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An Interview about THE TRANSLATOR

Goodreads Authors/Readers Moderator Vincent Lowry recently spoke with me about THE TRANSLATOR. Here's the interview:


What was your inspiration for writing The Translator?

In 2005, The New Yorker published an article by David Remnick, “The Translation Wars,” about a married couple that was busy re-translating all the great Russian novels into English. The couple was Richard Pevear, an English speaker, and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, a Russian émigrée. Finally, what Nabokov called a “complete disaster” and “the dry shit” of Constance Garnett who had first translated Russian literature into English could be set aside.

What caught my eye wasn’t the word “Translation” in the title of the article, but the words “Tolstoy” and “Dostoyevsky” in the subtitle. As a girl, I fell in love with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pasternak. I remember one summer when I was twelve, I carried Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago every day to the pool. Back then, I didn’t even consider that the stories were first written in Russian—what Thomas Mann calls, “the muddy, barbaric, boneless tongue from the East.” What I thought about was snow, sleigh rides, passion, betrayal, revolution, peasants, czars, love. 

Constance Garnett was, in fact, English. In 1891, when she had a difficult pregnancy, she taught herself Russian. Soon she began translating. According to Remnick, when she came across a word or phrase she didn’t know, she merrily skipped it and moved on. She was not skilled enough to carry forth certain verbal motifs and complicated sentences.

After I read The New Yorker article, I looked at my Russian novels—all translated by Garnett. In the style of Dostoyevsky, I felt betrayed! Cheated! Lied to! I’d read a watered-down, corrupted Russian translation, soaked in a heavy dose of English custom and sensibility. At the same time, questions swirled: What constitutes a good translation? What does a translator owe the author? Why learn another language? 

What message in your book do you hope to pass onto your readers?

Chekhov once insisted that it is “not the business of the artist to resolve narrowly specialized questions.” Like a judge instructing a jury a writer “is obliged to submit the case fairly, but let the jury do the deciding, each according to its own judgment.” 

What am I submitting to the reader? The novel brings attention to many questions, including: If translation is viewed as a metaphor, aren’t we translating all the type? And if that is so, how might one be mistranslating? How does one become aware of mistranslating an action, gesture, intonation? Is it necessary to conjure meaning or does meaning just inherently exist in the act of living? Does language shape thought and perception? How do we love our children without funneling that love through preconceived notions of who they are, who they must become?

Are there any parts in The Translator that were difficult to write or research?

Hanne Schubert, my protagonist, travels to Japan. While there, the Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated confronts her and accuses her of sabotaging his work. Hanne seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel—an unemployed Noh actor named Moto Okuro. At some point, Moto returns to the stage and Hanne attends the Noh plays. 

Noh, one of the oldest art forms in Japan, is a fusion of music, dance, mask, costume and language. It’s dreamlike. It creates a mood without intellectual content. It is, in many ways, ineffable. So how do you capture the experience of Noh, a form that in so many ways cannot be described or labeled with words? It took pages and pages and many revisions to try and write the experience of watching a Noh performance. 

Do you have any advice you could give to new writers?

I teach creative writing at University of San Francisco in the graduate department and earned my Master of Fine Art at San Francisco State University. From my own experience and watching my students’ growth, I’m a firm believe that MFA programs provide a heightened learning curve to the art and craft of writing. Of course, someone can delve into beloved stories, take them apart, analyze them, discover the hidden machinery behind the narrative, but to do it in the context of a community of writers with a knowledgeable teacher is so much more fun!

When I first started writing fiction, I wrote short stories. Short stories are the perfect form for learning plot, characterization, scene, point of view, imagery, all the elements of story, and yet they usually don’t take years to write. 

What is your next book and when do you hope to have it out?

I’m working on something now, but I’m not sure what it will become. I love language, love writing sentences that are pleasurable to the ear. That makes writing a slow process. It becomes even slower because I have two young children.