Spotlight on Literary Translators is an occasional feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!
Spotlight on Literary Translator David McKay
By Lisa Carter, Intralingo Inc.
Lisa Carter: What language(s) and genres do you translate?
David McKay: I translate from Dutch into English. My literary translations have ranged from nineteenth-century poetry to a contemporary literary thriller. I also spend a lot of my time translating art books, museum exhibitions, and scholarly works.
LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?
DM: I’ve been an avid reader all my life—that’s probably what all literary translators have in common. I never really enjoyed learning foreign languages in the classroom, but I did study linguistics in college and graduate school, and I wrote a lot of poetry, which gave me practice with skills like self-editing. When love and a youthful spirit of adventure brought me to the Netherlands in 1997, I wanted to master Dutch as quickly as possible so that I would feel at home here. As part of that effort, I translated some short stories and a collection of the classic Dutch comic strip Tom Poes, purely as an exercise. One thing I learned was that I enjoyed translating, and I suspected I might be good at it.
Somehow I heard about the Letterenfonds (Dutch Foundation for Literature)—probably in a documentary about translators of Dutch literature that I borrowed from my local library—and I found out that if you sent them a sample literary translation, they would evaluate your work and possibly add your name to their list of approved translators. I’d love to be able to say that the rest is history, but I had hardly any translation experience at that point, and they very prudently rejected me. Yet at the same time, they told me I showed a lot of promise and encouraged me to keep trying. About a year after that I attended one of the summer translation courses sponsored by the Letterenfonds. There I met other Dutch-English literary translators at all levels of experience, and over the years, their support has been absolutely crucial. (I’m on the approved list now, by the way.)
We’re lucky in the Netherlands to have an institution like the Letterenfonds, which supports translation both to and from Dutch in a systematic way and brings translators together into a network. I’m very much a joiner and also belong to the ATA, ALTA, Sense (an organization for English-speaking language professionals in the Netherlands), and the British Society of Authors. All these organizations offer different though overlapping networks, services, and advantages.
Another essential ingredient for me was landing a job in the translation department of the Dutch foreign ministry. By translating everything from speeches to legislation and having my work revised by experienced translators, I improved vastly, far more than I ever could have on my own. I would recommend that any novice try to work with other intelligent translators in the same language pair—even if you work with another beginner, you’ll still learn a great deal from each other. Experienced translators still benefit from working together, too.
LC: What do you love most and least about this work?
DM: Every aspect of the work fascinates me, from pondering the ins and outs of English punctuation to finding the right voice for a complex character. Translation certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you love language and enjoy hiding out in your office and sitting at your computer day in and day out (or in my case, standing and walking on a treadmill), then it’s an amazing way to spend your time. Every literary project I work on is an invitation both to deepen my craft—my intuitive feel for the right solution—and to learn particular things about language, literature, and the world. For example, when translating Stefan Hertmans’s First World War novel War and Turpentine, I had the opportunity—and, I would say, the obligation—to delve into memoirs and literary portrayals of that conflict in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise.
For years, I wrestled with the financial side of literary translation, and when you’re starting out in this line of work, I think it’s important to understand a few hard truths. You shouldn’t expect to earn a comfortable living from literary translation. Of course, some people don’t need to earn a living at all, and others take up literary translation after retiring from more lucrative careers. Still others have no objection to genteel poverty. But for most of us, literary translation has to be a substantial—but poorly paid—part of some larger set of activities. That could mean teaching, or writing, or editing, or working for the government part-time, or simply doing other kinds of translation, as I do.
There’s plenty of work out there for genuinely talented literary translators, at least in my language combination. That’s not the issue. The issue is that as long as you do your work with care and precision, your hourly earnings won’t be anything to write home about. Some literary translators—even experienced ones—try to solve this problem by rushing and cutting corners, but that inevitably leads to sloppy, substandard work. There are tools and techniques that can help you work a little faster—like voice recognition—but they only go so far. Good literary translation is Slow Food. You’ll need to find some other way to earn most of your income. Not just for the first few years, but throughout your career.
LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?
DM: I’ve recently translated two prize-winning Flemish books. Everything to Nothing, by the Flemish poet and scholar Geert Buelens, describes the history of the First World War through the eyes of the poets involved in it. It’ll be published by Verso in November. I’ve already mentioned War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, which Harvill Secker (UK) and Knopf (US) plan to publish in mid-2016.
Both Stefan and Geert show the influence of the French language and Continental literary traditions, more so than most of the Dutch authors I’ve translated. It was an exciting challenge to make their artful, sinuous sentences work in English. In early 20th-century Flanders (the setting for War and Turpentine), French was woven into everyday life as the language of the state and the elite, in a way reminiscent of Tolstoy’s Russia. When translating War and Turpentine, I had to think carefully about how to convey the multilingual texture of the novel without unduly confusing the reader.
As I went through War and Turpentine many times, it was wonderful to discover hidden allusions and patterns (including one thinly veiled reference to Tintin). Hertmans based the novel on his grandfather’s memoirs, and while reading it, you often wonder where biography or history ends and fiction begins. Instead of dodging that question, or answering it explicitly, Hertmans turns it into a central theme of his book. How can works of art, or invented stories, shed light on real people and historical events? What do we hope to gain by making copies, re-creations of the real? Where is the art in adaptation? These are equally vital questions for literary translators. When does our own craft of re-creation become art? Where does the author’s work end and ours begin?