The Writer–Translator Equation

by Times Newsroom 1

Jan Ekels (II): A Writer Trimming his Pen, 1784

Tim Parks

The translator is a writer. The writer is a translator. How many times have I run up against these assertions?—in a chat between translators protesting because they are not listed in a publisher’s index of authors; or in the work of literary theorists, even poets (“Each text is unique, yet at the same time it is the translation of another text,” observed Octavio Paz). Others claim that because language is referential, any written text is a translation of the world referred to.

In recent months, I have been dividing my working day between writing in the morning and translating in the afternoon. Maybe comparing the two activities would be a good way to test this writer–translator equation.

I’m writing a novel. It began to present itself as a possibility perhaps a year before I started work on it. Two vague ideas that had been bumping around for a while came together and took on a little form. One: an older man, once prominent in cultural circles, has withdrawn from all contact with his peers and stopped following news or media in any form; he lives as a kind of urban hermit, an acute observer but, as it were, uninformed. Two: someone receives, out of the blue, an invitation to attend the funeral, in a foreign country, of an extremely distinguished colleague, friend, and rival of many years ago.

Making my aging hermit the recipient of that invitation seemed interesting, but insufficient. Something to sniff around. Then, some time into the Covid-19 lockdown, it occurred to me: What if the funeral were to coincide with a crisis in the foreign country that our elderly hero, scrupulously avoiding all news, knew nothing about? This seemed encouraging. I sensed there was a body of experience to be unpacked and some fun to be had—and set a tentative pen to paper.

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