Lost in Translation

Ever since I became friends with both my German and Dutch translators and began hearing their anecdotes, I've wanted to write about a translator. My Dutch translator, for instance, finished converting How I Live Now to Dutch, felt unhappy with the result, threw it away, and began again. "I just didn't have the voice right," she said. Yikes.


Jenny de Jong is no meek servant of publishing. When I sent her the final version of Just In Case, she first reprimanded me for the impossible title, sighed, and said, "Well, at least this makes more sense than the last draft."

While staying in Hamburg with my German translator, we spent a lovely day working side by side -- me writing, and Brigitte translating Jonathan Safran Foer from English to German. Occasionally, she'd say, "What do you make of this line?"

Inevitably, I was outraged. "But that's barely English!"

It had never occurred to me that translators have to translate sentences that make no real sense in their original language.  (Of course it's no coincidence that I've won so many literary awards in Germany -- I have dark suspicions that Brigitte is a better writer than I am.)


Interpreters are a whole other phenomenon, something I realized during a panel discussion in St Malo. My French isn't brilliant, but it's not hideous either. So I was quite surprised when he whispered a question in my ear, and I felt fairly sure he'd got it wrong. He'd already told me he spoke nine languages fluently, so I wasn't going to argue, but afterwards when I questioned him he smirked a little and said, "You're right of course, but my version was funnier."


There's a translator in my new book.  And while sneaking about on translators' forums today, I encountered an eye-watering variety of obscene expressions in more languages than you can imagine. This is one of the few I can print without being arrested....

GREEK: You're making masturbation a science.

FRENCH: You're sodomizing flies.

FINNISH: You're fucking a dot.

And it all means -- You're over-thinking this. Which I shall try my best not to do.