Daria in Dutch

Working with translators on Moonlight in Odessa has been an amazing experience. Both Manon Smits and Astrid Arz, the Dutch and German translators, knew my text as well as I did. In fact, they were more aware of it, pointing out inconsistencies in the text. (For example, careful readers will note that in the novel two names are given for Boba’s boss. I didn’t notice this, but Manon and Astrid did.) I felt very lucky to be able to meet Dutch translator Manon Smits and had a wonderful time with her in Amsterdam. She works on several books a year and translates from English to Dutch and from Italian to Dutch. I hope that you will enjoy her essay on translating Moonlight in Odessa.

Manon2Translating Daria by Manon Smits, the Dutch translator of Moonlight in Odessa, or Bruid op Bestelling (Bride For Sale).

When I was first asked if I had time to translate Moonlight in Odessa, the very trustworthy editor described it as a well-written, sensitive and sometimes hilarious story, and it immediately appealed to me. And that feeling stayed with me while I read the book. When I started translating it, I realized he hadn’t exaggerated.

I’ve never been to Odessa, I’ve never met a Ukrainian woman, but when I got to know Daria I fell for her right away and yearned to see her city for myself. Thanks to her I learned so much about Ukraine, about Odessa and the ways of the people.

I didn’t have too many difficulties during the translation, thanks to the great help of Janet who was very cooperative and had an answer to all my questions. One element that seemed a real translation problem was the fact that Daria starts reciting irregular English verbs when she’s agitated. Dutch also has irregular verbs, but not always the same ones as in English. After a while I decided that I might as well leave them in English; after all it’s English that Daria is learning, not Dutch, and the English language is sufficiently known in Holland for most people to understand the meaning of the verbs.

One of the most difficult things to translate is word play (I learned this very soon in my translating career when I started subtitling American comedy shows. In one of the first episodes, a private plane owned by a person named Jack was hijacked, which led to the memorable words: ‘Hi Jack, this is a hijack.’ I never forgot those words, though I don’t remember how I solved the problem…) Anyway, luckily there weren’t too many examples of pure word play in the book, but right in the beginning of Chapter 2 there was a very interesting one about health care in the former Soviet Union: “You had to take a gift to the doctor. No gift, no treatment. No present, no future.” In Dutch the word ‘present’ can mean ‘gift’, but only in the diminutive form: ‘presentje’. However, it does not mean ‘the present time’, that would be ‘presens’ and even that is a word that is hardly ever used. It was clear that the ‘gift’ part had to stay, so I had to get rid of the future. Eventually I came up with another form of word play using almost identical words: “Geen cadeau, geen behandeling. Als er niets werd gepresenteerd, werd er ook niets gepresteerd.” (“No gift, no treatment. If nothing was presented, nothing was achieved.”)

Another difficulty was when Daria goes to her first party in America, and is thrilled to be surrounded by English. In this case I thought there should still be some English words to keep the atmosphere. At the same time it should be a somewhat rude and uninteresting language. I could keep most of the examples in the book and use English expressions that are commonly used in Dutch and sometimes even in our dictionary:

‘Ik had zoiets van holy shit.’
‘Hij is aan het mulchen. Hij heeft nooit eerder gemulcht.’
‘Ze moet het vooral niet pushen.’
‘Die bult op zijn voorhoofd was wel een inch dik. Hij stond op die wiebelige ladder, niet de goeie. Je kunt hem bijna niet van het dak af houden, ik stond helemaal te shaken!’

When I first contacted Janet through the mail, she was very enthusiastic and always ready to help whenever I had any questions. Moreover, she asked me to write a piece for her website, because she was aware of the importance of a translator’s work, which is great since it often tends to be neglected.

In November 2009 Janet came to Amsterdam, where we had a good time talking and having lunch at Mouria, the Dutch publishing house. It was very nice to meet her and she already feels like a friend, just like Daria does actually, and just like Odessa feels like a place I know.

I realized this all the more when I was in a garden café and heard two ladies speak Russian. It was just after I had finished the translation and I couldn’t help commenting on the beautiful sound of their language. When we started to talk (in Dutch) I told them about the book I had just translated, and the women, who were Russian, not Ukranian, told me that in fact Odessa was such a wonderful city and that the people there had such a witty way of talking… exactly as Daria had kept telling me time and time again!

Finishing a book after you have been working on it for months is of course very rewarding, but also a little sad; I had gotten attached to Daria, I was impressed by Vlad, I was curious what would happen to some of the other characters and I really felt sorry I would have to miss them. You can imagine how happy I was when Janet told me in Amsterdam that she was already writing the second book, and would probably even write a third book about Daria, Jane and the others. I’ll be waiting!