Returning to Mother Tongue

‘Did you read the German translation of Magda?’ asks my assistant Clara as she walks into the office on Monday. I shake my head.2896235298_8bb571d55a_z

‘I was very busy over the last few days, ‘ I explain defensively.

‘Excuses, excuses,’ the Nymph’s voice comes from the other end of the room. ‘There was nothing she couldn’t have put off.’

I throw a guilty glance in the direction of the ten copies of the German Magda. The Austrian publisher sent them to me at the beginning of January. The book looks beautiful. When it arrived I even took a picture and put it on my facebook page. But I haven’t yet opened the cover.

‘You tell our authors that the translation of their book will sound strange,’ Peirene says. ‘And you explain to them that’s because they have the rhythm of the original in their ears, while we create an English text. The result will always feel jarring to the writer, even if their English is very good. But they shouldn’t worry. We know what we are doing. That’s how you reassure them, don’t you?’ I can feel that Peirene is preparing herself for an intellectual knock-out.

I nod.

‘So… now you have to trust your German translator and the Austrian publisher that they have translated your novel well.’ The Nymph comes over to me and hands me a copy of the German Magda ‘Clara and I will manage on our own today. Go to a cafe and don’t come back until you’ve read it.’

Peirene speaks wisely. Of course. And despite all my angst I am curious to know what my novel sounds like in my own mother tongue. Will I cringe? Be amazed? Want to hide for ever after?

The first pages sound really strange. I stop and order a second cappuccino, and a Danish pastry to calm my nerves. Then I continue reading. Gradually I lose the awareness that this is ‘my book’. Of course I recognize the thoughts, the scenes, the emotions. But this isn’t my language, these aren’t my words. The narrative sweeps me along, and three hours later I’ve finished. I order the third cappuccino while I think about the story. The reading experience was very different to what I remember when I read through my final English draft. What new thoughts the German Magda has provoked in me. What unfamiliar associations and interesting insights. Eventually I have to admit that I have had an inspiring afternoon. Thank you to my German translator Martin Thomas Pesl and the Austrian publisher Edition Atelier.

Image by Colin Mutchler.

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