Literary as hell.

In Conversation with novel translator Tina Kover

As a translator, Tina Kover bridges gaps between cultures. For over ten years, she has been translating novels from French into English, so that they can be read and appreciated by a wider audience. This year alone, Kover has translated two wildly different books: Disoriental by Negar Djavadi (read our review here) and The Beauty of the Death Cap by Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze, forthcoming this fall from Snuggly Books.

This year, Kover even helped to bridge the gap between a married couple. “[Catherine’s husband] doesn’t speak French, so he actually couldn’t read her book until I translated it, which is quite funny.”

When asked if he liked the book, Kover laughed. “He loved it,” she said. “But [Catherine] said she was a little frustrated because as he was reading it, he kept saying more about how much he liked the translation than the book itself.”

Q: What is the process of translating a book like?

My personal process is that I don’t read the book first. I think there are other translators who do it that way, and then other people who would be totally shocked by that. I feel like it gives the translation a more spontaneous quality if I don’t know what’s coming. Because if I read the whole book, I may unwittingly use language or terminology that foreshadows events in the book without meaning to. So I always just start fresh. I literally just start from page one and I go all the way through.

Q: What is the most difficult concept you’ve had to translate?

In terms of emotional difficulty, writing about death is always painful. Conveying the intensity of emotions and making sure that what you translated has the same emotional intent and impact as the original is difficult. I’m always very careful to make that raw quality come through, which is another reason I don’t read the book first because I think that helps with that.

But I’ll give you an example of something I really did struggle with which was a book I translated by the Goncourt Brothers called Manette Salomon. That book is a classic and a masterpiece but it’s also very much of its time and there’s a fair bit of anti-Semitism in it. And that was difficult for me to translate. There’s always a line that you’re not sure if you’re crossing in terms of being true to the orignal and being offensive, going too far with your translation. So it’s hard to gauge sometimes, the strength of the words you choose to use. So that was quite difficult. But it’s a beautiful book and it’s absolutely worth reading.

Q: So kind of like deciding between “kike” or “yid”?

Kind of. The language they used wasn’t quite that strong but I remember there was a passage at one point where a character was thinking about these old men and women that he’s seen coming out of a synagogue and he really describes them in very negative terms physically.

What do you say, do you use the word ‘ugly’ or ‘hideous’? It’s a simple choice, they both mean the same thing, but they have a different quality. So yeah. That’s a little example of that. Do you use hag or do you use crone? Which do you use? Which one is worse?

It’s where subtlety comes into it, I think. Subtlety in translation, subtlety in the language is very important. And actually that’s why I think some translations are clumsy. I know this sounds strange but I think being a good translator is more about knowing your own language extremely well than it is about knowing your source language extremely well. I think that’s important too but the more language, the more words, the more phraseology and imagery you have at your disposal in your own language, the more you can convey in another language.

Q: Speaking of language, the narrator in Death Cap uses a fairly wide vocabulary. How much of that did you use a dictionary or thesaurus for?

All of it was my own. This is where my high school years reading nothing but Victorian literature came in very handy. I already had a head full of those words and it’s amazing how easily translation flowed for me for Death Cap because it was quite a specific style but I feel like Catherine wrote [Nikonor] so vividly and so perfectly that I could lock into it immediately and just carry on in English. I might have used a thesaurus once or twice, but if I do that it’s generally to avoid using a word too close to each other. I like variety. But for the most part that was already in my head.

Q: You have a wide vocabulary, then.

[laughs] it’s mostly from reading

Q: How is the process of writing for yourself different than translating someone else’s work?

I actually prefer translating. It’s the joy of being creative without the pain of giving birth to a complete story arc in your own head. You’ve got it all there for you, from a platter, but then you have the ability to weave your own tale with the words and create something new. So I love that. I certainly think it’s just as much of a creative process as writing an original work. It’s like having your cake and eating it too.

I mean obviously there’s only a certain level that you can be creative to because you have a framework and a story that you’re obligated to, but I do think there’s a lot of room for emotional and intellectual creativity in translation.

Q: Could you give an example of one type of creative choice you had to make for Death Cap?

In Death Cap, the narrator switches back quite a lot between French and English. And that’s quite an important part of his personality. He switches back and forth depending on his mood, depending on what he is trying to convey. I obviously couldn’t exactly replicate that exactly in the translation. So I — and the author, but a lot of the time it was just me – made the decisions about when to use French, when to use English. When to translate some of the original bits that were in English back into French, and vice versa.

The other thing about that book is that the narrator has a really particular way of speaking. Sort of an old-fashioned, almost a 19th century way of speaking. So I was very careful with my word choices, trying to retain that pedantic way of speaking without making it so formal and stiff that it wouldn’t be any fun to read.

Q: In Disoriental, Kimia also stresses the difference between French and Persian. How did you keep the essence of that while translating it to English?

When you’re translating for a specific audience, in this case I basically mean a US or a UK audience, you have to transpose certain phrases and uses of the language so that your target audience will understand what you’re talking about. They’re almost like linguistic in-jokes. One thing that comes to mind almost immediately is that she makes fun of how the Iranians pronounce French words with a Persian accent.

And actually my editor [Rachael Small] sort of changed the phonetic pronunciations to be more relatable in English. That’s something that I wouldn’t have thought to do. I was sort of just copying down the words the author wrote because I thought well, I don’t know if there’s anything I can do here. But that was a little touch [Rachael] thought would be good.

Q: Like when they were talking about the “vagin”?

Yeah. Those words that are italicized and emphasized to pay special attention to them. I think that’s also a way of emphasizing the otherness of these other languages and other cultures and sometimes it’s funny and sometimes you’re just meant to say to yourself alright, this is different, this is foreign, this is not the way that I would pronounce this. It’s a foreign word to these people so they pronounce it strangely to my ears.

Q: How did you get into book translation?

The first thing I started out translating was just basic stuff like birth certificates and legal documents. I sent my resume to a bunch of translation agencies and they gave me jobs, and I worked up to bigger ones.

The book translation I kind of got into in a roundabout way. When I was maybe 26, I had a boyfriend at the time who suggested that I translate a book, and I had never done that. This was back in the early 2000s when self publishing was all the rage. So I actually self-published my first book which was called the Black City. It was by George Sand, who was famous as being the lover of Frederick Chopin. She was a female novelist in the 19th century who dressed in men’s clothing and wrote under a man’s name. So that was the first book I did.

And then I actually shopped that book around to literary agents, and got one that way. I just sent out copies. I think that doesn’t happen very often, I think I just got really lucky. And so that was the beginning of it.

Q: What do you translate besides novels?

I do some work for a publisher called ISTE in London. They publish sort of academic texts, the pure and applied sciences. So everything from chemistry and physics to telecommuncations and bio science and marine pollution. It’s literally almost anything you can think of. It’s very interesting.

I just finished translating a few chapters for them, one of which was about motion capture in video games and this difficulty of directing actors when they’re going to be interacting with virtual co-stars. You learn a lot as a translator if you really pay attention to what you’re doing.

Q: Do you have to understand every topic to translate it?

Well, they can’t expect you to understand everything when there’s such a variety of subjects. So that’s where the internet comes in so handy because I can look up articles on anything or even specialized dictionaries sometimes and I can do a little bit of research just to familiarize myself with the terminology. I don’t know what people did before the internet, in terms of translation, honestly. It’s a miracle to have a thousand dictionaries at your fingertips.

Q: What makes you furious in the world right now?

[laughs] Well, I mean obviously the political situation in the United States is absolutely horrifying to me. I can’t describe the rage I feel and the sickness and the fury and the disgust. And witnessing it from outside the country as an American but someone who doesn’t live in the country is I think difficult in its own way. I feel powerless, helpless and at the same time I’m fortunate not to be in the middle of it. But yeah. Donald Trump makes me furious, and sick, that’s for sure.

Q: What are your thoughts on the politics in Disoriental?

I feel that [Djavadi is] coming from a place of such joy and wisdom  that there’s very little you can do but be in awe of how she bridges culture. I’m extremely aware of how important the messages in Disoriental are for the times we’re living in and that’s why I want so many people to read this book, and tell other people about it and share it because the book is just about being human and doing the best you can in life no matter what circumstances we are born into or who we are, and that’s a precious thing. I think it’s very very important for people to hear that message right now.

Q: Who would you recommend Death Cap to?

I think anyone out there who wants to read kind of a quirky fun very unique story, sort of similar to Nabokov in a lot of ways. In fact when I first read it, it reminded me a lot of Nabakov’s Pale Fire. So anyone who’s a fan of that book would absolutely love Death Cap. I’m excited to see it out there and happy that English speakers will be able to appreciate it.

Q: What would you say to someone who views books in translation as somehow inauthentic?

Right, people who say that things are lost in translation or that translation is somehow an inferior copy. Well, that’s not true at all. Honestly, every language has its own depth and beauty and I think rather than losing quality or beauty in translation I think you gain it. It’s just taking one wonderful thing and sort of putting it through a prism, to another, turning it into something that’s different but equally beautiful. I think anything that encourages people from different cultures and who speak different languages to share experiences and share art and literature and understand each other better is very good and very important, especially right now.


This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

1 Comment

  1. MZ Dotts

    Great interview!

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