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Translating and the two-metre rule

Translating and the two-metre rule

The big reveal of the 2020 International Booker Prize is almost here: the winner will be announced on Wednesday 26 August at 4.30pm on the Booker Prizes YouTube channel and on Facebook Live. By way of an amuse-bouche, the translators of the shortlisted books recently took part in a roundtable event hosted by English PEN. Among the information to emerge was the fact that had Gabriela Cabezón Cámara written The Adventures of China Iron just a little later it might not have made it into English at all. The book’s two translators – Iona Macintye and Fiona Mackintosh – revealed that they couldn’t have worked in a socially distanced world. “We shared out chunks to translate,” said Macintye, “and from those created a big, ugly first draft. It was intentionally rubbish, so that we didn’t feel too attached to our own work. And then we worked in very close collaboration, sitting next to each other all the time.” Physical proximity, said Mackintosh, was a positive benefit: “if you’ve got someone next to you, you can bounce things with them, and they often have the word that you spent so long searching for right at their fingertips”.


Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police was originally published in the 1990s, so why has it only just made it into to English? Its translator, Stephen Snyder, explained that “I meet with Yōko once a year or so. We have dinner in Tokyo and discuss those books of hers that I’ve read but not yet translated. In consultation with her agent and editor, we decide what will be next.” And that’s the extent of things, they don’t discuss the details of the book only which book, and The Memory Police got the nod. Sophie Hughes, meanwhile, translator of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, made the startling admission that she and the author have never met: instead a “very extensive correspondence has been via email”. Strange that something so intimate should be at one remove.


It was Michele Hutchison, translator of The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who gave the most vivid image of the translator’s craft. The book they are working on may not be their invention but once up and running: “It’s visceral, isn’t it – I’m typing, and these words are coming out of my fingers, my body. I feel so connected to the text.”


What’s technically known as a bombshell was dropped by the Booker Prize heroine Hilary Mantel at her recent Edinburgh International Book Festival event. “I haven’t got another big historical novel in view,” she said. “I think that’s quite important to say, so I hope people will stop writing to me with suggestions. It’s lovely that people have the appetite for it but considering the pace at which I proceed, I would like some life before it’s too late.” What she intends to do instead is concentrate on plays and short stories; whether that will satisfy her legion of fans is debatable but while appreciative of their support, Mantel’s aim lies elsewhere: “What I hope is, I might surprise myself.”


Another of the Booker Prize longlistees, Tsitsi Dangarembga for This Mournable Body, revealed that her current travails as she awaits a court appearance in September having been arrested in Zimbabwe for protesting against government corruption, are hardly the first time she has had it tough. Getting her first book, Nervous Conditions, published was nothing short of an ordeal. She was a student when she wrote it and worked as an advertising copywriter to pay for the manuscript to be typed up. She could afford just one copy which she then sent to the Women’s Press in London where it disappeared. She heard not a dicky bird for four years – yes, four – before knocking on the publisher’s door herself while on a trip to England. “I asked if they had received my book and an editor said if they had, it would be down in the cellar. They disappeared down the stairs and came up blowing the dust off this A4-sized khaki envelope.” Hardly a response to instill confidence but: “The very next day I got a call saying ‘We love the manuscript. We’ll publish it.’”