~ Posted by Simon Willis, May 15th 2012
Last night, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was awarded to Aharon Appelfeld's novel "Blooms of Darkness" at a ceremony in London. It was a night for the winner, but also for small publishing houses, which had published five of the six novels on the shortlist, including Appelfeld's (Umberto Eco's "The Prague Cemetery", published by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Random House, was the exception). The prize proved, yet again, how much we need these publishers. Independents have given us everything from the multimillion-selling "Millennium Trilogy" by Stieg Larsson, published by the MacLehose Press, to last night's winner, about moments of hope amid the terrors of the Holocaust, published by Alma Books.
It was also a night for translators. The prize is one of the very few occasions when authors share the spotlight and the prize-money equally with their translators, whose reward doesn't often extend beyond a tiny sum of money for their work and a small credit on a book's title page. But Appelfeld was joined on the stage by Jeffrey M. Green, who has been translating his Hebrew into English for many years, and who as well as a cheque got a chance to speak about the translator's art.
He compared translating not to writing but to acting. Translators, he said, have to find their own way to deliver somebody else's words, just as actors do on stage, where each performance of a part, like each translation of a book, will be slightly different from all the others. But he didn't stop there. Writers, too, he said, are often translators of a kind. In "Hamlet", Shakespeare gave us Danish characters speaking Elizabethan English. Appelfeld's characters are native German-speakers. Hugo, an 11-year-old boy, is saved from the Holocaust when his mother smuggles him out of the ghetto into the hands of a friend, Mariana, a prostitute who cares for the boy. Although Appelfeld himself was brought up speaking German, he refuses to write in it, regarding it as the "the language of the murderers". So his characters speak to us in Hebrew. Thanks to the part played by Jeffrey M. Green, they also speak in English.
Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life and writes Found in Translation for the magazine