A Eulogy to Christiane Kuby - Berlin, Januari 23th 2013

At the occasion of the Else Otten Translation Award

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Eminent Members of the Jury of the Else Otten Prize,
Excellencies of all kinds,
Dear Frau Merkel,
and of course,
Lieve Christiane,

Some time ago I was asked if I would wish to deliver a short speech at the occasion of this award for Christiane’s thorough and artful translation of my novel ‘Godenslaap’. I was also asked whether I could deliver this speech either in German or in English. Since I’m not fluent in German, though I understand and can read this magnificent language, I now have to address you in my second language – and I just hope I do not sound too much like a British actor impersonating a German tourist who tries to speak English.

I’m glad Christiane is now the third of what I sometimes rather possessively call ‘my’ translators, to receive recognition for her labor on one of my novels. Earlier on, Marie Hooghe won the French Prix Amadée Pichot and an honour of the Belgian Academy of Arts and Sciences, as did Ina Rilke for hers, when a couple of years ago she was awarded the Translation Prize of the Flemish Community in my native Belgium.
I’m proud and thankful to have such extremely talented women as ‘my’ translators, even though they sometimes say I’m a ‘tough guy’, by which they mean, I hope, my work: deceptive in its clarity and fluidity, yet firm and dense in its control of the beautiful, rich and colorful Dutch language, my beloved mother’s tongue.

The art of literary translation is often underrated, as simply ‘work’. I have never shared this somewhat bemeaning opinion – it certainly is an undervalued occupation, as all over Europe translators of intricate and highly literary prose increasingly have to work faster and for disappointingly little financial reward, despite the efforts made by a number of literary foundations. Which is regrettable, certainly, if not, on the part of the publishing houses, unacceptable.

Still, I have always shown, and shall always do so, my sympathy and profound appreciation of quality-translation. It is a form of art in its own right, and in a Europe where language is perhaps one of the most underestimated ‘natural resources’, as it were, translation of novelistic, poetic and philosophical works has been vital to the creation of a distinctly European realm of ideas, to opening doors and windows unto the other nations of the European house, and beyond, unto the rest of the world. This vital importance shall not diminish in a global context, on the contrary.

Of course, the margins within which talented translators, that rare breed to whom I believe Christiane belongs, have to operate is quite narrow, but it is a margin nevertheless. And our most talented translators are the ones who exploit this margin to deploy the means of their trade to the fullest and are able thus to transcend the limitations inherent to their art. Ina Rilke, whom I mentioned earlier, regularly tells me: “All translation means loss”. Fortunately Ina’s work disproves her own pessimistic ideas. Sometimes one has to bow the knee before the definite ‘otherness’ of a foreign language, its imagery, its idiom, or the particular play of the author with the language he both uses and transforms. But at other moments one is able to give something back. So, rather than being a cemetery of missed appointments, translation is, as the great philosopher Phil Collins once observerd, a game of give and take. A game, characterized by an earnest and devoted playfulness which reflects the authentic, deeply serious, game of the writer.

Sometimes ‘my’ translators like to come over for day or so, with their questions and suggestions, or they write extensive e-mails. Others, like Christiane, or Goedele de Sterck, who recently translated ‘Godenslaap’ into Spanish, prefer to work in seclusion. I always respect the way a translator wants to work on my work. I like to grant them the freedom I myself enjoy while writing the books they some day will labor on themselves, and I myself am the kind of writer who doesn’t really like to talk about work in progress. Writing a book is like weaving a womb around yourself, because, from my perspective, it is not me, the supreme author, who is creating a new work of art. It is, on the contrary, the book that is giving birth to the writer I will be once the novel has reached its conclusion - leaving me stark naked and vulnerable, longing for a new womb to disappear into. I like to think that my ‘silent translators’, like Christiane, immerse themselves in the same way into the book they’re working on.

Sometimes of course, while at work, I find myself thinking: ‘O, that sentence will cause them a hell of a headache. O, this metaphor will definitely give them something to chew on.’ But I always trust they will come up with something that will transport a singular way of expressing something in ‘my ‘Dutch, into something similarly surprising in their own language.

I do hope, dear Christiane, I did not give you too many headaches… I’m curious to find out. It is the first time we meet in person. I always like to read the translations of my work into other languages, if I can. I’m not sure whether I will be able to make something of the Ethiopian edition of my debut novel, due to appear in the course of this year, but I have read ‘Götterschlaf’, and with pleasure and deep gratitude. It is like entering a house that is quite familiar to me, which isn’t all that surprising since, after all, it is the house I have designed and built myself. All rooms and corridors and furniture are where I would expect them to be, yet while wandering through this dwelling, that has been the home I lived in for so many years, there are little differences to be noticed: a doorknob looking slightly unfamiliar, or the staircase squeaking with another accent when one goes upstairs, as if other wood was used for some of its steps. There’s another pattern on the cushions in the bedrooms, the tabs of the bathtub turn the opposite way. It is a familiar and at the same time mysterious experience, and that is how it should be. I means the job has been done well. It means translators are the closest of readers, the most attentive ones.

I’m also grateful for Christiane receiving the Else Otten Prize for this particular novel. ‘Godenslaap’ is the novel dearest to me in all my work, because, up till now, it is the novel that challenged, seduced and mobilized my skills and talents as writer to the utmost. It has been the novel determined to show to myself the scope of the gifts I seem to have, and the obligation I have to maintain and nourish my talent, which knows me far better than I know it myself. It is certainly the book that has delivered, in the indirect ways prose works, a self-portrait of the writer I am. So thinking of Christiane who was working at the translation I sometimes felt caught, in the depths of my naked soul. But when I read her finished text I felt comforted, and sheltered in a coat of good German quality.

I do hope you’re as proud as I am with this prize, dear Christiane, en ik hoop dat we ons nog vaker in boeken mogen ontmoeten.

Thank you,
Erwin Mortier

Volksbühne Berlin, 23 januari 2013