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Meet the translator, no.1

11th April 2015

English PENThe work of translators is often overlooked, with their names often discreetly hidden away in the books that they painstakingly recreate in new languages.

In the first of a new series, presented in partnership with literature and human rights organisation English PEN, we present an interview with Sam Garrett, who translated Tommy Wieringa’s These Are the Names, a haunting epic set on the distant Eurasian steppe and one of the latest additions to the English PEN World Bookshelf.

Sam has translated over 30 titles from Dutch, including Herman Koch's bestseller, The Dinner, and cult cycling classic Tim Krabbe’s The Rider. He is also the only translator to have twice won the British Society of Authors’ Vondel Prize for Dutch-English translation.


An extract from These Are the Names


Their feet dragged through the sand. Interminable was the space they moved through. The landscape before them was precisely the same as the one behind; the one on the right differed in no way from that on the left. The only lines to guide them on the steppes were the sky above their heads and the ground beneath their feet.


Their footsteps were wiped out quickly behind them. They were passers-by, leaving no trail and no recollections.



These Are the NamesWith the current swell of anti-immigration rhetoric we are seeing across UK and Europe, did you feel any special responsibility as the translator bringing this story into English? What do you think about the novel’s treatment of the migrants?


The migrants in These Are the Names are victims, of course. But the complex truth of the novel is that they are victims at least in part to the blindness brought on by their own fervent hopes. Other than their basic humanity, and their dreams of freedom, there is very little about this group of migrants that one could call 'noble'. They’ve been dropped on the steppes by an Eastern European version of a 'coyote', and are dragging themselves towards the fata morgana of the West. Their journey is a 'thicket of terrors'; the climate is a monster intent on devouring them alive, the journey is one of attrition; the dying fall and are stripped of their belongings before death even comes, and in the course of that journey the members of the group come close to and even pass that nubbin of humanity that separates them from the beast.


It would be hard to turn that into a story of heroism or a plea for tolerance, and it would in fact be literary vandalism to even try. But having said that, the 'society' we see being formed out on the anvil of the steppes is shockingly similar to our own. And from that society there emerges one character we might call a hero: the boy.


The boy and Beg, somehow, are two peas in a pod. If there is a lesson about tolerance to be found in the book, it’s in the depiction of that odd couple. Beg is a hardnosed cop, but wise enough not to withhold respect from those who have passed through the fire of exodus. By their deeds you shall know them.


The novel asks difficult questions about identity, place and how the latter influences the former. How did you navigate translating the constantly shifting perspectives – from Pontus Beg’s comfy, introspective, banal existence to the refugees’ visceral, ever-shifting, nomadic life?


You’re right about the shifting perspectives, but as I read and then entered that form of 'deep reading' that translation is, I was struck by the similarities between the two journeys – at various levels - perhaps even more than by the differences. Tommy Wieringa’s point – counterpoint narrative is particularly interesting because of the way the two narrative lines converge so naturally.


The threat of starvation and death by exposure, of course, elicits more primal fear in us than the threat of dying in relative comfort without knowing who we are or where we belong. But Pontus Beg’s existential journey is urgent in a way that is probably more familiar to most of us, which makes it all the more pressing. What would you fear most: freezing to death while doing your best to reach freedom, or dying alone in your apartment without knowing your own name?


In practical terms, the hop-scotching back and forth between the deprivations on the steppes and the post-imperial grime of Michailopol was great fun; the writer, the translator and ultimately the reader all experience a kind of omnipresence. The tension lies in being omnipresent without being omniscient. 


You previously translated Tommy Wieringa’s Caesarion (shortlisted for the 2013 Dublin IMPAC Award). In both that novel and These Are The Names, Wieringa draws the mythic/religious/historical into the novel’s present day; Beg reads Confucius, various faith practices/traditions are spotlighted and exaggerated (Zita visits the church fervently in hope of getting pregnant, one of the refugees wears a cross around his neck which the others fixate on, Beg engages with his lost ancestral Jewish roots.) For you, what do the mythic elements of the story do - and how, if at all, did they affect your translation of it?


Much of the important reading I’ve done in my life started at university. But I grew up with the Bible. In our circles, it was a sign of status to be able to quote whole sections of that book by heart. Oppressive as that was at times, it has proven invaluable to me as a translator. Not only the literal allusions that would otherwise have to be dug up or remain hidden, but also the sense of what you rightly call the mythic. Words can change your life. Stories can change your life. Forces are at play. Rituals are the coinage of a kind of mystic economy. All that. Whether it’s Judaism or Christianity or Taoism, the questions that are asked – also by Pontus Beg, also by Zita, also by the refugees in this book  – show that we expect there to be answers. When those answers are too long in coming, we may go looking for them somewhere else.


The story takes place in and around Michailopol, a fictionalised Russian town. The portrayal of the decaying post-Soviet town, with the savage wild landscape lying just beyond, is very powerful. Did you visit that part of the world to get a feel for what it’s like?


I didn’t travel for my translation of this particular book, but the travelling I’ve done in the past definitely jogged my imagination. In the course of the last thirty years I’ve travelled through former East Germany, I was also in Hungary in the early 1980s and drove across the Puszta there, then crossed the border to the West at a Soviet-style crossing with watchtowers, guards, dogs, mirrored trolleys to detect stowaways, etc. As a young man in the United States I camped in the desert and on the Great Plains, at the center of a 360-degree electrical storm. So vastness and vulnerability, also the sense of a hostile, suspicious division between two worlds, they’re all familiar to me. That helped.


Describe the book in three words.


Human hope burns.



Interview by English PEN's Programmes Co-ordinator Rebekah Murrell

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