The Three Rs in translation: Stephen Henighan

April 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

This week’s guest is Stephen Henighan, writer, translator and literature professor.

How did you learn your source language?

I’ve learned most of the languages I know in the same way:  rigorous study of the grammar, then, once the grammar and basic vocabulary is anchored, total immersion in the environment, followed by rampant reading until I internalize the construction of sentences and develop a certain innate sense of the weight and value of particular words.  This process unfolded over a number of years with French, the first language other than English that I learned;  with subsequent languages it was accelerated.  It’s important to stress that at the time I was learning these languages, it didn’t occur to me that I might one day translate from them –or that I might translate at all.  My learning was motivated by the desire to communicate with my fellow citizens (in the case of French),  by my yearning to travel knowledgeably in faraway countries, and by my hunger to read literature in languages not my own.   From an early age, I regarded this as one of the most important activities to which a person could devote himself.

Good Morning Comrades

How did you come to translation in general, and literary translation in particular?

Until 2006, when I was invited to serve as volunteer General Editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, the idea of doing literary translation had rarely crossed my mind. Over the years I had become aware that sometimes when reading a novel in another language I was able to hear, in an intuitive way, what it should sound like in English.  This heightened my awareness that on certain other occasions, no matter how much I liked or admired a book, I could not hear what it should sound like in English. I had translated half of a novel from Spanish while working in Guatemala and, while living in Quebec, I had translated some poems from French as a stylistic exercise. But these were not serious efforts at becoming a working literary translator. That’s only come to the fore in the last six years or so, quite suddenly, but also with a kind of happy inevitability.

What does your day look like while you’re translating a novel?

Since my motivating drive in life is writing fiction –I’ve published three novels and three short story collections and have a couple of other books of fiction in the pipeline– and since I also hold down a demanding full-time job at the University of Guelph, when I’m in Canada my days all look pretty much the same. I get up early in the darkness and write –usually fiction, but occasionally journalism or academic criticism– from about 6AM to 9AM. Then I have a quick breakfast and leave for work. I teach, do administration, counsel students, engage in the blood sport of academic politics and so on.  If I’m translating a book,  that gets slotted in at the end of the day. I used to stay at the office until 9PM or 10PM, but these days I have a more stable private life and try to return home in time for supper at 7PM or 7:30PM. My translating is done at high speed at my office computer, during the last hour or so that I’m at work — usually between about 5PM and 7PM. When I’m translating a novel, I try to do at least a page a day and preferably two. Once I tap into the voice –into what it should  sound like– the first draft comes out very swiftly, though it does require revision.

What are your favourite contemporary books in the source language?

So far I’ve translated novels from Portuguese and Romanian. In Portuguese, I’m a big fan of Lusophone African literature, an extremely rich tradition which until recently was little known in English and is still translated only in a rather spotty manner.  It’s been wonderful to be able to include novels by writers like Mia Couto  and Ondjaki in the Biblioasis International Translation Series.   In Romanian, I’m a big reader of what’s called the inter-war period, the flourishing of Romanian fiction in the 1920s and 1930s.  I was amazed when I learned that Mihail Sebastian’s gloriously romantic novel The Accident was unavailable in English. I knew I had to translate it. I’m less well versed in contemporary Romanian literature, though I’ve read some of the major figures such as the poet Ana Blandiana and the novelist Mircea Catarescu.

What have you read recently in English that you loved?

I thought that Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending was a phenomenal novel. I was very impressed by Gore Vidal’s novel Julian;  at his best, Vidal, though remembered primarily as an essayist, was a better novelist than he’s given credit for being. Two Canadian short story collections have stood out for me in recent years: Clark Blaise’s The Meagre Tarmac and Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13. I should say that most of my reading over the last two or three years has been in Spanish and French, so I’ve read less in English recently than might normally be the case.

What novel have you translated most recently? What were its particular interests and challenges?

I’ve just finished translating the novel Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by the young Angolan writer Ondjaki, which will be published in 2014. The narrator is a pre-adolescent boy who lives in a southern African beachfront suburb in the late 1980s. The language is both intensely colloquial and lyrical in a  peculiarly concise and compact way that betrays an acute awareness of the natural world tempered by pre-adolescent impetuosity. Capturing this tone required the development of a very particular, oddly offhand linguistic register. I worked hard to convey the discreet yet firm Angolanness of Ondjaki’s Portuguese, which distinguishes his language from that of Portugal, Brazil or even Mozambique.  By far the biggest challenge from a translation point of view was the novel’s bilingualism. Since it’s set at a time when most of the doctors and teachers in Angola were Cuban, there are extended dialogues where authority figures speak in untranslated Spanish and the African kids reply in Portuguese, sometimes resulting in comic misunderstandings. Since there’s no other language that’s as treacherously close to English as Spanish is to Portuguese, linguistic gymnastics were required to recreate these dialogues in English.

Which is your favourite novel of the ones you’ve translated, and why?

I’ve only translated three novels so far.  I hope to be able to add many more to the list before I have to choose a favourite.

Do you write (fiction or non-fiction)?

I mentioned my fiction above. One point I would make is that, even before I began translating, I explored translation themes in my writing.  My novel The Streets of Winter, which is set in Montreal,  uses various stylistic and linguistic somersaults to convey the confusions of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic conflicts and clashes.  My short fiction, in many ways, is about “carrying over,” as the Germans say, from one culture to another.  This is very evident in A Grave in the Air, my collection of short stories that engages with Central European history, but I think it’s been there from the beginning, suggesting that, in one form or another, the way that cultural goods change as they cross cultural boundaries was going to be one of my main preoccupations.

What’s your third R, and why?

It’s all too clear:  my third R is Roaming.  I grew up on the move, and it was the assumption that wandering from place to place was a normal way to live that started all the rest, particularly my curiosity about other literatures.

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