Translating Toussaint

In August I was invited to attend a translation workshop in Seneffe, Belgium. The workshop brought together several translators of the Belgium author Jean-Philippe Toussaint to work on his latest novel, La Vérité sur Marie. I was one of a six translators attending this particular workshop, although the center itself (Centre Européen de Traduction Littéraire) hosted many other translators working on various projects.

Among my group there were five languages represented: English, Czech, Hungarian, Dutch, Danish, and Chinese (there were two translators working in Chinese, one from mainland China and the other from Taiwan). At the center itself, there were translators from Ukraine, Australia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Albania and Holland. Located at the Château de Seneffe, just south of Brussels, on a stunning property with French baroque and English landscape gardens, the center offered ideal working conditions for the participants. The day was divided between individual work in our quiet, monastic-like rooms and group work in the center’s conference room or courtyard. Events and lectures were often held in the evening, at which many Belgium writers and translators were invited to speak about their work. All the participants enjoyed both lunch and dinner together in the center’s dining room, with sumptuous meals and a festive ambiance provided by the center’s chef. This is where some of our most engaging discussions took place. Beginning with some remarks on the finer points of translation, the discussions often turned toward larger issues concerning language and linguistic diversity—to what extent do languages overlap or diverge? Are there stylistic qualities unique to a Hungarian, a synthetic language, as opposed to French, an analytic language? Do similarities between languages allow for a larger degree of mutual understanding or can these same similarities cause a disruptive interference between languages?

Through my collaborative work with Toussaint and the other translators at the center, my understanding and translation of Toussaint’s novel became markedly more nuanced, more precise. What’s more, as I learned through conversation about the translator’s status in different parts of the world, I was struck more by the similarities than the differences that bind translators together. That very few translators make a living solely from their translations is a fact that needs little proof. I was hardly shocked, then, to confirm this first-hand. What did surprise me, though, was to see how little this seemingly bleak reality deterred translators—many of whom are lucky to get compensated for their work at all—from working with extraordinary patience, passion and devotion. It is a true love for literature, for writing, and, above all, for language—its range of expressive possibilities and limitations, its layers of meaning, its ability to found and form social and artistic communities—that ultimately motivates translators in their work. At a time when economic hardship has led to further marginalization of literary translation, the European Center of Literary Translation stands as a welcome source of aid and inspiration to aspiring and accomplished translators alike.