I used to write. A lot. I never set time aside to write but grabbed it as and when I came across it. At home on a Sunday afternoon, when I had a twenty-minute Tube journey and could get a seat, in a coffee shop between clients, in a classroom while my students were sitting a test. I wrote while working as a teacher, and as a theatrical agent. I produced short stories, plays, half a novel and a weekly blog.
I write even more now. Two or three novels a year, short stories, non-fiction and even the odd play. My style is more versatile than before. Historical novels, crime, travel, popular women’s fiction, high-brow women’s literature, fairy tales for children.
And yet now I can’t even manage a blog post scribbled à la diable once a week.
Because I now work as a literary translator. I spend all day writing, yes, but writing other people’s words. Correction. The words are mine but I choose them with care, so they may convey other people’s intentions as faithfully as possible.
In order to achieve this, I must shut away my own inner Scribbler in the basement, under lock and key, to stop her from interfering with my work on behalf of other writers. I must become a medium, a go-between, a bridge. I must be creative enough to produce a text that doesn’t limp, supported by the crutch of its original language, but one that walks head high, freely, and at the same time remember that it is animated by invisible, yet ever-present, strings. A ventriloquist’s job, in a way, for which one must develop impeccably-controlled, obedient muscles. Creative – and shrewd enough, at times – to know when it’s judicious to improve on the original text, which, sadly, is all too often under-edited – if edited at all – because of misplaced and unhelpfully exaggerated reverence towards the original author on the part of the publisher. After all, you need to watch your back. When critics and readers like the book you’ve “Englished”, then you’ll be lucky if they take the trouble to mention your name at all (and this omission can, in itself, be a compliment to your seamless translation), but if they don’t like it, they sometimes blame it on the translation, in which case they do mention your name. You’re not there to protest, “But I’m not responsible for this piece of overwritten, self-indulgent crap! I just translated it!” And so, very often, you tweak the odd word, rearrange a sentence here and there, polish a paragraph, or carry out a barely perceptible cosmetic procedure. Even so, tempted as you may be to act like Cyrano with Christian, you restrain yourself, always remembering that, as a literary translator, you are the servant of the text and not its master.
In the evenings, after a day of translating, I go and let my inner Scribbler out of the basement. In the beginning, as I unlock the door, she bursts out, flings her arms around me, spins around the room, tap dances on the ceiling, and runs out into the sunshine glad of the exercise after a day in the basement. I pick up my fountain pen and write to my heart’s content, pouring out on paper all the ideas I’ve ignored during working hours.
As my workload increases, I let out the Scribbler later and later, often long after the sun has already set. She greets me with a warm smile but I can see that she is disappointed to have missed out on the daylight. As time goes by, sometimes several days pass before I can go down and unlock the basement. I notice that my Scribbler doesn’t smile any more but trudges up the stairs and slumps on the sofa, complaining that she’s tired. Never mind, I think, we’ll spend some quality time together over the weekend. I pick up my fountain pen but the words come out with difficulty, spasmodically, and I can’t get my current translation project out of my mind, no matter how hard I try.
That weekend, the first of many, is spent on translating. A publisher has given me an extra book to do. Sorry, please help me out, it’s urgent. OK, I say. I need to keep on the right side of this publisher. And other publishers. I need the money.
When I next see my Scribbler, I notice she’s put on weight around her middle, and her shoulders are hunched. She huffs when she sees me, and goes to vegetate on the sofa without a word.
I have three books to translate at the same time, so I can’t see my Scribbler for a little while. I forget how long exactly, but not very long. When I finally go down and unlock the door, Scribbler isn’t standing there as usual. I look inside the basement room. She’s sitting on the floor, her eyes blank, her complexion grey, lethargic. There’s no persuading her to come out. “I have the whole day off,” I say. “Let’s spend it together.”
“I’m too tired,” she replies.
“Tired? But you haven’t done anything for days –”
“Years,” she replies, interrupting me.
The shock silences me. Has it really been years since I’ve written anything substantial of my own? I can’t believe it, I won’t believe it.
I go back upstairs alone, take out my notepad, unscrew the cap of my fountain pen. The nib leaves blank scratches on the paper. The ink has dried up. I find the bottle of black ink and syphon some in. I draw a squiggle in the corner of the blank page, then stare at it. And stare at it. Then I write “Word”. I can’t think of anything else to write.
I go back down to the basement and slowly pull Scribbler up from the floor. My ventriloquist’s muscles are now strong enough for me to lift her but hers are too weak to stand up unaided. I put my arm around her and gently lead her out of the basement room. She rebels. I coax her. She takes slow, sporadic steps. Her movements are jerky, uncontrolled. It’s a struggle to climb the stairs. She groans, she moans, she shouts, “I hate you!”
Tears are streaming down my face. I wish I could tell Scribbler I’m sorry. “Come on Scribbler,” I say. “We’re nearly there. Just a few more steps and we’ll be back in the sunlight.”
She looks up and I see the light from the upstairs windows glow in her eyes.
“Come on, Scribbler, just one more step.”