Books: Independent Foreign Fiction Award: Sorcerer in the national night: Nick Caistor talks to Barbara Bray, translator of The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare (Harvill, 7.99)

'ISMAIL KADARE writes in a minority language about a hidden culture: Albania,' says his translator Barbara Bray. 'To get his message out he has to be something of a witch, a sorcerer.' Bray herself, working from the French version of The Palace of Dreams without reference to the original Albanian edition, describes her own task in similar terms when she speaks of the obligation to explore beyond the ambiguities of the words on the page and 'enter into a kind of trance to work out what the author was really driving at'.

The Palace of Dreams is a parable about the way in which an all-pervasive oppressive state collects and interprets the dreams of its subjects; in invading even the subconscious life of the nation, it destroys the individual's search for meaning. Of course, the state invariably finds what it expects to find.

Bray found it helpful that Kadare himself employs a 'deliberate kind of inaccuracy, a way of trying to have the specific dissolve into the unspecific'. This she saw as one of the basic intentions of the book, with its suggestion that language and meaning are slippery and elusive, and how easy it is to corrupt people by manipulating language.

'The translator is in a privileged position in this respect,' Bray insists. 'So many people think there is a direct equivalence between language and thought, but the translator knows the traps that language can set for you, the way it both leads and misleads.'

This awareness of how tricky is the business of communicating meaning through words can be also makes her diffident about approaching the author. What matters for Bray - who has translated widely from French authors as different as George Sand and Marguerite Duras, and once collaborated with Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey on a screenplay for Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, is the struggle to tease meaning from the text.

In this sense, she frankly admits, 'the author can get in the way sometimes'. She has no hesitation in speaking of the translator's efforts as a 'mission', aimed first and foremost at upholding 'the integrity of one's own language'. What is shared with the original author, however, is the passionately felt conviction that 'language is a mystery which can be pierced'.

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