Translators Reflections – Danusia Stok
Translating literature is not just rendering it into a different verbal language; it is transposing a certain context, culture, feel and situation to another with as little loss as possible. This involves not choosing just the right words but also the appropriate tones, associations and sub-meanings.
As a translator I’ve had the varied experience of working on novels including crime depicting sexual perversions, historical periods, religious and cultural habits – e.g. the Nazi period, Jewish communities, Russian orthodox, spiritualists, the interwar years in a Poland of shifting borders and so on. Illegal Liaisons was a new departure for me.
Different genres bring different challenges and, in all honesty, I admit that I find “erotic” novels among the most difficult; and I believe they must be among the most difficult to write. Descriptions of sex tend to be trite, boring, laboured, indifferent, superfluous or plain comical. It’s not without reason that a prize exists for the worst sex in books.
My difficulty here was not so much with the pacing of sex scenes – that is the author’s task – but to find basic words describing the sexual anatomy itself without turning the text into a medical study, a comedy or a vulgar piece of arousing cheap lit. The nuances and connotations are different in Polish and in English. A fine example of this is członek in Polish, literally member in English. Although in Polish also członek means a member as of a club and so on, it is fully and habitually accepted to mean penis. In English, however, member would give the descriptions of sex an unintended comical turn. Yet penis is too medical. There are many such cases. Sex is such an intimate, sensual and emotional experience – physical and non-physical at once – that writing and reading about it is always going to be “second-hand”.
Moral issues are not the translator’s domain.
Another aspect of Illegal Liaisons which I’ll mention as regards translation is the fact that the action takes place in various countries while being centred around the European Union in Brussels. This brings with it a sense of the foreign. Most of the characters, if not all, are foreigners. And where foreigners mix, so do cultures, ideas, predispositions