Baptism and Boldness in Translating

14th September 2020
5 min read
The Jeweller book cover

Like all avid readers, I have a head packed with images and characters I only met in fiction. They become a part of me. As a literary translator, the problem gets worse. Those pictures appear at ten times pixel density, due to repeated inking. The images go into my mind in one language, are ground up and reformed, coming out as Fair Trade artisan technicolour sausages. Don’t dare tell me this translation is not my own string of sausages! I can get quite possessive. 

TOP TIP ON POSSESSIVENESS: Consider bold decisions such as moving paragraph- and even chapter-sequence. I swapped around chapters 38 and 40, because I didn’t want to end on the depressing note of the original, which suggested a cycle of loss continuing into a new generation. However, secure the author’s permission to do this.

I grew up loving solitude with a Puffin, perched on a clifftop car bonnet. Scenes from the riches-to-rags tale, A Little Princess, helped me overcome an adult life-event. When Farage comes on TV, I reach for the samovar scene in Ballet Shoes where a White Russian émigré talks of exile to a group of girls with open minds. Madame Fidolia and Sara Crewe have lived with us readers so long, we are their foster mothers. 

As for reader, so for translator. Take the fiction of Caryl Lewis. Look at her characters’ English relatives, the ones in Martha, Jack and Shanco rather than their Welsh-speaking parents. This love-hate-love triangle – on a par with that in On the Black Hill comprising the twins and their mother’s ghost – spent a year in my cerebral attic. I coached Judy into a Yorkshire accent. I saw, just as Caryl imagined, how the interloping gold-digger’s ‘things’ accumulate like ‘drift’ across the ‘home’s landscape’. Writers, don’t take umbrage: you are still God. In others’ translations, your people speak new lines through different lifetimes. Your characters go forth and multiply; become a global brand. The property of all and no one. 

The Jeweller, is a collaborative pack of sausages: wild boar hunted and set on a quest by Caryl Lewis; seasoning my own, and my publisher’s labels designed for the English market. Tastebuds brought to the table by readers. 

It is full of boundary-crossings – mainly through water – but also through marriage, death, birth and legal or financial transaction. Genuine baptisms? The cover image: ailing pet monkey Nanw at the shoreline wrapped in vintage christening gown. Mari, exhilarated to find her own homecoming, burning evidence of her pilfering habits, then washing away her smuts and sins with a flannel, the old-fashioned way. 

TOP TIP ON HERITAGE: The literary reserves you draw on will be your target language and culture. In this emerald-cutting scene, a literal version would be: ‘Like a coal, the grey face was still, hiding the green fire kindling inside it.’ My borrowing here from Dylan Thomas renders it: ‘like a piece of coal, its grey face was impassive, hiding the green fuse driving within it.’

This is a dark novel; gothic, with the evocative, seasonal rural settings that are Caryl’s hallmark as a highly successful noir TV drama writer (her second series of Hidden/Craith will be on UK network BBC channels and iPlayer this autumn). Fans of muscular language and lyrical prose love her alliteration and half-rhymes, trained from an ear attuned to ancient strict-metre poetry (which I aimed to approximate). 

TOP TIP ON MOOD: Always choose a title in a genre, voice and mood you enjoy. Why spend a year with chick-lit when you prefer Emily Brontë?

The Jeweller’s denouement (even after my reshuffle) may start to hint at the cyclical nature of bad luck, appearing even fatalistic. Its secondary themes are possession/s and belonging (close cousins). Mari has been left a foundling on church steps and never feels at home (partly because he never baptised her) with the vicar who takes her in. She obsessively works to cut an emerald deserving of the perfect setting. She steals another woman’s husband and son; fails to see where they authentically belong. She combs the belongings of the dead in house clearances and borrows their families’ photos and letters, trying on alternative identities but really seeking the only person she belongs to. 

But despite this darkness, wrapped, like vegan chocolate, in rich yet nourishing language, the novel’s main theme – baptism – is a most hopeful ritual, relinquishing ownership of past lives and misdemeanours; promising rebirth. 

And that is why reading and translation, which are all about renewal and reinvention – as well as belonging and possession (and yes, possessiveness) – are life-affirming acts. 

Gwen Davies is the translator of Caryl Lewis’ The Jeweller, published by Honno on 19 September at £8.99.

Writing stage