Two Great Translators: K. E. Semmel & Amanda DeMarco

I guess both of these articles are a couple of weeks old now—but do things really count if they happen in August while all of Europe is on vacation?—but I still want to share them since both are really interesting and feature two great translators and friends.

First up, Asymptote has a nice profile of Danish translator K. E. Semmel, whose most recent publication is his translation of Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors.

How did you know you would become a translator? How did you become a translator?

I didn’t really start out wanting to be a translator, I know that much. I started out wanting to be a fiction writer—and I still write fiction, it’s what I do when I’m not translating (I’ve been writing the same novel for eight years!). It wasn’t until I was living and working in Denmark that I decided to translate. I really enjoy reading Danish literature, and puzzling out issues of translation. I found myself reading books in Danish and translating words and sentences in my head. At some point I thought: why not give it a try? So I found one writer whose work I really liked, Simon Fruelund, and got started. Oh, actually, there was something else that came first, I think: I went up to Danish poet Pia Tafdrup at a reading in Washington, DC and told her I really wanted to be a translator. She graciously let me translate a few of her travel essays, and they got published in various places (Aufgabe, dirtcakes). To be honest, I can’t remember which came first. But from those two writers my translation life gathered momentum. I also owe debts of gratitude to Russian translator Marian Schwartz—who actually took time out of her schedule to talk to me, a nobody, on the telephone, and to encourage my translation work—and Danish writer Anne Mette Lundtoft, who recommended me to translate Norwegian novelist Karin Fossum’s The Caller. [. . .]

What’s your pet peeve about the translation/literary industry?

Probably the biggest pet peeve I have, though, is related to reader responses of translated texts. I’ve had people ask me what I think of Stieg Larsson’s books in translation. I’ve not read those books, in either language, but invariably I’m told that they’re not well translated. They’re bumpy. Or clumsy. Or whatever. I don’t quite know what to say to that other than, Can you read Swedish? It’s true that a smoothly flowing text will make you forget a book is translated, but the book may not have been so fluid in the original. It might’ve been bumpy or clumsy or whatever. The translator might have, in other words, chosen to hew closely to the original. Maybe the books weren’t well written in Swedish? I have no idea. But the general assumption often seems to be—when readers dislike something—that the translator is at fault, and I find this troubling. The translator is often ignored if it’s a great book, and pilloried if it’s a “bad” book. How many times do you see, say, quotes by Tolstoy or some other famous, oft-cited foreign author without any attribution of the translator’s role in the quote? Too many.

Fair enough! I wonder if Franzen’s German readers are all “hey, this book is flat and boring! Must be a bad translation” or if they realize that, well, it’s Franzen. (Sorry, that one’s gratuitous, but I can’t help myself right now after reading that Nell Zink review of Purity followed by Tom LeClair’s rant.)


Over at the LA Review of Books, translator and publisher Amanda DeMarco has a “Translator’s Note” in which, well, I’ll let her explain:

A translator must naturally take certain liberties with other people’s words in order to wrest the most truth into the text. In this essay on translation, composed strictly of quotations, I have taken the liberty of replacing select words and phrases with “translation,” “translator,” and the various verb forms of “translate.”

I have also committed untold infidelities.

What follows is exactly that. Here are a couple of examples:

Precisely there where you are not — that is the beginning of writing, but I hate traveling and explorers; the soul has to stay where it is. Translation makes the strange familiar. Essentially, it makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality and eventually in one’s own. Remembering my country, I imagine it, and though every man is not only himself, all alone is all we are.

And I cannot explain the action of leveling, why a translation should all boil down to one uniform substance, a magma of interiors. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. Because all identification with characters, deeply conceived, is an impertinence — an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart. The voices of the narrative come, go, disappear, overlap; we do not know who is speaking; the text speaks, that is all: no more image, nothing but language. What is inevitable in a work of art is the style. It is what is sequestered.

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