“Marmalade for Comrade Philby”, or the dilemma of the translator’s share

At whisky distilleries the difference in quantity – but undoubtedly, also in quality – between a newly casked whisky and the resulting golden, mature liquid is known as the “angel’s share” (it is calculated as approximately 2% of the volume per year, but without this evaporation whisky wouldn’t be the magical brew that it is).
There’s a similar analogy with translation… you may lose something of the work in its original, but a good translation often adds its own magic, an added layer of creativity and interpretation.
Okay, so may be the analogy is a bit far-fetched, but you do hear stories of books that win prizes in translation when the originals had virtually passed unnoticed.
So, this afternoon I was delighted to hear (part) of a radio play by Christopher William Hill starring one of my all-time heroes, the actor Bill Nighy, except …. and this is the rub … I only heard part of it while driving back from a routine “practice driving” session (my daughter is taking her driving test in 3 weeks so the pressure is on!).
What I heard was tantalisingly similar to the scenario I outlined above:

When mediocre novelist Patrick Bradyn discovers that his French translator has reworked his latest spy novel as autobiography, he finds himself with a profound moral conundrum.

The novel wins a top French literary prize, the Prix de Proust (if I heard it right!), and its author – who was on the verge of retiring following catastrophic reviews and worse sales – suddenly finds himself the subject of frenzied literary attention from sexy French publishers keen to solicit more than just a new book contract.

I’d just got to the bit where  Hannah (Penelope Wilton), his translator, admits she “rewrote” the French translation – changing it from third to first-person and clearly improving it beyond recognition!

It was a shame that the “French” translator sounded so impeccably English – no translator would dream of translating a novel into anything but their mother tongue. Even bilingual speakers often find that they only translate in one direction – whereas they are often brilliant two-way interpreters.

However, leaving that aside, I long to find out how it ends… does the translator win her man (yes, there’s a love angle – again, somewhat unprofessional!), or did the sexy French publisher get her way after all.  So, I’m off to listen again…

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About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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