December 17, 2018
The Merck Social Translating Project at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2018
“It’s like juggling two worlds” – a conversation between translators Anchalee Topeongpong (Bangkok) and Ashani Ranasinghe (Colombo) at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 13, 2018.
It is Saturday afternoon and the Frankfurt Book Fair has opened its doors to private visitors. In hall 4.1, the stands of the publishers and the hallways are bustling with activity. Anchalee and Ashani are having a cup of coffee in the “Weltempfang” area, where a translation slam has just begun.
Both women translated Thomas Melle’s novel “The World at your Back”, Anchalee into Thai and Ashani into Sinhalese. Together with the eight other translators who participated in the Merck Social Translation Project, they attended the world’s largest book fair in October 2018 in Frankfurt, Germany. This is also where the pilot project is scheduled to end. In addition to the panel discussion on the previous Thursday, where Dr. Marla Stukenberg, the director of the Goethe-Institut in Seoul, South Korea, which masterminded the project, author Thomas Melle and three of the translators (Sunanda Mahajan, Jisung Kim and Ariuntsegseg Ganbold) presented the project, they visited the Rowohlt Verlag publishing house, took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Frankfurt Book Fair and had meetings with independent publishers. They also had some time to schedule activities of their own and explore the trade fair.
The coffee break gave the two experienced translators an opportunity to reflect on their experience participating in the Merck Social Translating Project.
Anchalee: Oh, I can absolutely relate to “survival”. (laughs) But tell me, what was that like for you?
Ashani: Well, the challenge was mostly because of the topic. It is something of an autobiographical novel, where Thomas Melle, to summarize, describes three episodes of his bipolar disorder. In Sri Lanka, the disease is not a taboo topic, but we don’t talk about it much.
This brings me to my second point, combat. If translation were a stage, then two cultures were locked in combat with each other on that stage, more or less. And as a translator, I had to mediate between them. On the one hand, you have the author: What is he doing in this novel, what is his writing like? And on the other hand, you have readers in my country: What are they to read, how will they understand what is written? This “combat” occurred not just on a linguistic level, but also in terms of meaning and of style. Some of it also happened on the sidelines, for instance when selecting a title. There were several instances where I needed to add additional explanations. To give just one example, one we already talked about a lot: the play on words “Sauna und doch so fern” (literally: “sauna and yet so far”). It was just not possible to translate this into Sinhalese without losing both the pun and the notion of “loneliness”. This required multiple sentences in my language. The third point is “survival”. The other translators on the platform provided excellent support and our mutual exchange was fantastic.
Anchalee: I completely agree in terms of the challenge. Disease is a topic that we rarely talk about in Thailand. However, in my case, the publisher had taken a personal interest in the novel. She was interested in the literary implementation of the topic of disease. I initially thought that the topic was what presented the main challenge. But then I took a closer look at the language. It presented one challenge after another. In several instances, I got stuck. Some days, I would spend hours translating a single phrase. The other translators were in the same situation, of course. The question was how to translate Melle’s language? It’s like juggling two worlds, something of a tightrope act. But that is also what makes it so exciting.
You mentioned the “sauna” example. I tried to retain the play on words, it was supposed to have this humorous connotation and not be so serious. Thai is a tonal language, we have five tones so that meanings can be easily varied by using a different intonation. For instance, we have five versions of the sound “sau”. Depending on the intonation, it can mean “pillar” (rising tone) or “sad” (high tone). I opted for the sad version and then added an additional variation. The result was this: “Sauna, mai tong sao na!” So a word-for-word translation might be “Sauna, don’t be so sad!”.
Anchalee: People had different opinions about the book. But everyone agreed that it required courage and a willingness to take risks. Which is very fitting for the entire project, really, since it is such a new concept. And after all, we are all quite willing to take risks.
It really accomplished a lot. Looking back, we achieved a lot. This is a unique, innovative project. And it hews close to reality. We live in a digital world where work processes are meant to be fast and effective. And for this project, in addition to these requirements of the translation work, the exchange was at the heart of everything. We were able to learn a great deal from each other and gained deep insights into each other’s cultures.
Ashani: Since the topic of the novel is something rarely discussed in our country, everything hinges upon how the book is advertised.
Anchalee: If they find the right advertising angle, I’m sure it will be very successful once it is published. The key is not to scare readers away by focusing on the topic of a “disease”. Instead, we need to highlight that this is “a new topic, a new author, his internal world and his unique linguistic presentation”.
Ashani: Exactly, because this disease and personal experiences with it are something we see all over the world, even if it is not something authors in every country necessarily write about. With our publisher, we found an approach that works. The publisher is friends with a theater group, a group of actors, really. He wants to accompany the presentation of the book with a theater performance. The play can serve as a forum of exchange. We don’t plan to put the entire novel on as a play, just a small part, maybe one of the longer scenes. It will be staged at the university, at my German studies department. We want to present it as a bilingual production, which means my students will be able to discuss the topic. One of the issues we raised was whether the main role should be played by a man or a woman.
Anchalee: The cover of your translation shows a person with a wide-brimmed hat. It is unclear whether it’s a woman or a man.
Ashani: Right, the cover is ambivalent. The person is shown in the bottom right corner, not at the center of the cover. Red happens to be my favorite color.
Melle’s novel is about a man, of course, about the author himself. But the story of the disease can affect anyone, it affects everyone. That is why we have this question regarding the play, whether it should be a man or a woman.
My editor was worried about whether the topic would sell. In Sri Lanka, we have one leading topic in German-language literature, which is Hitler and holocaust. My translations about this and related topics were well received and reviewed. After I translated Patrick Süskind’s novel “Perfume”, people asked me why this topic was interesting to me. In terms of Germany, like I said, people are mainly interested in Hitler, World War II and the survivors of the holocaust.
Therefore, we want to try to distance ourselves from this clichéd notion at the university. For me, Thomas Melle’s novel is my second effort in this direction after “Perfume”. The editor was, as I mentioned, skeptical. We’ll have to see what the critics have to say.
Anchalee: That’s why it is a good thing that the Goethe-Institut launched this new initiative.
Ashani: We hope that the play will help develop new concepts and images in relation to literature and that these will create an interest in other topics.
Ashani: I completely agree.
Anchalee: The choice of title is in itself already a linguistic novelty, but also tricky for translators. We initially wanted to retain all aspects of “The world at your back”. But that was just not possible. We definitely needed to keep “world” and some mention of the disease. So we chose the title “In the bipolar world”. However, “bipolar” is not a medical term in Thai, it could also mean “confused” or “in confusion”, which might also refer to the world.
Ashani: In my case, the publisher decided on the title and selected something that corresponds to “bipolar”. A literal translation might be “I’m losing myself” or maybe “The Lost Self”.
When I think about the courage Thomas Melle displayed, I couldn’t imagine that for myself.
By the way, this is not only my first visit to the Frankfurt book fair, but also the very first time ever a Sinhalese translation is being presented on this large stage.
Ashani: An exciting program.
Anchalee: I think it’s fantastic that we’re the “pioneers” and that the Merck Social Translating Project is being presented here. It would be nice if we had additional ways of presenting it, maybe something audiovisual or digital via a monitor at a stand. That would be my suggestion for a potential second round of such a project.
I definitely do not regret participating and would participate again.
Ashani: I second that completely.
Anchalee: I’d like to participate as an observer or to support the next group of translators. Or in the selection of the book.
Ashani: For translators, it’s just very helpful and provides great support.
Anchalee: When you’re working on a translation, you often don’t have time to exchange ideas with other translators; we usually work under extreme time pressure. There is one main thing I learned, which is how important this exchange is and that you actually save a lot of time you would otherwise spend researching or clarifying meanings. I’d like to make use of this kind of forum again for future book translations, it’s just a great opportunity.
Ashani: We are living in a world that moves rapidly, and literature can help make this world a little “smaller” in the sense that you can develop and gain a better understanding for certain topics. Translators focus the gaze on reading, on literature. This is where you can display tolerance, create a connection, portray the diversity of our world, of other opinions, and of how important tolerance is. This is also true among translators.
This project put every facet of this on display. It was about translating Thomas’ novel and the exchange with him and each other. And this exchange did not stay in the digital realm, with the visit in Seoul last year and now with the Frankfurt Book Fair. Yesterday, we all came together at the “Germania” tavern. We were all really tired, but we all had “Ebbelwoi” together, that is what life is about.
As the joint coffee break with its lively retrospective on the translation process and the outlook for the future came to an end, Anchalee and Ashani continued their tour of the book fair before gathering for a final dinner celebration with all the other translators who took part in the project.