A chat with Donal McLaughlin

Donal McLaughlin © Marc Gaber, Riga
Donal McLaughlin © Marc Gaber, Riga
Posted 18 June 2013 by Carol McKay

This summer sees the publication of three very different books by author and translator Donal McLaughlin - two from Seagull Books and a third from Freight. This comes straight after another of his translations reached the short-list of the Best Translated Book Award in the United States. I spoke to him while he was drawing breath.


Carol: Hello Donal. You've been incredibly prolific recently. Tell us a little about the two books you have coming out from Seagull. They're very different in subject matter and style.

Donal: I'm not sure about 'prolific'. Books are a bit like buses sometimes. You wait and wait, then they all come at once! The two Seagulls you mention are Urs Widmer's Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics, On Life, Widmer On Life book kacketDeath and This and That of the Rest and Abbas Khider's Khider Village Indian book jacketThe Village Indian. Both will appear this summer. 'Lectures on Poetics' may sound daunting - but in the hands of Urs Widmer, 75 this year, they are also great fun and, crucially, accessible. Abbas was born in Baghdad in 1973, but has lived in Germany since 2000. He published his third novel in German this March. When I heard him read from his first, in Berlin in 2010, I knew instantly that I had to translate this book. The thought of a piece of Iraqi fiction making its way to the English-speaking world thanks to someone's knowledge of German thrilled me. Abbas is also a great guy, loved by the audiences he reads to. And he has an important story to tell, of course. Important stories.
 
Carol: Tell us a little more about the Seagull initiative.

Donal: Naveen Kishore, Naveen Kishore, Naveen Kishore. A man with a vision did 'seven Frankfurts' (as I think he once put it) before he managed to persuade German publishers - who weren't managing to place as many books as they'd like in New York and London - to sell the rights to him in India instead. Naveen - supported by a team of wonderful young colleagues - publishes 'authors, not books', to quote the man himself again. To date, he has purchased six of Urs Widmer's books, for instance. More are sure to follow. Naveen also encourages his translators to recommend books. Some of us have even travelled to India for readings. Check out the Seagull website for more information

Carol: Your translation of Urs Widmer's novel My Father's Book reached the shortlist for this year's Best Translated Book Award. With - soon - three titles of his already published in your translation, and another three in the pipeline, you're regarded as Widmer's 'English voice'. To what extent do you immerse yourself in the 'voice' of the author when translating, and how much of your work stems from literal translation of text? How important is close liaison with your authors in general?

Donal: For me, 'voice’ is what it is all about. Also when I write. Reading and hearing authors like Bernard Mac Laverty, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, Alasdair Gray, Janice Galloway and A L Kennedy from the 1980s onwards has influenced me greatly.  Literal translation? Sorry, no-can-do. It would be like putting on a pretend limp. I do aim to remain as close as possible to the original - but there are moments when the rhythm of the text has to take over. The voice has to work in the translation too. A number of the authors I translate are involved in the Swiss 'Spoken Word' scene - and, thankfully, like what they hear when we read together. The close liaison you mention is important to me. I don't do dead writers. I'd miss the contact, the exchange, the opportunity to ask those remaining questions I've not been able to answer. The readings. The trust and the friendships that tend to grow, too.
Naw Much book jacket
Carol: Your third title is the translation of Pedro Lenz's novel Der Goalie Bin Ig, which is to be published by Glasgow-based Freight Books in August under the title Naw Much of a Talker. Can you tell us about the thinking process involved in translating from one dialect to another?

Donal: For me, this project was a natural extension of work I've been doing in recent years, so not an 'issue' as such. The difference hit home when it came to 'proof-reading' my work before submission. By the end of that stage in the process, I felt both cross-eyed and as if my eyes were popping out! Physically impossible, maybe, but that's how it felt. The final step was to take a check-list of over 40 common words and search through the document for every instance of each, checking that no standard spelling had got in under the radar as I typed.  Why wasn't it an 'issue'? Because I'm used to spoken forms in written texts. Throughout a text. Not just in the dialogues. I've been reading Jim Kelman & Co. since the early 80s.
 
Carol: How easily does comedy translate? Did that call on a different skill set?

Donal: I'm not sure I've done straight 'comedy'. Where humour features in what I translate - and it does, thankfully - it has also come across in translation. Audiences laughing at the right places at events tell me that. The translator has to be up for having fun, I guess. Also, timing and delivery matter. Frank Carson was right: 'It's the way you tell them!' A good rapport with the author also helps. I'm fortunate to have that rapport with Urs and Pedro, as well as with Arno Camenisch and Christoph Simon, whom I also translate.
 
Carol: Freight is an innovative publisher, but not one specifically thought of as a publisher of fiction in translation. How open are publishers in general to translated work?

Donal: I'm sure you've heard complaints before about how little gets translated into English. So let me mention some exciting new-ish initiatives. We've mentioned Seagull already. Dalkey Archive - which has built up an amazing list over the past 30 years - has been publishing the wonderful Best European Fiction anthologies since 2010. Main man John O'Brien and a great bunch of colleagues in the States and Dublin and London are credited with demonstrating to other American publishers that you can succeed with translations. Here in the UK, Stefan Tobler launched And Other Stories only a couple of years ago. Not in his wildest dreams, surely, did he imagine making the Booker shortlist and the shortlist for the Guardian First Book Award with his first four titles (three of which were translations). I also have a soft spot for Archipelago Books in New York. And YES, good on Adrian Searle and Freight! Translations had already been appearing in Adrian's magazine, Gutter. It's good to see translated books featuring among Freight's first titles also. I know of two in the pipeline, one being Pedro Lenz.  And I've more suggestions up my sleeve for Adrian!
 
Carol: As well as being a translator, you're the author of an allergic reaction to national anthems & other stories and have a new collection due out next year with Dalkey. How much did your experience of language difference when you moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland as a child influence your career choice?

Donal: When my family emigrated (as we said) in 1970, I was acutely aware of the very different language suddenly surrounding me. My ears couldn't believe what they were hearing. Often didn't understand what they were hearing! The experience has certainly impacted on my writing. In the Liam stories in allergic reaction, the children are pounced on for 'losing their brogues', for their 'Scotch tongues', and they try to sound 'all Derry' when they return on holiday. In one story, Liam notes down phrases he has picked up, or been reminded of, in an old French Vocab jotter. Expressions relating to the Troubles often. In the course of that book, you can see the children's language becoming increasingly 'Scottish'. The story continues - or you get a different slice of cake - in beheading the virgin mary, out next year. - I guess I shouldn't be surprised if I've ended up doing what I do. Clearly, from the age of nine, I was between languages. In that Liam story I mentioned, his gran objects to her grandweans saying uh-huh. 'It means yes over in Scotland,' one explains. 'Does it now?' she responds. 'Well not in my house it doesn't. Yous'll speak properly here. It's not uh-huh, it's aye.'
Before too long in my own case, of course, it was ja as well as oui.
 
Carol: Someone contacts you with a new text to be translated. Describe your work process from that point to handing over the polished piece.
 
Donal: A huge question, Carol! And a lifetime of listening, speaking, reading and writing precedes that moment, of course! First, I read the piece - if I don't know it already - to decide whether it's right for me. If it isn't, I always say no. If it is, I'll re-read it. If an audio book version exists, I'll be listening to it in my car or on my MP3 as I prepare to begin the project. Research on the author and the book will begin to happen, if required. At some point, I'll begin a first version, aiming always to move forward, to complete a first version, rather than perfecting what I've done so far. Dictionary work and (online) research will be done as I go along. For things that can be solved quickly, at least. A list of potential questions for the author will also be happening. Once that first version exists (and the book can no longer spring any nasty surprises), I'll 'Return to Go' as many times as it takes to get things right throughout. The writer in me, at this stage in particular, will be looking over the translator's shoulder. Fellow translators will offer their imaginary tuppence worth too, i.e. I'll recall our discussions at workshops in recent years: the vice-versa workshops that bring together literary translators working from German into English and English into German, for example; or the annual workshop in Leuk (Switzerland) that enables a Swiss writer to meet with his or her translators from around the world. The ultimate test for any sentence or, indeed, passage is whether I can read it aloud. If I can't, it requires more work. The polished piece you mention will then be discussed line by line with an editor - electronically, normally, using the Comments boxes - before I then receive and check proofs. Once we're satisfied, the book goes to print.
 
Carol: Three seems to be the magic number for you. Now for some 'three' questions. - What would you fear more: the Tower of Babel; a world in which everyone speaks English (or Spanish, or Mandarin Chinese) as well as their own language; or telepathy?
 
Donal: Fear? I think I would embrace and enjoy all three, if I had to. I'd begin to get the hang of it at some point.

Carol: What three qualities are essential for a literary translator?
 
Donal: At the desk, you have to be able to read, write and self-edit. Away from the desk, you need to be able to listen, connect with people and come across to audiences.
 
Carol: If you had three wishes for your career from this point on, what would they be?
 
Donal: 1. That it not be regarded as a 'career'.
2. That I'll always get to work with such great people from all over the world.
3. That I'll remain able to work until it's time to kick that famous bucket.

Carol: And three wishes for the future of translated fiction?

Donal: 1. That good translations will remain in print.
2. That 'translated' will cease to be a barrier for people.
3. That there will always be individuals prepared to challenge the dictates of 'market forces'.
 
Carol: What three pieces of advice would you give someone setting out to become a literary translator?
 
Donal: Go for it. Go for it. Go for it.
 
Carol: Name three important role models or influences.
 
Donal: Influences:
1. Teachers: I owe a lot to two. Mrs Quinn at school. Malcolm Pender at university.
2. Writers: a whole bunch in Glasgow who, at readings in the 80s and 90s, taught me much of what I know about literature. And, internationally, at least as many again, whom I've met, heard and read on my travels.
3. Cultural institutes - such as Pro Helvetia, the Goethe Institute and the LCB (Literarisches Colloquium Berlin) - whose events, workshops and study trips all feed into the process. And, importantly, help create a great sense of community among translators.
A special mention must go to that community - and to Translation House Looren, near Zurich, where I've often worked on translations.
 
Carol: What three things make it easier for literature in translation to reach a wider public?
 
Donal: 1. The support of the cultural institutes remains vital. Our lives would be so much poorer without them.
2. Good events help too: word-of-mouth, breaking down barriers and so on.
3. Proper promotion and coverage in books pages and on blogs.
A special mention here to the people behind the Best Translated Book Award in the States. In the period between the publication of the long- and short-lists this year, an article entitled 'Why This Book Should Win' appeared online for each of the 25 long-listed titles. Welcome publicity. Welcome attention. Welcome appreciation.
 
Carol: Are you giving any readings in support of your publications the months ahead? Where can we see you?
 
Donal: In Germany, Switzerland, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Serbia, Canada, then Switzerland again.
The Scottish dates are in mid August. At the Edinburgh International Book Festival (this year's programme will be launched on 20 June), the Scottish Writers' Centre in Glasgow (13 August, 7pm) and one of my favourite bookshops - Word Power Books in Edinburgh (15 August, 1pm, part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival).
 
Carol: What comes next for Donal McLaughlin?
 
Donal: Some of the rest I swore I'd have this time last year.


Donal McLaughlin’s biography
Born in Derry, Donal McLaughlin has lived in Scotland since 1970. The author of an allergic reaction to national anthems & other stories, his second collection is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive early in 2014. Donal also translates from German. Known for his bilingual edition of the poetry of Stella Rotenberg (Shards) and his translations of over 100 German-Swiss writers for the New Swiss Writing anthologies, he also collaborated with Chris Dolan on a stage version of The Reader. He is the voice of Urs Widmer in English – My Father’s Book was recently shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in the United States – and also translates Arno Camenisch, Monica Cantieni, Abbas Khider, Pedro Lenz and Christoph Simon. Donal featured as both an author and a translator in Best European Fiction 2012 (Dalkey Archive). He maintains a website at donalmclaughlin.wordpress.com

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