Last weekend I paid my first visit to the Prague Book Fair, and there was an enormous queue of people waiting when I arrived to sign copies of the Czech translation of The Black Angel. The line stretched right around the corner from the signing area, easily a hundred or more people in length, and as the signing progressed more readers joined it, so it seemed like it would never end. There were men and women, children and older people, all moving slowly and patiently across the floor of the fair, their newly purchased books held firmly in their hands. It was an author's dream.
It was the queue from book heaven.
Unfortunately, it wasn't for me, but for Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president and, according to a recent poll, the most beloved Czech in the country's history. Arriving to sign your book in Prague at the same time that Vaclav Havel is meeting his public is a bit like arriving in a night club in Hoboken, New Jersey in, say, 1965 in order to sing a few songs, only to find that Sinatra has scheduled an impromptu concert across the street. You're just not in the same league.
Thankfully, there were also people present who liked my books, and I passed a very pleasant hour signing and chatting, flattered to be sharing exhibition space with a writer and statesman like Havel, and touched by the kindness of my Czech publishers, the Buchal family, their staff, and my Czech readers.
It is quite an extraordinary thing to see one's book in translation.
After all, I never quite expected to see myself published in English, so to travel to another country and find my books being made available to readers in their native language never ceases to amaze me. I wish I had a better command of some of those languages so that I could express my gratitude to everyone involved, from the publishers to the individual readers. I'm always a little embarrassed that all I can say in most languages is "Hello", "Thank you", and "Two more of the same, please." I guess they're the essentials, but it's small consolation.
I have been fortunate enough, though, to meet some of my translators, and in every case I've felt humbled in their presence. My books would not exist for readers as far afield as Croatia and Russia, China and Japan, without the willingness of translators to take my work in hand and render it intelligible to those whose language, culture and background are often completely different from my own.
The translation of novels is an underappreciated art. I think it's
sometimes assumed that it's usually possible to translate directly from one language to another, but when it comes to fiction in particular, or poetry, it's actually a much more complicated affair. Not everything is directly translatable. Sometimes, not even the title makes sense when translated into a foreign language. My German publishers ran into this problem with my first novel, Every Dead Thing, which just didn't translate well from English to German. They opted instead for The Black Heart, which is quite possibly a better title than the original and involved a fairly close reading of the novel in order to come up with it. And that's just the title! Imagine the questions that arise over nuances, or over words and expressions that simply have no direct equivalent in, say, Japanese or Greek.
To translate someone else's work requires a certain willingness to set aside one's own ego, to use one's talents to further the work of another writer while recognising that many readers may take those efforts for granted. It's hard work, and may take many months to complete, yet how many of those who read the finished work will take the trouble to glance at the copyright page in order to discover the identity of the translator? Not enough, I suspect.
It's often the case that translators are published writers themselves. For example, my lovely Czech publisher was signing her own book at the fair an hour or two before I was due to sign her translation of my work. Had she been free, it would have been fun to have invited her to sign with me, and it would have been nothing more than she deserved for enabling the book to exist in its Czech form. Similarly, my beloved Bulgarian translator is a poet and, according to those who have read me in Bulgarian, brings some of that poetry to his translations of my work. My brilliant Italian translator, with whom I share similar tastes in music and books, is about to publish his second novel. In English. I sometimes doubt my ability to communicate in my own language, so to meet someone who is equally at home with two or more tongues makes me feel rather ashamed.
These are all enormously talented individuals, each of whom brings
something distinctive to my books. Theirs is not simply an act of translation but an act of creation, for the book that results is subtly different from the novel that previously existed. In time, perhaps I'll be given the opportunity to express my gratitude to each of them in person. For the present, though, I'd just ask you to glance at the name of the translator the next time you read a book published in translation, for without the work of the world of the book would remain closed to you. It's the least we can all do.
This week John read:
Contact Zero by David Wolstencroft
The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain
and listened to:
Czech popular music (!)