BOOKS / The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: A quisling goes round in circles: Dina Rabinovitch speaks to Ina Rilke about Cees Nooteboom

Dina Rabinovitch
Saturday 14 May 1994 00:02 BST

INA RILKE fears some of the impact of The Following Story will be lost on English readers. The protagonist's name, Mussert, shrieks to Dutch ears, recalling a notorious collaborator of the same name. 'The French and German translators both added lengthy footnotes, complete with dates, in their versions,' said Rilke. 'But I hate the use of footnotes in translating literature, so I have added phrases in the text: 'Mussert - not particularly felicitous to share a name with a quisling', or 'Mussert, an unpleasant name', but in the end I fear the specific associations evoked for the Dutch will be lost on the English.'

But, as she says, that is just the sort of tricky issue translators love to grapple with. All translators tell you that they are poorly paid: but Ina Rilke will tell you how she opted to be paid even less than before in order to work on Cees Nooteboom's The Following Story. Her previous work had been translating academic texts. 'In Holland, academic translation is not poorly paid; for The Following Story I was paid about half what I had been getting,' said Rilke.

'But I enjoyed it enormously,' she said. 'In academic work, it is facts which have to be right. Since The Following Story has no plot, as such, what really was important here was the tone, fluency and rhythm. It was great fun to do. However, what makes the translation of literature more difficult, and, as far as I am concerned, more time-consuming, is that the required degree of fidelity can only be achieved by polishing the translated text until it can be said to have the same stylistic qualities as the original.'

Born in Mozambique, East Africa, she learnt her English in Portugal, where she attended Oporto English school, complete with uniforms and cricket. 'I was raised on Pride and Prejudice and daffodils,' she said. 'Though as we never saw a daffodil, we didn't even really know what one looked like.'

Nooteboom went over Rilke's version word for word. 'Every now and again he'd say, that's not what I said; I wrote it that way deliberately, even though I know it sounds odd. And then I'd have to convince him that even though something is lost in translation, sometimes it is inevitable - sometimes to retain a specific phrase would just be too strange in English.

'But I try to make up for those times when specific words just won't translate, by using the thesaurus. And the other side of the story is that all writers have weak moments, you know, and so sometimes the translator can occasionally phrase something more convincingly than the original. This makes up for any other losses, I hope.'

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