Interview with Jeannette Ringold
by Amy Russell
Jeannette Ringold,Ph.D., longtime NCTA member and until recently member of the NCTA Board of Directors, has completed the translation from Dutch into English of two novels by Anna Enquist, The Masterpiece (1999) and The Secret (2000), both published by The Toby Press Ltd., London. Jeannette graciously agreed to answer some questions about her experience translating these novels so that Translorial readers like myself, who see literary translation as a far-off dream, can get an idea of what it’s like.
AR: Can you give us some background on these books?
JR: The Masterpiece was originally published in Holland in 1994 as Het Meesterstuk and was Enquist’s first novel. (She had already published several very successful volumes of poetry.) It was a bestseller, with over 200,000 copies sold. The Secret was published in Holland in 1997 as Het geheim and also sold more than 200,000 copies. The novels are set in Holland, middle to late twentieth century. Both have as an important theme the way artists express themselves in their medium and can t express themselves emotionally outside it.
AR: How did you get involved in translating these novels?
JR: In January 1999 I was asked to translate The Masterpiece by the publisher of Toby Press, Matthew Miller. He had asked several of my colleagues w ho were unavailable and who referred him to me. Instead of having to do some sample pages to prove my ability, I could refer him to some of my published translations and to a review in The New York Times Book Review.
Matthew Miller is an unusual publisher. He had been in other types of business, and he finally decided that he really wanted to go into publishing. The books he publishes can be bought only through the Internet (www.tobypress.com) or by phone (800 810-7191). Instead of spending money getting his books into bookstores, Miller spends it on advertising. He may be ahead of his time and it’s risky. He is definitely an unusual man. Instead of waiting to see whether The Masterpiece was successful with the English-speaking public, he plunged ahead and had me translate Enquist’s second novel, The Secret, as well her collection of ten stories, The Injury, which I’m working on now. The manuscript is due in June, and after that I think I won’t be working on any Enquist translations for a while!
AR: Did you collaborate with the author on the translation? Is that standard?
JR: While I’m translating a novel. I make a list of questions to ask the author. These can range all the way from checking an obscure reference, to asking about an unusual expression, to asking to change the name of a character. Most authors are quite willing to help out in any way they can, and I have very good personal relations with the authors whose work I have translated. It can be very enlightening to talk to the author about a specific translating problem because it often gives new insights into the novel.
It isn’t until the translation is finished and edited that the publisher submits it to the author. Most Dutch authors are able to read English quite well, but they don’t necessarily know all the nuances. I therefore prefer to submit the whole book to them instead of having them second-guess every sentence and expression. Many of my colleagues seem to work in this way. Sometimes I wish I were translating into Czech, Russian, Hebrew, or any other language that isn’t as easily read by Dutch authors!
AR: What are the special challenges associated with translating literary works?
JR: In translating literary works I find that I have to pay special attention to how the authors exp.ess themselves. The Masterpiece which is a loose adaptation of Don Giovanni, has an operatic quality that shows in the short, dramatic sentences and phrases. It took me a while to get into that feeling. I have translated other authors, such as Marga Minco and Carl Friedman, whose style is much more understated, and then I follow their lead.
Since Anna Enquist is a poet, I have to make sure that I catch the sound as well as the meaning of the words in my translation. At times I find myself reading whole passages aloud in both languages, first in Dutch and then in English, whereas usually I read aloud only my translation.
A particular problem in these translations was that the publisher is in London and the British editors wanted to make some changes that might have made the books too foreign for the American market, which the publisher definitely wants to reach. We had some interesting transcontinental arguments about the merits of diapers versus nappies foe example.
AR: How do you think English-speaking audiences will react to these novels in translation?
JR: I have no idea how the English-speaking reading public will react. I don’t think the settings, the stories, or the language should strain anyone’s comprehension. The story of The Masterpiece will tend to sweep readers along. The question is, will people buy books exclusively through the Internet? That is the publisher’s gamble.
Editor’s note: Excerpts from Jeannette’s translations of The Masterpiece and The Secret can be read online at www.tobypress.com/books , where you can also order each of the novels in hard or soft cover.