An ode to the translator’s notes

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I have always been fascinated by the art and the process of translation. I’m also the kind of person who reads the acknowledgments before starting a book. It is therefore not surprising that I fell for the translator’s notes.

Not all translated works include translator’s notes, although the more I read of them the more I miss them when they are not there. I have come to see them not just as fascinating windows into the work of translation, but as crucial extensions of the actual work in question. Translator’s notes change the way I read translated fiction, in that reading books without them, even if I do, feels incomplete.

The first translator’s note I fell in love with is from Kristen Gehrman’s beautiful new translation of Dola de Jong’s The Tree and the Vine. First published in Dutch in 1954, the novel is set in Amsterdam in 1938-1940. It follows Bea and Erica, two women who move in together soon after they meet. Bea, who narrates the novel, is in love with Erica but doesn’t want to admit it. Erica, on the other hand, is negligent to the point of recklessness, has affairs with other women, and often acts in ways that endanger her life, especially after the Nazi occupation begins. The novel is about their volatile relationship and, as you might guess, there is no happy ending.

I read this novel in two sittings and I knew it was something special. But even though I loved it, part of me thought I shouldn’t. Here’s another sad lesbian book from the 1950s that ends in tragedy. Don’t we have enough? Then I read Gehrman’s translator’s note. This passage took my breath away:

“It’s easy to look at this story through the prism of war or see it as a lesbian romance that could never exist due to the restrictions of the time. But as I got to know Erica and Bea , I came to see their restlessness, struggles, doubts and hesitations as a reflection of a larger female experience. The tree and the vine is one of the richest texts I have had the pleasure of translating and which will stay with me.

Gehrman goes on to quote Marnix Gijsen, a writer who defended the novel’s original publication. According to him, it is “an important and remarkable book — and not because it tackles a delicate problem with such understanding, it is only the starting point. I am more admiring of the finesse with which Dola de Jong sketches his two main characters.

Gehrman and Gijsen expressed what I felt about the book but was unable to name after finishing it. Yes, it’s a tragedy, but it’s a specific tragedy, a tragedy caused by the main characters’ particular human blocks, their desires, their whims and their fears. The specificity of Bea and Erica comes to life in the text; that’s what makes the book so good. And Gehrman is partly responsible for exactly how they come to life, at least in English. Her attentive reading of the text and the obvious care she took in its translation deeply marked my own reading. I think I would have liked this novel if I hadn’t read his note. But I can’t know for sure. His work is present in the work of de Jong, and I am grateful to him.

When the Whales Go cover

I had a similar experience, in a different order, reading When the Whales Leave by Yuri Rytkheu, translated by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse. When the whales leave is a magnificent romantic fable, beautiful, incandescent and strange. Rytkheu was a Chukchi writer; the Chukchi are an indigenous people of the Chukchi Peninsula in Eastern Siberia, on the Bering Sea, where the novel is set. It begins in a distant time at the beginning of the world. A woman, Nau, falls in love with a whale, Reu, and he transforms into a human to be with her. Their children become people, and thus humanity is born. The story follows the descendants of Nau and Reu through the years as the world changes around them.

I decided to read Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse’s translator’s note before diving into the novel. She recounts a conversation she had with Rytkheu about his first translation of one of his books. Rytkheu wrote in Russian and in his native Chukchi; he was also fluent in English. Chavasse remembers having trouble getting the translation right. So when she had the chance to tell Rytkheu about it, she asked if there was anything in particular she should be doing or paying attention to. He told her to “write it like a song. As if you could sing it if you wanted to. When they met again after the publication of the book, he said to her: “In English too, it sings.

What a nice exchange. I was thinking about this idea, of a book that sings, when I turned to the first page of the story. Never in my life have I read a book that sings like this. It’s a sad story. But it is also filled with a glorious and musical language. The descriptions of the arctic landscape are staggering. The words pulsate with the wind and the sky and the ocean and the rock. It’s so physical, so deeply connected to the fabric of the world. It’s as if the words themselves came out of the ocean, a translation of whale song and sunlight on the ice and summer wildflowers on the tundra. It is definitely a song.

Reading this conversation between Chavasse and Rytkheu gave me a deeper appreciation for the magic of this book. I would have loved that, and his breathtaking music, whatever. But not quite the same way.

the cover of Deaf Utopia

Earlier this week I started reading Nyle DiMarco’s Deaf Utopia. The book begins with an author’s note which is also a translator’s note. DiMarco explains how the book came about. He wrote it first in his native language, ASL, through a series of videos he shared with his friend and co-author Robert Siebert. Siebert translated these videos into English, then DiMarco and Siebert worked together to refine and finalize the translation.

Because ASL and English are related, and because DiMarco is fluent in both, I had assumed deaf utopia was written in English. The author/translator’s note not only deepened my understanding of the book; it broadened my understanding of translation in general. Once again, I was struck by the importance of this short note at the beginning of the book. Without it, I would have missed something essential in DiMarco’s story.

All of these translator notes I’ve mentioned — and many more I’ve read and loved — offer much more than context. Chavasse, for example, writes about the number of weather words that appear in When the whales leave, and how many words for sunlight, and the joys and challenges of translating these concepts. DiMarco explains the type of ASL gloss – a written approximation of ASL signs – that he and Siebert chose to use in the book. The best translator notes are both emotional and technical. These are not optional afterthoughts. They are essential parts of the translated books. They don’t just provide insight and context; they provide essential information about the strange and complicated process of transferring meaning and beauty from one language to another. It’s time we started giving them the attention they deserve.