Anna Visser is a young translator, currently working on a Dutch translation of The Hustler by Walter Tevis. I talked to her about her work, the Beats and the difference between translating prose and poetry.
How did you become a literary translator?
First I did a Bachelor’s degree in English and then a Master’s in American History. The summer after I was done I didn’t really know what to do so I was going over my options: doing a PhD, getting a job, doing another course or degree and somehow I found out about a course in literary translations in Amsterdam, at the Vertalers Vakschool. I decided to give it a go and was admitted on the basis of my credentials and a proof translation. While I was at this course, I applied for a full time translation job, as an in-house translator. I didn’t get the job but they offered me a freelance assignment and afterwards I thought, I can be a freelancer! I’m learning to translate and why wouldn’t I give it a go? I still prefer freelancing because it means you’re working on a different subject every time.
You specialise in American literature from the 1950s to the 1980s. What do you find so interesting about this period?
It was a time of upheaval, lots of things happening, lots of changes, women’s rights, civil rights, music, things like The Beatles and The Doors and The Rolling Stones. That’s what got me into it, all my music heroes were reading the Beats, so that’s how I started reading Beat literature. I like it because it’s a bit quirky and not so highbrow all the time.
You translate both from Dutch, your native tongue, to English, and from English to Dutch. Do you experience a difference between these two kinds of translating?
When I’m translating into Dutch I run into different problems than when I translate into English. The most common problem is when a word doesn’t exist in Dutch. I’m currently working on a translation of The Hustler, by Walter Tevis, and I had loads of troubles just translating the title. But if I translate the other way around, the problem is that I have too much choice in words. I don’t always know which word to pick.
How do you prepare for a translation?
In the case of The Hustler, I have read all of Tevis’ books, so I knew his favourite topics and I recognized the style. Then I read the book twice and I watched the movie as well. I tried reading things from the same era in Dutch, with the same style but that didn’t work for me, I just started translating and I’ll solve any problems when I get there.
You translate both prose and poetry, is that a very different task?
I really enjoy translating poetry, but the difference is that you have to pay attention to how it looks on the page as well. So for instance, I translated a few poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and they look really strange. Sometimes it’s only one or two words per line. The lay-out complicated things and that’s a problem I don’t have with prose. The form of the poem can be really important and you might have to sacrifice another part of the poem to make it work.
You take on very different projects. For example, you also translate cookbooks!
Yes! I enjoy doing different things all the time and I get bored pretty easily so it’s better to have various things going on. I love cooking, I’m a bit of a foodie so in my case it actually makes sense to translate both Beat literature and cookbooks.
What are your translating dreams or goals?
I’m going to translate a small piece of Jan Kerouac’s writing for a literary magazine, and I’d really love to do an entire book by her. I find her really interesting and worthwhile to read. I’d also like to translate more poetry. I discovered that when I’m translating poetry, I enjoy it so much I forget about time and it doesn’t feel like work, so if you get to do that for a living, that’s pretty great.
Any tips for people who’d also like to become a literary translator?
Read! Read a lot. And keep trying. It’s starting to come together for me, but for every publication I had, I had four or five tries where people just refused my work. So don’t lose hope!
Find more information about Anna on her website.