Artist William Kentridge talks about reading electronically and how 80 percent of the novels he’s read in his life have been translated fiction

From his base in Johannesburg, where he was born, William Kentridge works across artistic mediums, often with dozens of collaborators, to make art that is grounded in history, literature, politics and science. His work has been seen in museums and galleries internationally since the 1990s and can be found in private collections and institutions across the globe. He has directed operas for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala in Milan, the English National Opera in London, the Salzburg Festival and others. Kentridge is the recipient of honorary doctorates from several universities including Yale, Columbia and the University of London. He has been awarded the Kyoto Prize (2010), the Princesa de Asturias Award in 2017 and the Praemium Imperiale Prize in 2019.

Publication date and time: Published

Why do you think the International Booker Prize matters, and what’s special about it?   

I think there’s a huge benefit to recognising the very particular and hidden job of a translator – hidden in the sense that most people, when reading a book, are completely unaware of the work of the translator. Unless you’re professionally involved, you simply read it as a novel. I think 80 percent of the novels I’ve read in my life have been novels in translation, and until judging this prize I’d never really given it much thought. I know there are famous stories of the Scott Moncrieff translations of Proust, and revisionist ideas around this, but if you don’t read both languages, essentially you take the translation on trust, and any faults of the translation you visit upon the author.   

Tell us about your reading habits under normal circumstances. What type of books are you usually drawn to?    

A lot of my reading is directed towards particular projects that I’m working on, either specific historical or literary research, or reading texts by a particular author. So the reading that’s done for pleasure generally happens between three and five in the morning, which is my normal pattern of insomnia. And there I mainly read on a Kindle, so that I don’t have to put on a light which would disturb my wife lying next to me.  

It’s not a good way of reading. I think there’s an enormous difference between reading a physical book and reading electronically. One of the problems with judging the International Booker is that I’ve done a lot of travelling, so a lot of the reading has been done on an iPad rather than in the physical book. And then when I’ve met the physical book after reading it on the iPad, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is what you look like.’ It’s like when you’ve heard someone’s voice on the telephone and suddenly you see them in flesh, and there’s sometimes a big surprise and disjunction between them.  

Portrait of William Kentridge in front of his art.

Tell us about your path to becoming a reader. What did you read as a child? Was there a book or author that made you fall in love with reading?    

It’s difficult to know quite where reading begins. Many people now do most of their reading while driving long distances, where they outsource the reading to another voice. Someone else is doing the physical reading. So if one sees that way of taking a novel in as reading, then obviously reading starts very early, with all the books that were read aloud to me as a child by both parents, primarily my father, who read all the Jane Austens and the Dickens to us.  

But those books were too dense, too thick, the print too small for me to be able to – or want to – undertake on my own. So at that age – 9, 10, 11, 12 – I would have read a mixture of children’s stories, from Richmal Crompton’s William books to the Hardy Boys, as well as Paul Brickell’s The Great Escape and war-story books. From there I moved into more substantial novels. But I suppose the big reading experience was when I was in my late adolescence when, in one fell swoop, I seemed to have come across Kundera, Calvino, Marquez and Svevo, at more or less the same time.  

That for me was the fundamental change of reading, from enjoying to understanding. Here were people talking about a way of understanding and imagining the world I’d never anticipated. Each of those novels opened up whole new vistas of thinking about what it is to make a life in the artistic world, whether it’s through fiction if you’re a writer or through drawing or animation if you’re an artist, as it has been for me.    

What role do you think translated fiction plays in promoting a more inclusive and diverse literary canon, and how can we encourage more people to read it?  

I think the canon often has to do with which books people choose to teach at university or high school. But there’s certainly a lot of publishing and writing in many different voices, in many different languages. I don’t think there’s a shortage of women writers who have been well-recognised and there’s a great interest in writers who aren’t European. The trouble is that there are usually one or two authors that have to represent a whole language. So you have Marquez having to stand in for all of South America, you’ve got Mahfouz having to be the voice of Egypt, you’ve got Orhan Pamuk speaking for Turkey. It’s very hard if you’re a writer in these languages to become the writer that people are always going to think about. I’m sure there are many other great Egyptian, Turkish, Colombian writers that I’ve just never come across. So there is a problem of how does one expand the canon? How does one show people? But I don’t think it’s a canon that’s restricted to English by any means, and I think there’s been a long history of reading in translation. So, the great follower of Cervantes, Stern, read him in translation. The great follower of Stern, Gogol, would have read him in translation. The sense of jumping across context is how we read and how we work.  

Book cover of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens showing abstract and colourful buildings and shapes.

I think there’s a huge benefit to recognising the very particular and hidden job of a translator – hidden in the sense that most people, when reading a book, are completely unaware of the work of the translator

— William Kentridge, on the importance of the International Booker Prize

In recent years, translators and their working relationships with authors have become more visible. Why do you think it is important to shine a spotlight on this role?    

Working on the International Booker Prize has made me more attentive to the translation, but not knowing the original languages it’s very hard to know how the work has been translated. Occasionally there’s a clunkish word, when I’ll think that’s such a specifically American or British turn of phrase that I wouldn’t be using it. It makes me aware that that’s a particular type of English, rather than English as a universal language. I think the fact that each book can have many different translators or different translations, but only one original, makes the job particularly hard for the translator. I’m so aware of the different voices, the different kinds of language that could come out.    

What are your top three favourite works of fiction in translation that you would recommend to readers of the Booker Prizes?  

There are so many, but if I had to name three I would say, first of all, Confessions of Zeno [Zeno’s Conscience] by Italo Svevo. Here I was astonished that a person writing in Trieste in the 1920s could have such a sense of what it was like to be me in Johannesburg in 1990. Then, of course, the fantastic Anna Karenina, which shows the range of possibilities of voice, including having a dog narrate a section of the book, without it becoming a children’s book. Tolstoy understood the absurd as being built into the human tragedy and showed how broad a canvas an artist could undertake.   

And, thirdly, the most recent one that struck me, very forcefully, is Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. Of course, it is not a translation from a different language, but it’s a translation from Dickens and his 19th-century David Copperfield into the contemporary era. To use the way that Dickens was showing a whole slice of a society and all the logic within it, and then to shift that across, is a brilliant and imaginative act of translation.  

Book cover of Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo showing a picture of a hand holding a cigarette and hat.