‘Children live in a world of profound and intense experience. There is a purity and intensity to everything you encounter for the first time.’
Author Jaap Robben and translator David Doherty talk to us about the 2021 International Booker Prize-longlisted Summer Brother.
Jaap, what has it been like to be longlisted?
It feels like being ambushed by an unexpected birthday. And my gift is this whirlwind that will bring Summer Brother to a host of new readers. For me as a writer, it’s a huge honour that my book has reached the longlist of one of the world’s most respected literary prizes.
How would you summarise Summer Brother in one sentence?
Summer Brother is the story of two teenage brothers who learn to love each other, although one of them cannot speak and has the inner world of a small child.
Why did you choose Brian as the narrator?
A protagonist always turns up unannounced, only to take over your entire story. I wanted to tell my readers about Lucien. To let them share in his progress, inch by inch, day by day. But because Lucien has no language of his own, I needed someone to tell his story. Someone very close to him. His little brother, Brian.
You also write books for children. Do you think the perspective of young people has something to teach us?
Children live in a world of profound and intense experience. There is a purity and intensity to everything you encounter for the first time. It’s a benchmark for everything to come in life. The perspective of young people always helps me look at the world through fresh eyes.
Hi David, what has it been like to be longlisted?
Unreal. The best bit being the words of congratulation and encouragement from fellow translators whose work I respect enormously.
What did you enjoy about translating Summer Brother?
Where do I start? There’s a deep sadness at the heart of the book, but at the same time it’s bursting with life and humour. Jaap has a real gift for creating characters and scenes you can picture instantly, and he has a great ear for dialogue. So as a translator you always feel you’re in the thick of things and you never have to reach for an interpretation or a way in. The hard work lies in trying to replicate that same energy, tenderness and lightness of touch, but the clarity of the writing meant I was never in doubt about what was called for at any given moment.
As the book is narrated by 13-year-old Brian, how did you go about translating from the perspective of a young teen?
I tried not to try too hard. Once you get your first draft down, you know the book so well that it’s all ticking over in your mind, so anything and everything you see or hear in the months that follow can help the translation, whether it’s a scene from a film or a book, or a chance encounter at the corner shop. I found myself automatically tuning in to anything that might be relevant, from the body language of a ‘real-life Brian’ to the turn of phrase of the young narrator in the opening section of David Mitchell’s Slade House. On the subject of Brian, I love the jury’s description of him as ‘heroic’. I’d never really thought of him that way, but he definitely is: little boy lost, plucky underdog and hero all at the same time.
Robben’s writing style has been described as ‘deceptively simple’. Was it difficult to keep the simplicity of the original prose whilst also allowing for its deeper meaning?
Yes, there’s definitely a fine balance to be struck. Focus too much on fluency and it could easily become a bit bland, but anything too overtly literary would only get in the way. Given the imperfect fit between languages, you’re never going to hit all the right notes in all the right places, so like many a translator I look for opportunities to hint at ‘hidden depths’ when they present themselves.
‘Brokkelweg’ was a tough one – literally ‘crumble-road’ – Brian’s own made-up word for the track that leads to the derelict site where he and his dad live. The effect in Dutch is both playful and poetic. I struggled to capture those qualities simply in English and ended up going for ‘rutted track’, which is more everyday but has the same rhythm and shares some of the same sounds. To get across that added element of Brian’s imagination at work, I had him refer to the site itself as ‘our turf’, which also betrays his loyalty to his dad and his eagerness to sound more worldly than he is.