On 12 May 2014, translator Nicolette Hoekmeijer spoke the following words to writer Edward St Aubyn at a literary event revolving around his work.
Ladies and gentlemen, Teddy, good evening.
I was a decent, hardworking translator, and basically a responsable citizen, until in the spring of 1994 Edward St Aubyn came into my life. Within two weeks I found myself on the so-called Pillenbrug – the Pills Bridge – looking for dealers and hanging out with junkies.
I am Nicolette Hoekmeijer, literary translator, and in 1994 I was asked to translate St Aubyns second novel, Bad News, which is now part two of the so-called Patrick Melrose Quintet. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work: The Melrose novels describe stunningly well, in beautiful and precise prose, both a gruesome childhood in an aristocratic environment of absolute horror, and the resulting struggle to find meaning in life, to find a way to be able to live at all. Patrick’s only allies are his intelligence, his wit, his cynicism and his eloquence, which allow him to hide behind words. In Bad News, ‘my’ first Melrose novel Patrick is somewhere in his twenties and goes to New York to collect his father’s ashes. At this point in his life he is an extremely troubled and wealthy drug addict who is basically torn between the longing to drink himself senseless, to loose himself in booze, drugs and especially in anger, and on the other hand a strong, intellectual will to face and overcome the demons that haunt him. The sinister and dark, but at moments extremely funny, Melrose novels, are populated by snobs, drunkards, pedophiles, tyrants, philosophers, would-be philosophers, callous grandmothers, precocious children, cynics and addicts – all of whom have a different voice.
Translation is, to me, recreating the original in another language, using the full potential of your mother tongue while retaining the characteristics of the original. In order to do so, in order to find the right voice for both the descriptive passages ánd the characters, you have to immerse yourself in the original, and emerge in your own language. The way to do this, for me, is greatly similar to so-called method acting: In order to find the right voice, I have to ‘become’ the character, or something close to it. So, in order to translate the thoughts and dialogues of for instance the drug users and dealers in Bad News, I practically had to feel their craving. Maybe that would be a bit overzealous, but at least I had to familiarize myself with the way addicts and dealers talk, with the exact words they use. Hence the Pills Bridge.
This is basically what makes translating such an involving, exciting and in this case exhausting job. With Bad News I used to get up in the morning, shower and dress – unlike the corny image of the translator in pyjamas. Then I would make a pot of coffee, turn on my computer and get started, in good spirits and full of energy. By noon I would be carefully counting the remaining pills in all my pockets, negotiate with drug dealers, fretfully calculate if I still had enough pills to make it to the next dealer, wonder whether more coke would also mean more smack and how close would this combination bring me to a heart attack – or I would hang upside down on my couch, with a hand full of aspirines, in order to feel what Patrick went through and what he exactly did, when he struggled to swallow drugs on the back seat of a cab, without having water at his disposal. Luckily, after lunch, St Aubyn gave me some respite with gripping and consoling contemplations on desperation, destiny and redemption, or with his briljant and cutting dialogues, which make me laugh every time. But not much later the method acting translation roller coaster would get into motion again, and by the end of my working day I was back being Patrick Melrose, collapsing breathlessly on a hotel bed, after having crawled through the hotel’s hallway in the dark, unable to find the light switch, clasping my father’s ashes under my arm, unable to stand up and unable to find the right door. And even then unable to find the keyhole.
I can tell you: Translating Bad News, my introduction to St Aubyns work, was both depleting and addictive. An addiction which St Aubyn has been facilitating for almost twenty years now.
What makes all of St Aubyns works both an enormous challenge and an absolute feast for a translator, is his mastery of a diversity of styles, genres, registers, tones and voices. Underneath it all is an omni present and compelling irony, not to say cynicism. But as I am in the ‘lucky’ position to have a cynics voice deep inside of me, I don’t have to do much research for that. But what I definitely did have to do research for, what was maybe the biggest challenge for me as a translator is the aristocratic, upper class setting that charaterizes St Aubyns work. So my research took me straight from the Pillenbrug to Het Gooi, where I listened carefully to Dutch upper class intellectuals and nobility. It is undeniable: with a few exceptions, the Dutch upper class does not remotely sound like the English upper class. As a rule the English are more eloquent and have better debating skills, which they already train at primary school. The English make longer and more complex sentences, and they use both a higher register and more words with a Latin stem.
This is an extremely tricky cultural difference, of which a translator has to be aware. It is all a matter of the right dose: if I would translate St Aubyns upper class characters one on one, word for word, into a high register Dutch, I would overshoot the mark. What is an aristocratic, eloquent and upper class setting in English should not become grotesque in Dutch. No matter how hilarious, there is a crucial difference between posh and grotesque.
And now there is Lost for Words, or Met stomheid geslagen in Dutch. Luckily for me, translating Lost For Words was less physically strenuous. Most of the characters are sitting and thinking, or sitting and writing, or lying down, either being depressed or having sex. Sometimes they are reading, or, to be more precise: they should be reading, as they form the jury of a prestigious literary price. Lost for Words is a biting and hilarious take on the literary circus, and poses questions about literature, what it actually ís, and who gets to decide that. The novel is inhabited by characters who are either producing so many words they almost drown in them, and on the other hand characters who have great difficulty committing themselves to words, and therefore to meaning (like the one writer who is hardly able to put anything on paper because he feels: ‘to say anything at all would be a mistake’.
There are many passages on structuralism, and semiotics, tersely articulated in the following quote: ‘Her need to decide what things meant came no doubt from having lived so close to the sense that they meant nothing at all’. As far as these philosophical passages are concerned: I did not have this voice, nor the knowledge, ready. But luckily, I have the right friends.
The very ambigious take on words, the suggestion that words don’t mean anything at all, is a rather discomforting thought for a translator. As for a writer, of course.
But in St Aubyns capable hands it is evident that words do mean a lot: they mean everything. He chooses his words with utmost care, he is able to paint a whole character in just a few words. I quote: ‘”Oh, dear, how unfortunate,” said Mrs Wo, with a perfectly judged laugh.’ With this ‘perfectly judged laugh’ St Aubyn instantly invokes a whole personality.
As in his other novels, in Lost For Words the cynicism is kept in perfect balance by humor and compassion. And in the end, when you look behind, or through, all the words, you could argue that the novel, so rife with cynicism, ends in an ode to love. Which is one of the many reasons St Aubyns books are so dear to me: ultimately, intellect and love seem to be able to offer some sort of way out from under the dark shadows of the past.
Many authors will, on occasion, thank their translators for all their hard work. But I would like to thank you, Teddy, for your books give me months and months of gratification, and make me understand life just a little bit better.