Zoë, the German edition of my novel Wild Things, debuts this week and the early reception has been overwhelmingly generous, loving and kind.
One reviewer compares Zoë to Heidi and Pippi Longstocking, characters I loved as a child. The entire experience with the German publisher, Carl Hanser Verlag, has been wonderful, but if German readers fall in love with Zoë and Herr Kommkomm (as Zoë's cat, Mr. C’mere, is known in German), it will be largely due to the prodigious gifts, poetic sensibility and great good heart of translator Birgitt Kollmann.
Birgitt’s first email to me came in summer 2010, out of the blue:
July 23, 2010
I thought I'd let you know that I've just started translating your wonderful book Wild Things into German and I'm very happy about it.
If you like, we could keep in touch. My experience with other writers is that it is very helpful to talk about things in the process.
Among the authors I have translated are Alison McGhee, Sarah Weeks, Susan Fletcher, Donna Jo Napoli, Joyce Carol Oates (her YA novels), Martine Leavitt, Laurie Halse Anderson, and I'm very happy to include you in my list.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
Too, as someone who both writes and illustrates and who therefore has a strong vision for her work, I didn’t want to get in my translator’s way.
I replied the same day:
Thank you so much for contacting me.
I'm pleased to have had all my books translated into one or more languages, including German, but you're the first translator who's ever written me, thank you. I'm especially pleased to be in such grand authorial company.
I admit I've had some idle curiosity about how my child of the American South will be rendered into German.
Which is my way of saying that if it's helpful to you and your process, and especially to the final product, I'm happy for us to keep in touch and talk about things while you do your creative work. I speak and read no German, however, and have never been there – just so you know. But if you have questions and think I can be of help to you, I'm here.
Thus our correspondence began, the first emails of what would number, at this writing, more than two hundred, back and forth across the Atlantic and six time zones. Because our book, as I came to call it, debuts this week, I asked Birgitt if I might cull some of our emails to give readers a sense of her singular process and poetic spirit, of my attempts to help her when she asked, and especially, to show the sympathy and friendship that grew between us over the time. In her generous fashion, she agreed to this, as long as I would "correct her English," which was sometimes better than mine. I have edited to make the post a bit more manageable. Dates refer to the emails below them; often we had a number of interchanges a day, a sort of virtual conversation. I've also included Birgitt's brief bio at the bottom.**
I'm grateful to Birgitt for her beautiful translation and for believing, as she wrote me, that “The important thing is that you only translate books you really feel have to be translated, because otherwise it would make you sad, personally sad, that so many people might never be able to know the book.”
Thank you, Birgitt, for your beautiful translation and for believing that Wild Things is such a book.
July 23, 2010
Thank you for answering so promptly. I had just finished the very first chapter and was reading it to myself to hear whether it sounds right, so your remarks came in perfectly. I'm sending you a short text I wrote for Susan Fletcher's homepage when I had translated her Alphabet of Dreams. If you look at the [attached] paragraph* you will see that I know exactly what you mean.
We will never manage to solve the problem of most languages sounding so unalike. But I do think it is possible to create an atmosphere in a translation that calls forth the same sensations in German readers. The important thing is that you only translate books you really feel have to be translated because otherwise it would make you sad, personally sad, that so many people might never be able to know the book.
It doesn't matter at all that you don't know any German – it just makes things so much easier if I can ask you when I'm in doubt about some word, sentence or paragraph. I'm quite amazed that other translators often don't take the chance of contacting their authors. Thanks to email, it's done so easily, and so far all of "my" authors have responded very openly. I've taken a look at your homepage and another look at the map to see where exactly Carrboro is situated. Unfortunately, there weren't many pictures in the internet of your town; I tried to get a general idea about the surroundings in which I imagine the book set.
Now I’ll go back to work – ever since I was asked to do the translation, I've been looking forward to translating that shopping scene in the second chapter. So this is going to be a lovely evening.
*Often I am asked whether I would like to write books of my own instead of “just” translating the works of others, and my answer is always a straight “no” – translating is such a wonderful work. Every author, every text presents a new challenge, and it is quite fascinating to find a new approach each time. I wouldn’t translate whatever book comes my way – I find it important that I like or even love the story so much that I want German readers to read a particular book in their own language. I must be able to see and hear the characters in my mind to be able to give them a new voice. Translating has a lot to do with listening carefully – that’s why I often read passages aloud, both in the original and in my various German versions. I like to say that I teach the people in a book to speak German – but I don’t try to make them look like German characters. While in former times it often happened that persons and places in a book were given German names, today we rather see books as windows to other parts of the world.
Your reply was so helpful to me, thank you.
I came to writing children's books by way of writing poetry. As a poet, I also read a great deal of poetry and poetry in translation. When reading translations, it was always interesting to me to read the English side-by-side with the original poem in its native language because, with the use of a dictionary, I could tell things about the choices both the poet and the translator had made and read more deeply into the poem. I remember doing this especially with Borges (see epigraph to Wild Things) and also Rilke – a long conversation for another time – but I say this to tell you that I think of the translated work as, yes, primarily a translation, a bearer of the essence of the original, but also as a separate creation; to say I have considerable awe for what you do.
I can send you actual photos of Mr. C’mere, if you want them.
My husband, the model for Henry Royster, is visible at www.mikeroig.com, as are his sculptures.
As to the "sound" of the language, to my mind, whatever the language, the cat is a poet--a sensual, visual creature; while the girl, Zoë, is all prose. Third person, I think, gives the cat feline aloofness; while first person gives the girl an in-your-face immediacy.
Sugar Hill, the town Zoë lives in, is a completely imaginary place, though it is grounded in my lifelong impressions of rural North Carolina. Many images of this on the web are a bit too picturesque, but I can send you a few that capture my sense of the real place.
While writing Wild Things, I made line drawings and paintings, too. The American publisher did not use them, but they might be useful to you.
Here, http://claycarmichael.com/BirgittKollman.htm, is my painting of Zoë's World, which should give you, if nothing else, a sense of the lay of the land. If you look carefully you can see the cat, the trailer, the cabin, the church and even Zoë. There are other drawings of the cabin, the white deer and a photo of a real albino deer (this one male) who, shortly after Wild Things was published, began to visit my friend Heather’s garden. Synchronicity, I firmly believe.
Thank you for bringing my book to life for its new German friends.
Thank you, Clay,
The albino deer is something incredible. And Mr. C'mere looks at me just as I imagined him doing.
One of the first sentences I marked in the book when I read it for the first time was Mr. C'mere saying: "How feline of her, he thought, how cat." I love this sentence. BUT: The problem is that we don't have two different words for cat, one Latin-based, one Germanic. So I could use two similar-sounding words for "cat-like". It just doesn't sound good, very boring indeed. So I tried something which in my ears brings out the admiration.
"Wie sie das macht, dachte er, wie eine Katze!" (Maybe I'll invent a new German adjective to go with cat, don't know yet.)
(Which in English would be something like: The way she does it, he thought, how like a cat.) It is longer, unfortunately, but the double "wie" in German starting the two parts of the sentence, gives it something of a rhyme or a melody, and I think it brings out the beginning relationship between Mr. C'mere and the girl better than a closer translation would do. Just to give you an idea of how I work. Normally I try to stick as closely to the text as possible, but not if it doesn't sound right.
Cat in German is Katze, tomcat is Kater. Katze is one of the rather few German words where the female word (die Katze) must take a "she" as a pronoun, which applies to the species as such. Only if I want to make it quite clear that it's a male do I use tomcat. I would have liked to start out with Katze, but then I'd have to change over from sie (she) to er (he) at some point, which is rather confusing. So I guess Mr. C'mere will be a tomcat from the very first sentence.
I guess there is a special reason why you don't put direct speech into " ..... ", right? I never had this before, but I'm trying to keep it up in German, too. German sentence structure is different, of course, so we have to see whether it works out.
Having lived in Buenos Aires for six years, of course I especially noticed the Borges' quote at the beginning. Strange, what things can draw you to a book before you've even started reading it.
You're the first American who's ever told me she read Rilke ...
I promise I won't keep you this busy all the time.
..."I guess there is a special reason why you don't put direct speech into " ..... ", right? I never had this before, but I'm trying to keep it up in German, too. German sentence structure is different, of course, so we have to see whether it works out.
Yes, there is a special reason I did this. I noticed this device reading the novels of the American author Cormac McCarthy, particularly All the Pretty Horses. What I noticed was that the absence of quotation marks reduces immediacy and creates distance, almost like a veil. In the case of the cat, it creates aloofness with the added effect, I believe, of making the reader unsure if the cat understands language directly—I think he does not—or if, rather, he intuits what is being said, understands it instinctively, viscerally, which is how I believe he grasps things.
I found deleting those little marks had a profoundly cat-like effect on the cat's part of the narrative. The technical trick then, at least for me, was making sure the reader then knew 1) who was talking and 2) where speech left off and description again began. You may have to play with this a bit, so that sense is preserved.
I came to Rilke by way of his remarkable Letters to a Young Poet. I sometimes use a translation of Der Panther/The Panther when I teach young poets, for its profound description of cages and the caged spirit, which even children understand.
I like the "how cat" sentence, too, and think you are on the right track.
Good luck for now,
August 17, 2010
You may have been wondering why you haven't heard from me again. My husband, John, and I were on a hiking tour in the Black Forest before school started again (yesterday).
I just translated the part about Henry's room and the many books therein, none of them library books. Are you the same as me—someone who loathes books from the library? With the ugly markings everywhere? And plastic covers?
Two brief questions: Am I right to assume that the drawing board and the drawing table in Henry's room are two different things, the drawing board being that upright thing architects usually have, while the table is a normal table, only with a slanted top? (p. 33)
And, earlier, a bit more complicated: p. 14/15, the conversation about Henry's astrological sign.
Zoë: "Your astrological sign. Sign of the crab."
While I believe I know what Henry means with his remark (something like: I've no idea what you are talking about), but I don't get a feeling for Zoë’s answer. Could you help me?
I love thinking of you and your husband in the Black Forest. It's so Hansel and Gretel-ish.
I actually like library books fine, but view buying books as supporting the people who write them and art I can afford, too. My house is small for someone with this view, though, and book avalanches occur here regularly, usually in the middle of the night.
The drawing board and the drawing table are the same thing: the slanted-top table artists use….I guess I wanted to mix up the language a bit, so as not to sound repetitive.
Your second question: When Zoë teases Henry about his Crab astrological sign being appropriate for his crabby personality, I meant Henry's reply to BE crabby, so Zoë's retort is meant to say "See, that reply and the way you said it just proved my point."
Does that help?
Oh, thank you so much. The "crabby" association hadn't occurred to me....Since Zoë used to read all sorts of stuff I was sure she had read about the alleged characteristics of Cancer people. Anyway, your answer leaves me with a problem: In German, the word for Cancer as the astrological sign and for crab are the same, and the only thing one would associate with the animal is the backward walk. Anyone who has read something about the astrological sign, however, would associate characteristics like extreme sensitivity etc. So...I'll have to think of something.
Luckily Hansel and Gretel didn't get lost in the Black Forest…
So let me ask the obvious, easy question: Is there a Zodiac sign in German that we could easily substitute and which would make the same or very similar sense? Would it help to change Henry's birthday?
That was the first thing I did when you first enlightened me as to Henry's crabbiness - going through all the signs...Actually the only one that would allow some pun is Capricorn, which in German means "Steinbock" - Stein being stone and Bock meaning buck. Bockig as an adjective means stubborn, the way a mule can be. It's a word often used for children when they simply refuse to do what their parents want them to do. But that doesn't fit Henry ...
It's good that this difficulty occurs at such an early stage of the translation work—it's always good to leave such things at rest. You can think about them while going for a walk or peeling potatoes.
Does the bed with the trees exist anywhere???
By the way, I visited your husband's homepage and I'm really fascinated by this "wild things". Would be great to see them in action one day.
August 18, 2010
I'm glad to help you think these things through and open to rewrite or cut in these challenging places, which we may have to do here. I am always in favor of letting things rest. The late American writer John Gardner said that when he got stuck in a story, he went out to his workshop and made a piece of furniture until he knew how to proceed.
The bed with the trees is completely imaginary.
Here's a link that shows a sculpture called Yo-Yo's Muse in motion: http://mikeroig.com/Yo-YosMuse.htm
August 20, 2010
You will be aware that in German we have two ways of addressing a person when in English you say just "you". "Sie" is the more respectful word, the one used for strangers, for older people, etc. "Du" is the word for relatives, friends, children, etc. When Zoe first meets Fred, I think she should say "Sie" to him, because she is a rather grown-up, polite, astonishingly well-bred child. In the course of the novel, we would have to find a point in time (rather sooner than later) where she starts using the more familiar form. What do you think?
Re: Sie, Du: Primarily, Zoë is distrustful of adults and she's smart but lacks sophistication. Would a distrustful, streetwise German child use Sie to keep adults at a distance? If yes, use Sie, at least initially, though I think she and Fred and Bessie and the Padre are pretty friendly by that day's end. My follow-up question: Would a distrustful child like Zoë switch back and forth between Sie and Du depending on how she felt about someone? Would she use personal pronoun shifts to bring someone closer or push them away? Trust is a central issue in Wild Things, both with Z and the cat, so that's why I ask.
Thank you so much. It's so fascinating how you are willing to give thought to the aspects to be considered by a translator. I've never experienced such an intensive co-operation before.
Zoe's distrust would actually be a reason for her to use "Sie" instead of "du". I'll keep your thoughts in mind while I go on. As in real relations with people I met in my life, there normally comes an organic point at which one switches from one form to the other without much thought. I've always disliked people who have tried to impose the "du" on me. For me it's wonderful that we have the choice in German, and I like to watch how a relationship develops until it feels natural to say "du".
As far as I know, the English "you", historically, rather corresponds to our "Sie"– although here most people assume that in Engish-speaking countries all people indifferently are "du"ed.
So, this in mind, I trust that my tummy will tell me the right thing in the end ...
August 23, 2010
I trust when you say "I've never experienced such an intensive co-operation before" that it's a good thing. My sole aim is to be helpful to you. You ask such thoughtful and provocative questions.
Thank you, Clay. Yesterday I was working on an interview I was asked to give on the work of a translator and I mentioned our newly started co-operation as a wonderful experience.
All the best to you from me on a grey August day in Germany.
August 25, 2010
How should I imagine Fred's truck? Like a pick-up, or rather like something bigger?
I'm thinking a gas-hoggin' Ford F150 pick-up truck, kinda like this. C
That’s just how I saw it. Fred's office. Candy-apple-red. Thank you. After I wrote I went back to p. 39 and saw that you mentioned it was a pick-up truck there. The nice picture does make things easier.
October 3, 2010
You haven't heard from me in a long while. Somehow this project is being interrupted a lot….
But finally I've returned to Wild Things, and I've translated quite a lot this last week. Fortunately the breaks haven't done any harm. This is just to let you know that I'm enjoying the work greatly. There are so many sentences when I feel deeply grateful to you for having written them, just for the beauty of them. Probably this sounds strange, but that's how it feels. When I'm doing the cat chapters I think they are the loveliest parts of the book, but then I return to Zoe and Henry and I love them, too.
On Wednesday, the big Frankfurt book fair will open its doors, which means another three days away from my desk, but by then I hope to have done about half of Wild Things so it'll be easier to get back into the book after that. Frankfurt is only half an hour from our town, so I can come home every night. And it's nice, too, meeting lots of people I only meet at the fair.
Always lovely to hear from you.
“There are so many sentences when I feel deeply grateful to you for having written them, just for the beauty of them.”
This is very high praise, and I thank you so much. For me, many writers make good stories, but the really good ones write beautiful sentences, too. The cat's voice, as well as Zoë's, were a kind of music that played in my head. I could hear if the cadences were right or wrong. I am so happy you hear them too and it makes me know your translation will be wonderful and true. You are my kind of translator.
I am jealous you get to go to the Frankfurt book fair. Say hello to Tiffany Hoffman at the Highlights Booth, if she is there. She looks like Anne of Green Gables.
Warmest regards back to you,
October 4, 2010
Working with Birgitt, I discovered that translators, like authors, often work seven days a week. The next morning, a Sunday, Birgitt and I sent each other the same article, a New York Times piece on translation by author Michael Cunningham.
you will like this ....
Translating minds think alike. I read and loved that article last night and was just sending it to you.
how lovely ...
October 6, 2010
Tiffany [Hoffman] was at the Frankfurt Book Fair and she does look like Anne of Green Gables. Almost Scandinavian actually. Little wonder a Swedish man fell in love with her. I said hello from you and we had a nice long talk about the difference between Wild Things and vampires ....
Good to hear from you today, uplifting person, and to know that you had a nice talk with Tiffany. An editor passed on my new manuscript and I’m a bit down.
On a more positive note, I'm reading a fine book that I believe you translated. The book is Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls. Odd that a book about dying is making me feel better, but it is. It's beautiful and funny and poignant all at once, like life. I see that it was published in 2008 and won the Waterstone Prize in England. Why did I never hear of this book? Probably the vampires eclipsed it.
I can only begin to imagine how it must feel to have a new book rejected — but even as a translator I really suffer badly when I see that a book isn't understood at all by reviewers or doesn't find buyers. I use to say that it's a bit like letting your children take their first independent steps into the world — you hope so badly that the world will treat them in a friendly way and welcome them. When my first daughter, Fleurine, was born, I copied a very beautiful short poem by a German poet into her diary, which on a more quiet day I might try to translate for you. The last lines read something like this:
I have told the world to love you,
It sounds so much better in German, (Ich habe den Menschen gesagt, sie mögen dich lieben / es wird dir einer begegnen, der hat mich gehört.)
Some people will say it's not enough…if just one person will come along—I think that being truly loved is so much, we are lucky if we find one such person.
It must feel a bit like this with the characters in your books. It must be so hard to find the strength to go on writing when you find so little acceptance for a project. I do hope the right person will come along.
Yes, Ways to Live Forever is Sally's book and I had the pleasure to translate it.
How perfect. I think that is exactly what one hopes for. One editor who loves the book and helps the writer make it everything it should be, then presents it to readers, a number of whom, if an author's lucky, will love it too. (Really, there's quite a bit more translating going on than even Michael Cunningham wrote about.)
So the truth is, in a way, I was lucky today. I did not marry my book to someone who does not love it. The editor didn't completely reject it, but said she'd have to see the whole thing to decide. At this juncture, though, especially after the success of Wild Things, I'm looking for love and a leap of faith, both.
"My head stayed... silent." I love that. A similar thing happens to me, although when a book isn't working for me, my head starts to rewrite it, so there's mental noise, and I can't give myself over to the text the author wrote. What is more telling is when my heart stays silent and my emotions aren't engaged. I'm old enough now that I don't finish books like that.
Best back to you and thank you for your kindness,
A week later, Birgitt wrote to me because she had bought and read a book I'd mentioned Zoë reading in Wild Things, William Maxwell’s extraordinary They Came Like Swallows. (The passage from Wild Things, pg. 77, is in italics below*)
October 13, 2010
When I got to my desk on Monday, I found a book and a note: I think you might like this (...) It was called They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell. I'd never read it. I started it right then and lapped it up ... I read the whole book in one day.*
So did I, and I was deeply moved and utterly fascinated by the language.
Thank you so much for the hint.
William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows is one of my all-time favorite books. He is better known for others and for being an editor at the New Yorker magazine for many years, but I like TCLS best.
It's miraculous to me how he makes me so completely empathetic to Bunny Morison in the first chapter at the end of which I want to hurl myself growling and claws bared at his brother Robert. And then, miraculously, I meet Robert and utterly understand why he finds Bunny so trying and difficult and I am then completely on Robert's side. Perhaps I don't have to tell you, but this is very hard to achieve.
The last part about the father James is less successful for me, though he makes a good foil to Bunny especially in the first chapters. Bunny's loving-fear of him reminds me of a something I found in the introduction to a book by Shusako Endo: "The Japanese have a traditional saying to the effect that the four most dreadful things on earth are fires, earthquakes, thunderbolts and fathers."
Anyway, I think Maxwell's prose limpid, understated and potent all at the same time. Not too many writers can achieve that.
For the sheer beauty of the prose, have you read Katsuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go? I see they've recently made a well-reviewed movie of it, though I've yet to go. It's a very sad book, but also a tour de force. Ishiguro is more famous for The Remains of the Day, but NLMG put me under a spell from the first page.
You have a wonderful way of talking about books—I mean, it's one thing to love books but a completely different thing to be able to say why and what exactly happens to the reader. Probably this is what makes you such a good writer—that you know so well what exactly you're doing and why.
What struck me in They Came Like Swallows was particularly that while the setting (WWI) was perfectly clear there was such a modernness in the way of telling the story. There are individual sentences that feel dispersed into the book (if I can make myself understood, it's perhaps not quite what I mean), they are in context and yet reach out, as if written in another colour. I read that Maxwell was greatly influenced by Proust and, particularly, by Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. That can certainly be felt, but still there is more warmth in it. Also, I found it amazing how in such a slender book the author manages to give personality to so many characters, even Sophie and Karl...
All the best to you!
October 16, 2010
Thank you. I can often talk about books I love, though it sometimes takes me a while to realize why I love them. I am rather too critical of books I don't love, I think, a consequence of disappointment. I have to respond to a book emotionally or the author must move me (there are so many factors in the receiving of a book, especially, often, the time of life I read it); the emotional level is where I connect or don't. The emotion Maxwell packs into his precise, restrained, economical sentences is amazing to me. I think also the emotion I feel when reading his work is an aggregate effect of these beautifully crafted sentences, one after the other— the emotion builds in layers. And because the emotion is layered it's complex, as in life, ambivalent, deep, real.
When I'm writing, emotional depth builds during revision which is why I've come not to mind it as much. Ironic, isn't it, that as a writer pares away, hones and polishes, the work achieves more complexity, profundity and depth.
“I read that Maxwell was greatly influenced by Proust and, particularly, by Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. That can certainly be felt, but still there is more warmth in it.”
Yes, great warmth and also exquisite vulnerability.
“Also, I found it amazing how in such a slender book the author manages to give personality to so many characters, even Sophie and Karl.”
Yes, this is the mark of a real writer to me. Care with even the minor characters. (Are there really minor characters? A subject for an essay. maybe.)
Two editors have expressed some interest in my new book, so some good news on that front.
Always good to hear from you,
October 24, 2010
Today I found a name for Mr. C'mere, and I do hope you like it (my daughter Josianne does). The exact copy of the English just doesn't work, one would pronounce it in a wrong way, I'd have to use a totally uncommon accent. So what I came up with is this: I let Zoe call "Komm, komm", (come, come, logically, which sounds rather sweet and kind in German), and so she decides to call him "Herr Kommkomm ". I might decide on Mr. instead of Herr in the end, that I don't know for sure yet. I do hope you'll like it ...
It's getting dark, and I ought to get Sunday dinner ready.
All the best,
Both my husband and I laughed at Herr Kommkomm and Mr Kommkomm is good too.
I feel that my book is in EXCELLENT hands, so no worries about anything, dear translator.
We are getting ready for open studios in two weeks, busy making things.
Thanks for asking and always good to hear from you.
Oh, and p.s., two editors are now vying over my new book! It's very nice to be courted.
October 25, 2010
chaw (p. 128): a big wad of tobacco in between your cheek and gum (source: Urban dictionary)
Is that correct???
Yep. You've got it. The chaw pictured here
is a bit large, but you get the idea. Perhaps you didn't want that picture in your head.
Do Germans even chew tobacco or use snuff? The sense would be "like a wad of tobacco".
If German's don't chew tobacco or "dip" snuff, you could say put it in his cheek like a lollipop ("sucker", Zoë would say here in the southern US) or like a piece of hard candy.
The main idea is that the sheriff chewing gum to help him quit or keep from smoking.
October 26, 2010
Nothing to do with Wild Things but something you might enjoy in your early morning:
Sometimes in the weather forecast they announce that the sky will turn heavily clouded, or that clouds will get denser. In German, this is: Die Wolken werden dichter. If you just hear this, you don't of course hear the difference between a small or a capital d at the beginning of "dichter". If it were a capital D, the same sentence would mean something totally different. In English:
The clouds are turning into poets.
We hear that sentence often on the radio, nobody seems to hear the double meaning, but I smile every time. I look up at the sky and the clouds (today there are none, just blue skies, and it's freezing cold, I brought in some of my plants) and wonder about their poems of the day.
It is not so strange, actually, that Dichtung is poetry - the reason being that in poetic language you tend to speak in a way that is tighter, denser (in the original meaning!) than everyday language.
Have a lovely, poetic day.
PS: If your husband is anything like Henry - how could he stand something like the open studio???
Oh, Birgitt, I love that.
The clouds were writing lots of poetry this morning. We woke to a downpour, or frog-strangler as fast, hard rains are sometimes regionally called.
Perhaps you can use the double entendre about clouds when you get to the last cat chapter p. 232. "The sky was overcast, considering the gray matters of clouds, whether to snow or rain." This sentence is a bit over the top, but I decided to leave it. (I push the envelope sometimes, besides which I think of cats as poets.)...
My husband really laughed at what you said about our open studios. Mike's father once told him that there was only one bad thing about his business: "Customers."
Here is a budding poet to inspire you. I taught Burmese children this past year, refugees.
November 3, 2010
When I was shopping yesterday, there was a young American lady with her children at the baker's and we exchanged a few words. It's always so fascinating how friendly, how eloquent, and how easy to talk to so many Americans are. Since I've never been to the U.S. (can you believe it?), my image of your country is greatly formed by its writers and their books as well as by personal encounters with U.S. residents here...
I know it is not polite to discuss politics in the U.S. but since [the strident mid-term U.S. election] is all we are talking about here today, I just had to get it across to you. I am really deeply grateful for the wonderful books and authors I have the pleasure to translate...
PS: I guess Henry's grinder is what is normally called a "Flex" here, is it?
As it happens my next book, a young adult novel, is partly about politics. The unfinished manuscript has just sold, by the way. I am pleased!
Mike and I looked online and we believe Flex is a brand name and that the device is properly called Winkelscheifer. Of course, brand names often become the names of things, like (in the U.S.) Kleenex which is regularly used as a noun for disposable tissues (for blowing one's nose).
We are having open studios this weekend and next. Sorry you aren't in my neighborhood. We could have a cider and talk about art and books and Winkelscheifer and such.
November 4, 2010
Congratulations! How great you sold your new book. Though it would make me seriously nervous if I sat down to write knowing I have to finish that book somehow – and what if I wake up with a writer's block? But maybe it just works the other way round and it's pure motivation. I've got two books waiting to be translated which is making me slightly, but just slightly, nervous. Anyway – nice to have something to look forward to from your corner of the literary world.
The Winkelschleifer is the angle grinder, then there is a straight grinder, which is the Geradschleifer – at least according to the website of Messrs. Flex ... Yes, you're right – Flex is the company, and it works just the way it does with Kleenex or Uhu (the glue) or Hoovering (in Britain). My impression is that "insiders" like to say "Flex" – so I thought I'd explain it once and then use Flex some of the times – it sounds far better and could be the household word in Henry's home.
Enjoy your open studio weekends. Hope you will see nice customers only (with their wallets wide open).
Thank you! I'm trying not to be nervous about selling a book I haven't written....There's so much revision involved anyway once you sell a book (this book will be my fifth). Editors and publishers have to put their thumbprints on your story, as an author-friend likes to say, and it's true. So really I'd be rewriting the thing from start to finish and making major changes either way. I'll be able to compare the two ways of doing things once the next novel comes out.
The angle grinder is the one Mike uses and I think your plan to explain it once and then use Flex sounds just right.
Personally, I NEVER vacuum, but always Hoover, because it sounds more fun.
Thanks, too, for the good wishes about open studio. Here is an image to inspire you. (I wasn't going to do cats again this year, but we had a new feral cat show up, a breed called "tabby blotch"; quite striking.
November 12, 2010
... I meant to ask you (again, take your time in answering): How would you characterise the boy's language? To me it seems that two features are most striking: He speaks in rather short sentences as he is not used to talking a lot to people, and his language seems a bit old-fashioned — is that correct? For instance he says: "So happens we would."
It's been a while since I had Wil's voice in my head, and it took me a long time to get him right when I was writing WT. What I hoped to show with both his clipped speech and the somewhat affected language is a kind of bravado or swagger, and of course, since he's had so few role models, he's pieced this affect together himself, developed a very personal swagger. (Zoe, his sister, has it too, except for her it comes out as fierceness.) Have you ever heard tough/street/undereducated boys put on a similar kind of show for each other? A common mannerism and a defense mechanism, I think. For me, what's so right about the way he talks is that it shows how smart he is and how creative, and also shows his lack of opportunities. He's made the most of what he has.
I was thinking about you re the subject of regionalism over the weekend. Do you have regional speech patterns in Germany, the way we do here? Wil, Zoe and Bessie especially have speech patterns of the rural Southern U.S. If you do have differences in speech patterns, which I suspect you do, it might be helpful for you to think whether one or more might help you to get Wil's German voice in your head. Are you like me? Is it helpful for you to be able to hear a character in your head? That helps me enormously with word choice, syntax, etc., when I'm writing dialog.
Best to you,
November 29, 2010
Today I kept thinking about Sister's name, and all the time that fairy tale by the brothers Grimm crossed my mind, in which the brother is turned into a deer. That tale in German is called Brüderchen und Schwesterchen, -chen being the diminutive form - little brother / little sister.
I was wondering whether we should use Schwesterchen as Wil's name for the white deer. It would have the advantage of having the same, neutral gender in German as das Reh — das Schwesterchen. On the other hand, one might argue that Sister/Schwester puts the deer (though Wil sometimes is a bit amused by her) on an equal footing with Wil.
What do you think?
Today it's been snowing all day long. It looks so lovely. Yesterday we lit the first candle on the advent wreath, and I got several types of cookies ready, so it's just perfect. Anyway I doubt this will last till Christmas.
I love the name Little Sister, and it has the same relative (I mean this literally) echo as the English "Sister", which I like because it foreshadows Zoe's actually being Wil's sister, which few readers guess ahead of time. We could argue, too, that he has the same impatience with the deer that brothers generally have with their kid sisters, as we say in English, not meaning goats, but younger, often much younger siblings. One on-line dictionary even translates Schwesterchen as kid sister. So, I guess the only other consideration for you would be if Schwesterchen were too literary or antique a name for an undereducated German boy like Wil to use. If not, it's perfect, I think.
It is NOT snowing here, darn it. We do get snow, but not often, though its rarity makes it more wondrous. Our whole area stops for snow, too, as municipalities don't invest much in snow equipment for such rare occurrences.
Did you make a Knusperhaus? Long ago, I used to sell lots of Bahlsen products at my aunt's foreign foods store. Kipferl und Pfeffernusse und Springerle and the delicious holiday kinds with Oblaten (I think that's right) on the bottom. I am not as much of a chocolate-lover as some, so I like the ones with nuts and spices, like windmill cookies and anything with marzipan. I miss the lucky pigs. Even after her store closed, my aunt used to seek out the most unusual or comical or kitsch-iest marzipan and give it to me for Christmas.
Thank you for the memories, though you have made me hungry for a Lebkuchen.
November 29, 2010
I had just finished replacing all the Sisters in the translation with Little Sisters, just to see what it would look like and sound like, and the effect was so good that when I saw that you had written I was almost afraid you might have vetoed the idea completely. Schwesterchen does have that fairy tale sound, which is not wrong in the context of Wil, I think, but it is neither antique nor literary. Fleurine or her elder brother might call and enquire after Josianne — "Wie geht's Schwesterchen? - How is Little Sister?". It sounds sweet and tender and very familiar, and maybe a tiny bit typical of elder siblings, as you said.
I was wondering the other day whether you happen to know or have met American writer John Green (Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns). He received an important award in Germany last week. I just heard that his German editor at Hanser, Saskia Heintz, will also be in charge of Wild Things. That's great. She is very nice and very good. So I guess we'll agree on most things concerning the translation.
You're very well informed on German Christmas baking, really amazing. My husband is in charge of the marzipan — I dislike it totally, but the rest of the family love it. I prefer the hearts and the stars and the bells and the reindeer and all these cute little figures which after baking I paint with lemon glazing. We were a family of six children, and when we were baking with my mother, I'm afraid a lot of what we prepared never landed in the oven but directly in our stomachs ... Lovely memories.
I can't imagine vetoing anything you suggest. I trust you completely and am honored and pleased that you include me in your thought process. I mean that.
...I feel a kind of kinship. Perhaps that sounds presumptuous to you, but I hope not. So much of the literary life can be mundane. I spent half the morning updating my web page for school visits and muttering coarse things about Microsoft. I ought to have been working on chapter nine of my new book, but web sites and school visits pay the rent too. Anyway, it was nice to remember my aunt, who was like a mother to me, and Oblaten and marzipan lucky pigs.
I don't know John Green personally, though I am an admirer. He is A Big Deal in U.S. children's books, unlike me, who is a little deal. I loved Paper Towns and also Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which he wrote with author-editor David Levithan, who I met briefly at a reading. The editorial connection pleases me.
...Off to help my sculptor-husband deliver a commissioned 800-pound steel baby elephant as a birthday surprise. We're going to put it at the end of a beloved wife's driveway, so her husband can surprise her in the morning.
The exotic life of the author...
Hope you have delivered the baby elephant safely and without any accidents to either the baby or (worse) yourselves. I'd love to be there when the lady opens her eyes and screams ...
No, not presumptuous at all, on the contrary. I am full of admiration for good writers and look up to them, and so I am just grateful for your cooperation. And it's good to know you trust me. Often it already helps to write down my thoughts about difficulties. Sometimes I write an email to a friend who is a very good translator but in the end I don't even send it off because I already know how I will decide.
You'll certainly hear from me several more times while I finish the last chapters of Wild Things — a good and a sad feeling at the same time.
The color's off and it's a bit fuzzy because the husband took this with a cell phone, but you get the idea. We unloaded her using a hand-cranked hoist in near complete darkness, as the night was overcast. We were way out in the country with lots of dogs barking nearby. Happy no one called the sheriff. Next time, just in case, I will take dog biscuits.
The wife found her surprise during a morning walk down her driveway and was thrilled and moved.
So am I - thrilled and moved! Compliments to your sculptor husband - it really looks as if Baby Elephant will be walking around any minute now. Thank you for letting me share. I was just closing down the computer for the night - lovely bedside story, so to speak.
I'll go look for a glass of red wine now and sit down by the fireplace to get warm. It's very, very cold outside. As soon as you open the door you feel like banging it shut again. And as a 50-percent-Norwegian I'm not really against winter...
Good night and thank you!
December 4, 2010
I was just standing outside in Mike's welding studio and it started to snow. Only a few flakes so far, but more due tonight. Your influence, I'm certain.
Oh, great. I filled my star cake mould (is that the word???) outside today, filled with hot water, so by tomorrow morning I'll have a star made of pure ice, and I'll let it stand outside and put a tealight behind it in the dark ... December feelings.
December 8, 2010
I spent yesterday and today going through and revising the translation. All in all, I think it turned out the way I'd hoped it would. A few days ago I visited your homepage again and came across the reader's extras, which fascinated me greatly. And I was deeply moved by your openness. You allow your readers to get more than a glimpse of your personal life.
I also listened to the brief interview with you and loved your voice.
...Strange to think that another book is almost finished (apart from the work with the editor and the proofs, but that's a long way off, probably. In the end, I always look at a translation and ask myself: When did I write all those many sentences? Suddenly, it all seems so easy while before it was hard work, too.
I'm still working a lot on "savage" and "wild". Wild is such a key word in the book, and I 'd like to differentiate between wild and savage. Unfortunately, in German, also the noble savage is "der edle Wilde". I've been trying numerous words today but I'm not quite happy as yet.
And I went through lots and lots of commercials for cars, looking for a good idea for "Driving under the influence of the Holy Spirit". The pun doesn't work in German, so I'm looking for something that has to to do with cars and can somehow be combined in a funny way with religion. There was a famous Citroen commercial which said "Nothing moves you like Citroen." Maybe this could be something — "Nothing moves you like the Holy Spirit." There is a a very funny expression people in Swabia (Southern German state) use as an exclamation of astonishment. "Heilix Blechle!" (meaning Holy brass / holy metal, probably going back to very old times when poor people got a piece of metal that identified them as poor and eligible for help from the church. Anyway, hardly anyone now knows what this meant but the expression is used and liked. It is used in a tender way, slightly ironically, for people's cars. It would fit perfectly here to play with the ideas of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Metal of the car, but unfortunately I can't make Bessie talk Swabian... Maybe I'll decide on the old Volkswagen ad: Läuft und läuft und läuft (Runing and running and running), to which I'd add something like: with God's help ...
You'll probably never be able to write a novel without thinking of your translators!
Good night (and keep warm)
Re: “I’m still working a lot on "savage" and "wild".
The solution here might be more to render the cat's meaning in some other way. He's afraid and contemptuous of Wil's father, both. Perhaps the German equivalent of the word "beast" or "brute".
You might have to think a bit about your reader here. For me, the English word “animal” (in the sense of a human being who behaves in a brutish or bestial manner) might have worked if WT had been for adults or teens…but for some reason I think his calling Wil's father "The Animal" sounds too banal in a middle grade novel because the younger reader might not be old enough to have internalized the multiple, deeper meanings of the word. This is an intellectual attempt to explain something I generally and instinctively feel or hear, so I may not be conveying what I mean. Always, my ear is what I trust.
Re: "Driving under the influence of the Holy Spirit". Trust your own instincts here. You perhaps could say something like Powered by the Holy Spirit or Fueled by the Holy Spirit. There is another American bumper sticker I've seen the idea of which might work too, though I think it sounds a bit less like Bessie and God knows how it sounds in German. Do you have the religious expression "born again" in Germany?
If so, you may like:
Born fine the first time.
Warmest wishes on this cold day,
December 11, 2010
Could you try and help me with a sentence I'm not really happy with in neither of its German versions?
p. 186: It seemed like my journal and I had brought trouble to him and Sister, and something told me he didn't have a lot to fall back on.
Normally it seems this expression is used in connection with finances (I always have my savings account to fall back on.) Here I have the impression that Zoe rather refers to the fact that Wil needs to find a safer place for himself and Sister but might not know where else they could go—especially since it's winter, so Wil won't be able to work as a picker for some time.
Would you know an alternative wording that might help me see clearer?
It's always the same—translation is about understanding, at least we have to feel that we understand, though it might not always be what authors intended (but that happens with all readers, doesn't it - as an author, you never know what happens to your books in your readers' minds). I think in reading books we often just skip sentences or passages we couldn't really explain - only in translating this way of reading just doesn't work.
The new feral cat is up early, so you get your answer extra fast.
The expression not having much to fall back on can refer to many things, not just finances, but resources in general: Emotional resources, family resources, etc. Think of everything a human being needs in life being a soft mattress that isn't there or is suddenly taken away.
Zoë is speaking generally here about Wil's and Sister's not having much in life: no family or friends, no safe and warm place to live, nothing they can consistently count on. She and her journal have made this bad situation worse. So the sense here is: I had brought them more trouble, something someone who already had enough hardship didn't need.
How about something like: It seemed like my journal and I had brought trouble to him and Sister, and something told me they already had trouble enough/or enough trouble already.
General comment on our work: Odd, isn't it, how the author and the translator always have to be precise and specific and say exactly what they mean even when the characters don't or aren't able to. So when a character doesn't know exactly what they mean we have to be precisely imprecise.
Re: “we have to be precisely imprecise.”
Oh, I love that. That fits it exactly. Thank you for the expression. While I was working today, I had to think again about the strange fact that in books people tend to speak in much more complete and correct sentences than they use to do in real life. Especially with Ray I feel the need to let his character show also in his language. And yet there it always costs me to use really poor German — and even if I do, it may always be hard to get it past the editor.
Thank you for taking your time to explain Zoe's thinking to me. I feel much better about it now.
While your day is still new, I already start getting slightly nervous about how I'll get everything done I need to do before 6, when we'll have to leave for a theatre performance in another town. So I better finish my chapter and do the weekend shopping.
December 12, 2010
I hadn't heard from Birgitt for a few days, but then arrived home one evening and found a package from Germany on my front porch, the inner wrapping paper dotted with white deer.
Ein lieber Deutsch Elf has sent me some Liebkuchen, so aptly named, and lucky Marzipan-Schwein and so many other delicious things.
Not only am I inexpressibly grateful to you for your thoughtful work and your friendship and your gift, but today I feel that my dear, late Aunt Margaret is here in spirit and that brings tears to my eyes.
She was a true citizen of the world, too, wie Sie (I hope I have that right).
I'm happy the little box arrived safely and timely. In our family, Christmas cookies are always eaten from the first Sunday of Advent till Christmas. After Christmas, hardly anyone seems interested any more, and it has happened more than once that when I started baking again in November the following year, I opened my tins and found some long forgotten cookies, a bit dry but otherwise okay ...
Did you see the white deer on the paper the box was wrapped in? It was pure coincidence I had this paper but as is often the case with coincidences, it fit perfectly.
December 13, 2010
Die Wolken am bedeckten Himmel wurden dichter, sie schienen sich nicht entscheiden zu können, ob sie regnen oder schneien wollten.
This is the sentence about the clouds turning poets, I smuggled it in. Translated back into English it would be something like:
The clouds in the overcast sky were turning denser, they seemed unable to decide whether they wanted to rain or snow.
It sounds nice, not many people will notice this hidden message, but anyway.
You are kind to work so hard on this sentence. Perhaps this is how you will put your signature on the painting:
When I sent off the translation today I asked whether they had bought the book with the illustrations. I do hope so, I just couldn't imagine the German book without them. I haven't heard from them yet.
In one of your interviews you mentioned that one editor was interested in the book but wanted to leave out the cat parts. That's so incredible. Like asking your husband for a sculpture, "but take off the legs, please" - or asking Henry to paint his sculpture pink. Strange to think that such people deal with children's books every day.
Thank you for taking the trouble with my name. Unusual feeling for someone whose job it is to remain as invisible as possible behind the author. I hope you feel okay with the slightly changed German version of your clouds sentence.
I still have to translate the Acknowledgments but then that was it for the time being.
I like the [expression] Zoë uses when she says good-bye to Wil: "Don't be a stranger!"
So, even though we may have fewer contacts in the weeks and months ahead - Don't be a stranger!
Thank you for all your priceless help over the last few months.
I promise to keep in touch. I will miss it if I don't. We will just have to find excuses to chat now and then.
As we say here, ditto. I enjoy other people, but I meet very few Kindred Spirits, my dear.
December 15, 2010
Thank you so much, Clay, for your kind words. I spent yesterday away from my desk, with cleaning and tidying up and Christmas presents and more baking, but I noticed my thoughts often went back to Zoe and her friends. It can be hard to part from a book, and I'm really grateful for the holiday season which will be some kind of buffer between this book and the next.
Maybe I wrote this before, a book I'm entrusted with feels very much like an exchange student who comes into my home and family to learn German and get to know our culture. During this time, the student necessarily has to adapt to some of our ways, and during the months of his or her stay, they are my children in a way, I'm their co-mother, so to speak. But then the time is over and I give them back to their real parents, proud of what they've learnt, grateful nothing serious happened to them during their time with us. But I'll always follow their future development with more than interest.
For Christmas, I sent Birgitt archival prints of the combined cat illustrations from the book and another large print of "Zoë's World".
January 7, 2011
What a lovely, lovely surprise! I am really deeply moved by your present and especially your card and your warm words. Working on Wild Things will always be a special memory, and I do hope we'll get another chance to work together. I hope your agents will contact Hanser about your new book.
The postman delivered your present yesterday just when we were leaving to visit a marvellous Expressionist exhibition. There were some sculptures, too, and I must say that Wild Things has changed my way of looking at this kind of art quite a bit. I used to be more interested in paintings, but yesterday I noticed how much longer I stayed in front of sculptures than used to be the case.
Have you got an electronic file of the Zoe's World poster? I'd like to show it to the Hanser people as a suggestion not for the cover but the flyleaf (is that the word?). I wouldn't want to send my poster to Munich by mail. But it might be nice for the readers to have such a map.
I hope you had a nice quiet Christmas and a good start into the new year…Nobody got ill, nobody fell down the stairs, there was practically no fighting among the kids...we went out in the snow a lot, so it was just beautiful. A large group of the family went out in the forest the day before Christmas Eve to cut a tree (there are always special parts of the forests where it is legal to do so) and came back with a perfect specimen, some four meters high which they put up and decorated with real beeswax candles and all my beloved Christmas toys ... Below that stood the crib with Mary and Joseph and the sheep and he shepherds and the donkey (the ox got lost somewhere), which has been part of my entire childhood.
And of course there had to be the chain of small Norwegian paper flags — a Norwegian tradition I could never do without.
...It was good to have this break between Wild Things and a new project. Maybe the Hanser editor, Saskia, has found time in her Chrismas break to read my translation of Wild Things.
Thank you so very much again. I have no doubt we'll stay in touch.
In early January 2011, I had a short note from Birgitt about her German editor's reaction to the translation, "Saskia wrote me today that she read the German translation of Wild Things and found it 'so, so beautiful'.
After that, I didn’t hear from B again until April, but as the August publication of Zoë (its German title) approached, we wrote to each other from time to time about life and books and translation, waiting for Hanser Literaturverlag to do its work on “our book”. When the advance copies went out to booksellers and reviewers, I began to receive occasional appreciative emails from far-flung readers and I forwarded them to Birgitt. We wrote, too, about our lives and our families, about things we had in common, but our friendly emails were always colored with our love of language and the joys and ironies of translation. Once, Birgitt wrote me about thoughts that were keeping her awake at night:
“I do hate these hours at night when I wake up and find myself talking silently (and of course uselessly) to [X].”
“I need to say that in the U.S. we call this letting someone live rent-free in your brain. An Americanism I continue to love.”
Birgitt wrote back:
Thank you, Clay, for this wonderful expression. I'll keep it in mind—and it might even make me laugh when I'm tossing in my bed trying to silence the voices. And laughing often helps, doesn't it?
In May, I sent B Maureen Dowd's New York Times 5/29/11 column on French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. I especially loved one quote from Dowd's essay, which reminded me of my character Zoë, of myself and of Birgitt, strong females all:
[Lagarde] was, she says, “born independent.” When she was 4, she confides in her melodic low voice, her “totally irresponsible” parents would put her and her infant brother to bed and sneak out to the theater and concerts. One night they came back and found all the lights on. Christine was ensconced in a big chair in the living room, reading her book. “Next time,” she nonchalantly told her parents, “just let me know when you go.”
We often sent each other favorite poems, and Birgitt sent me this in reply:
Ever since happiness heard your name
In June, I received an advance copy of Zoë from the German editor, Saskia Heintz. I sent Saskia and Birgitt my thanks, with a picture of the book with the resident black-and-white. That email and picture seem a fitting close to this post, although my delightful, warm and thoughtful email conversations with Birgitt continue to this day.
Dear Saskia and Birgitt,
Das Buch kam heute und es ist schön.
I hope Google Translator got that right.
I anyway love the way it looks and how you did the cats and the type. Beautiful! The resident black and white likes it too.
** Birgitt's bio: I was born in Duisburg, Germany, in 1953 as the youngest of six children. We grew up with lots of books, especially our Norwegian mother passed on to us her love of literature. Opening the glass doors of the book cabinets was always a very special act. I remember to this day how for my sixth birthday my mother gave me a children’s book of poetry saying that it had been acclaimed for the beauty of its language. (I still have – and treasure - this book.) My father, it seems, was always writing - letters, speeches, articles, and both my parents loved to read the essays I wrote for school. With this heritage, becoming a translator seemed the perfect synthesis – there are probably few professions in which reading and writing form such a perfect union.
I love to be able to speak more languages than just my mother (or, in my case: father) tongue. Having learnt English, French, Latin, and a bit of Russian at school, I decided to study English, Spanish, and Swedish at the Translators’ College of the University of Heidelberg. After my graduation (with a thesis on the Translation of Children’s Literature) I worked with a state-owned development bank for ten years before I followed my husband to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he taught German at a secondary school. When after six years full of fascinating encounters and long travels through South America we came home again I was given the chance of translating children’s and YA books, which I have done ever since. Authors I have had the privilege to translate besides Susan Fletcher are, among others, Chaim Potok, Donald Wetzel, Joyce Carol Oates, Donna Jo Napoli, Laurie Halse Anderson, Sarah Weeks, Louis Sachar, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Martha Brooks, Garrison Keillor, and Carl Hiaasen.
We have two daughters, Fleurine and Josianne, and live in a small village near Frankfurt.