The Necessity of Influence: A Conversation with Damion Searls (Part II, Translation)

Yesterday in Part I, translator-author Damion Searls and I "talked" (via email) about his new book, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, and about how translation has affected his fiction. Today, we focus on his other books coming out in 2009.

Onreadingproust Comedyinaminorkey Thejournalsofthoreau

Searls actually has three translations coming up (I mistakenly said two yesterday!):

On Reading, a collection of Proust's thoughts on our favorite subject here at Omnivoracious. (September)

Comedy in a Minor Key, a lost Holocaust novella by German-Jewish resistance hero Hans Keilson. (November)

The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams, a Rilke collection that won Searls a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2007. (David R. Godine, October)

He also edited The Journals of Henry David Thoreau: 1837-1861 for NYRB Classics, which comes out in September, as well as a special edition from The Review of Contemporary Fiction on Melville.

Now, here's a bit from Searls on the art of translation, on paring down Thoreau's massive journal, and on the apparent lack of American fiction writers who translate: You’ve translated from a number of languages--most recently French, German, Dutch, Norwegian. Do you speak all of these languages?

Damion Searls: I know German best and have translated it the most; I speak it pretty comfortably, although no one would mistake me for a native speaker. French I read better than I speak, and Dutch I picked up because it’s halfway between English and German, and because I lived in Amsterdam for a year.

Luckily for me, the Germans translate and publish a much, much wider selection of world literature than we get in the U.S. (or UK), which has helped me to branch out. A publisher asked me to read Jon Fosse’s Norwegian novel Melancholy in a German translation, because they didn’t have anyone who read Norwegian. I told them it was a masterpiece and they should translate and publish it; they decided not to; and I tracked down an old friend, native Norwegian and fluent in English, so we could co-translate it. In the process I picked up enough Norwegian to tackle another Fosse novel on my own. Similarly, the Dutch writer I translate, Nescio, was recommended by a Dutch writer friend, and I could check it out in German before tackling the original.

In general I think poets understand better than prose writers (and editors and readers of prose) that it’s much more important to be a good writer in the language you translate into than fluent in the source language. It’s easy to work with native speakers and consult about difficult words or sentences; it’s hard to write a good sentence, and you can’t get much help with that. What matters is whether the result, the book in English, is as powerful as the original. So, in that sense, your work and practice as a writer is crucial to your success as a translator?

DS: Absolutely. If you write an interesting sentence people will want to read it, if not then not, that is the truth.

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