Before we delved into the subject of language, we talked about life in Stockholm and life in Ghent. About how hipster cafés will never rival the charm of grotty pubs tucked away in side streets. About the joys of ditching screens to leaf through a paper novel. Meandering and digressing, we arrived at the interview’s core subject: a multilingual, creative translator’s intense love of language.
“I want to bury my fingers in the soil of language. Grow seedlings from syllables. Watch sentences burst into bloom. Harvest ripe golden texts.”
Does being multilingual help you to approach language in a more creative way?
On the contrary: I think multilingualism can make it more difficult to be creative. When I’m translating, I sometimes think of the perfect word, only to remember that particular word doesn’t exist in the language I’m translating to. “Damn,” I’ll think, “this is a Swedish word and I’m supposed to be translating into English, but there’s no real equivalent for this in English!” In that sense, my love of language is more helpful than my multilingualism.
What makes a good creative translator?
First and foremost, you need to understand that you’re translating an idea, not necessarily a specific word or sentence. Some translators want to translate things too literally. You have to dare to let go of the source text in order to help the author say what they want to say in the target language. Sometimes, it’s also about not complicating things: use the words that feel natural, that fit. Just an example: the other day, a cultural event took place in Stockholm. Translators were racking their brains to come up with a good translation for ‘konstskapare’ (literally ‘art creators’). An intense discussion followed: art makers? Art producers? I just thought: erm, people, what about ‘artists’?
Recently, Blue Lines challenged me to translate the lyrics for Amenra’s new album. But there is no neat literal translation for Amenra’s texts. What I could do, however, was capture the songs’ underlying feelings and messages and rephrase those in the target language: understanding that when the band writes about a raven, it is to evoke fear, when they mention the break of dawn, it is to symbolise the return of hope. So, in a way, if you want to be a creative translator, it helps to be sensitive, to intuitively understand the untranslatable undercurrents between the lines.
Is a creative translator by definition also a skilled copywriter? Why (not)?
For several years, I worked as a communications manager and copywriter for NGOs. Writing copy is not just about the text itself, but also about objectives, target audiences, SEO, etc. Not every translator enjoys dealing with those strategic aspects. In the same vein, being a talented copywriter doesn’t necessarily make you a good translator. Copywriters might feel the need to tweak a text, leave things out, add an adverb here and there, polish sentences. Which is often what you need to prevent yourself from doing as a translator.
Can you become a creative translator, or is it a talent you’re born with?
A flair for languages is a basic requirement, but you can of course hone your creative skills. To write well, you first need to read – widely and often. The more extensive your vocabulary, the better you’ll be able to create magic with words. I’m always paging through thesauruses to discover rare gems of synonyms. Sleep is also important for me. After a sleepless night, I can feel my creativity plummeting.
Why did you become a translator?
I studied Asian Languages & Cultures and Scandinavian Studies, then completed a second master’s degree in International Relations. I always wanted to become a diplomat. After an internship, however, I abandoned my dreams of diplomacy because I realised I’m actually not that diplomatic (chuckles). Instead of politely censoring my words, I realised it would be better to use my outspokenness as an advocate for causes I believe in. Women’s rights, the environment, human rights, democracy: these are all issues I care deeply about. So because I had always loved to write, I built a career in communications, writing about these topics for different NGOs. But social media is a key part of communications work, and I’m not the biggest fan of social media. I realise they’re a powerful tool, but I just feel like they murder all creativity. Character limits alone make me weep: I don’t want an arbitrary number to limit what words I can use. I don’t want to spend my days obsessing over likes and reach and social media strategies. I want to bury my fingers in the soil of language. Grow seedlings from syllables, watch sentences burst into bloom. I want to harvest ripe golden texts. A kind of tangible, total immersion in language. As a writer and translator, I gain immense satisfaction from working so ‘purely’ with language, day after day.
Any plans to write a book yourself?
Oh definitely, I’d love to write a novel. But I’ve read so many marvellous books that the prospect is a bit daunting. Language can be so wonderful and inspiring, it would feel like a crime to publish something that didn’t live up to the medium’s full potential. Writing the way Hilary Mantel or Jeanette Winterson do is the dream. Sometimes, I’ll read a sentence these authors have written that’s so hauntingly beautiful, I want to grab a brush and paint it on my wall. I actually have transparent sheets on my windows, so I can copy poems onto them – not my own, but Herman De Coninck’s, for example.
Why did you call your company ‘Maybe Purple’?
People who work with language often call their company something like ‘Between The Lines’ or ‘In Other Words’. I wanted a more original, more personal name. In the end, the inspiration for the name came from my grandmother, who lives in Belgium. She’s an avid painter and often describes something as ‘mauve’, one of her favourite colours. So she’ll exclaim “Look at those mauve flowers in the garden, aren’t they pretty?” To which I’ll say: “But gran, they’re purple.” Or she’ll remark: “What a nice, mauve armchair.” And then I’ll say: “But gran, it’s lilac.” Lilac, fuchsia, purple,... It’s all mauve to grandma. It has become a running joke in the family: what does grandma’s mysterious ‘mauve’ really mean? My answer is that it’s maybe purple. What makes sense in grandma’s mind is an untranslatable colour for the rest of us. I want to help people translate the untranslatable. That’s the story behind the name.
Do you enjoy working for Blue Lines?
Blue Lines tends to write texts that are really fun to translate. Translating your texts into English allows me to use my creativity, because Blue Lines’ copy always contains puns and plays on words, which forces me to come up with extra witty translations. The more creative a text, the more challenging it is to translate. A run-of-the-mill press release, for example, I can race through. A more colourful text takes time.
“The language you’re best at is not necessarily your mother tongue”
You’re fully bilingual in English and Dutch and live in Sweden. What led up to that?
My father worked abroad for the UN for several years. I like to joke I’m ‘made in Thailand’, because my parents lived in Bangkok before I was born. I myself grew up in an international environment in Jakarta, Indonesia. So when I was little, I played with the kids next door, attended school, and did my hobbies almost entirely in English. My parents spoke Dutch with me, but everyone else around me spoke English. Later in life, I attended university in English (in Sweden) and Dutch (in Ghent).
I ended up staying in Sweden because I think there are few other places in the world where quality of life is this high for young women. Sweden is a feminist, prosperous, well-run country that sets great store by freedom. But there are many countries I could see myself living in as well. I’ve already lived in Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand. In truth, I think I could live almost anywhere.
Was growing up bilingual hard? Did you mix up languages, were you slower to start speaking?
I think language comes completely naturally to most children. Of course, having a knack for languages helps. But I myself don’t remember ever struggling with hearing all these languages around me as a child.
What is your ‘real’ mother tongue (the language you’re best at)? Why that language?
‘Mother tongue’ is such a loaded word in the translation sector. But I don’t think the language you’re best at is necessarily the language your mother or father spoke. Take my uncle, for example. He was raised speaking Dutch but lived in Japan, Jamaica and Canada for years. Today, his Dutch is deplorable, but he’s an absolutely brilliant writer in English. Your mastery of different languages evolves as you yourself evolve. For me, English is the language I’m best at today by far.
What language do you think in?
I tried to monitor my mind for a while to answer that question, but came to the conclusion that I’m not sure whether I actually think in words. When I’m making dinner, for example, I don’t literally think ‘and now it’s time to chop up a tomato’. Of course, we do reason and have imaginary conversations in our minds. But I’m a chameleon: in an English-speaking environment, my thoughts will be in English; if I’m having coffee with Swedish friends, my brain will switch to Swedish; and if I’m seeing Belgian family members, Dutch will be at the forefront of my mind.
What language do you dream in at night?
That’s a good question and one I actually have an answer to, because I’m notorious for talking in my sleep! My partner has heard me switch between three different languages when I do. He says I’ll start a sentence in Swedish, switch to English mid-way and then tack on a few Dutch words at the end. So in my subconsciousness, I actively use multiple languages.
How would you describe or compare English, Dutch and Swedish?
English is the language I work in. It’s such an incredibly rich language, with almost infinite possibilities. When I speak Dutch, I constantly find myself inserting English into my sentences. Maybe because the English vocabulary is almost infinite. Dutch, on the other hand, has a wonderfully mediaeval ring to it for me. Just think of words like ‘schabouwelijk’ or ‘pintelieren’ – you’re instantly transported to a dark, cobblestoned alley, clutching a pitcher of beer in a grubby tavern. Swedish can feel like a bit of an abstract language. Swedish speakers string words together to build incredibly long nouns, which makes Swedish both compact and oddly vague at the same time. A perfect language for government agencies, basically, with tonnes of seemingly made-up terms that have you scratching your head and wondering ‘what on earth does this even mean?’
But there are many similarities between English, Dutch and Swedish. If you already know English and Dutch, learning Swedish is easy. Conquering a language like Japanese or Chinese, on the other hand, is a totally different story, because you suddenly find yourself with zero crutches. Which is why studying Asian languages is a lesson in humility: a Sisyphean labour for true language enthusiasts (or for masochists, depending on how you look at it!).
Would you raise a child to be multilingual? Why (not)?
I myself don’t plan on becoming a parent, but if I did have children, I would definitely want them to be multilingual. When a child is born into a multilingual environment, I feel it’s almost imperative to let them benefit from that. Just consider the career opportunities you would grant your child! Being fluent in both Dutch and French is such an asset on the Belgian labour market, for example. The same goes more globally, when someone masters the UN’s official languages. Imagine being fluent in Mandarin as well as French. Or Russian and Arabic. What a gift!
When does someone ‘know’ a language?
Ah, what does it mean to be fluent in a language? I find that an incredibly difficult question. Do you know a language when you can give someone directions in the streets in that language? When you can understand the news on the radio? When you can read a maths textbook? When you can draft a legal contract in that language? I like to think you truly know a language when you’re able to flirt, quip and understand jokes in it. When you’re able to play around with words like that, you’ve really mastered the finer points of a language.
Which language do you like best?
I lived in Japan for a while, studying Japanese. Which was hard, because Japanese is a language that slips like sand through your fingers. Because of the characters it’s written with, it’s a compact but also very creative language. Did you know that Japanese has a word for the colour of mountains in the distance. That’s almost as beautiful as grandma’s mauve (laughs). English is a wonderful language too. But the languages I like best are always the ones I don’t yet speak. I’m very interested in Icelandic, for example, and Danish and Cantonese. But if I knew Cantonese and Icelandic, then I’d suddenly want to learn Korean. My hunger for language is insatiable! Last autumn, I’d signed up to study Welsh. My friends said: “Eva, a course in Welsh, why would you, what’s the use?” That’s exactly why, I thought. I want to learn something that has little use in my everyday life. Welsh just sounds so lovely. Unfortunately, the course was cancelled, probably because I was the only enthusiast who signed up to learn Welsh (smiles wistfully).
There’s no doubt about it; I’ll never get enough of languages. My brother and I have this list we compile together, with strange and wonderful words we both like the sound of. When I read novels by Stephen Fry – who often uses extraordinarily exotic words – I’ll jot down any words I didn’t know. So I can cherish them. I can never get enough of words, of expressions that reveal how unique different languages can be. Language is a treasure trove of infinite riches (sighs).