stories by Thomas Mann secretly only so that I can do this one story that just in the earlier translation. Isn’t there, you know, but when when I read the original, I laugh out loud literally, and I am so moved and it’s so sharp and empathetic. So so there’s one that’s a great who’s publishing that’s going to be Norten or Liveright.
S5: That’s I monism one of my favorite moments, my two of my favorite novels of all time or the Magic Mountain and in books and like that, like that sounds like really the sweet spot.
S2: I’m putting the schoolboy chapter, the long chapter from the end of Wattenberg’s in the selected stories because I agree, I love Wattenberg’s too and that sort of 50 page day in the life of Hono at the end of the book. So in a way, that’s kind of a bold move since that’s not actually a story, but it is a detachable part. And I think it’s just so great. And people who don’t read the whole novel should be able to read the Honeybun story. So, yeah, I agree. And Norton is also doing a new translation of Magic Mountain. Susan Berdovsky is the train.
S5: Oh, we I something I her I think I heard about the know there will be another one. Do you mean if you were going to expand your portfolio of languages and expand your territory as a translator, is there a place or region or literature that you would love to be working with as a translator?
S2: I would love to get out of the European Western European languages that I do and have access to classical Chinese or Arabic or African languages on principle to not be kind of stuck reinforcing the Western European dominance. And also, just personally, out of curiosity, those are those are are big hurdles, though. I mean, Arabic’s hard I remember. So I went to a place called Middlebury in Vermont, which has a well known summer language program. And they do this thing where you sign a pledge this was back in the pre smartphone days. But what you would do is you would sign something saying, I’m not going to speak English for seven weeks. I’m not going to talk on the phone. I’m not going to read the newspaper. I’m not going to, like, hang out in the dorm and talk in English. I’m only going to talk in whatever language it is you’re learning. So the German school in the French school and the Arabic school all had different dorms. They had different cafeteria hours with the menus in that language. So you would be in class, whatever, three hours a day. But then the rest of the day, you know, depending on how seriously you took it, you would only be talking about language. So you’d be really excited to learn the data because you could ask someone to pass you the Salt Lake for the first time. And it’s a great program, the seven weeks sort of officially counts as three college semesters and is probably more than that. But the Arabic school, which was a nine week program, I think at the time, instead of a seven week program at that, you know, at the end of the German summer, you could come in knowing nothing and you could kind of read a newspaper with a dictionary by the end. And at the end of the Arabic word, you kind of knew the alphabet. Yeah. It was just, you know, so hard. Yeah. I have started learning another language in quarantine. I decided to do a hobby and I’ve been teaching myself Greek, but not not because I want to translate it, mostly just because writing in your diary in Greek looks so cool. I mean, Greek letters look so awesome and like getting to text someone in Greek. You have the Greek font on the phone like it looks it looks great. And early in the quarantine, I found myself reading a lot of escapists like, you know, Greek history of religion, ancient Greek architecture stuff. And I was like, you know, I love Greece. Maybe I get to travel to Greece again someday and maybe I’ll be a tourist who can speak. So what are you and how are you teaching it to yourself?
S5: Are you using YouTube, as you mentioned earlier, or using Duolingo or.
S2: Well, I’m the learn it in writing more than in speaking type. So mostly what I’m doing actually is I got one grammar book and I am trying to write in my diary in Greek. So that has some advantages where you reinforce certain things a lot of times, like I’m really good at the days of the week and the days of the month now because I wrote today is Wednesday, like a lot of times. And there’s a certain you know, I’m feeling sad today. I’m feeling happy today. Like I know how to say those. And as I get to you know, I moved to Minnesota. I’m like, OK, I’m going to learn the word for snow now. And so I learn the word for snow and I have to write it down a few times. And that’s how I have sort of learned it. And the two tools that I use are a good online translation dictionary site. So if I want to look up snow, I can go to that page and look up snow. Google Translate is good for sentence’s because it puts the pieces together. It’s not always right. You know, I’m sure I’ve been let down some false paths by it. But just if I know, like the words and I type the sentence and I see how it puts it together, it kind of reminds me like, oh yeah, that’s the verb form or whatever. So the next thing to do is start looking at children’s books on YouTube or things like that to get the verbal stuff up, because unlike unlike German and the other languages, I, I have daydreams of actually speaking to people in this language in their in their home country. German. I you know, I mostly read, I can speak German, I can like be at a dinner party with a German speaker and a non German speaker and translate back and forth for them and stuff. But mostly what I do with it is read in it. But I have fantasies about speaking.
S5: You’re planning you’re planning a trip to Greece someday when this quarantine ends someday.
S3: That’s it for us this week. Thank you again for your slate plus support.