Gained in translation

More than a million words. That’s how much translation I’ve done in the last six years or so. It has taught me a lot.

The books I translated since 2012. The two Berlin Noir books are still in the works, and my novella Ek wens, ek wens (I wish, I wish) is due out in February 2019.

When writers give writing advice to aspiring writers, one of the suggestions I’ve encountered more than once is to retype some novels – your favourites as well as some you don’t like – so that you can see what the authors did and learn from it. At the time when I read this advice, I could not imagine doing something so tedious. There was no way I was ever going to do it.

But translating books has forced me to do this – retype existing novels, and render them into another language to boot. I actually engaged with the texts in an even more intense way than simply retyping them. And now that idea of retyping an entire novel doesn’t sound half as dumb as it did at first, I have become one of those writers who recommend this method. Seriously.

Before I get to some of the things I have learned by doing all this translation work, just an overview of the books:

  • 3 of my own novels
  • a novella I had written
  • the autobiography of cricketer AB de Villiers.
  • 2 historical crime novels by Philip Kerr
  • 3 early historical adventure novels by Wilbur Smith.

I’d like to think my translations have become better over time. After years of minimal practice, Afrikaans has become more readily accessible in my head again, my resources improved, and so did my practical processes.


I translate in stages. First, I get the text I have to translate into an MS Word document, in a format I like. That also gives me a consistent page count I can use to work out what milestones I have to achieve when to make the deadline. Then I create a separation in the text, usually a row of xxx in highlight.

Then the real work starts, what I consider as Stage 1. Above the bar, I start translating the words below it, rendering the English into Afrikaans as efficiently as I can. I find it easier to work with all the text on one screen. It also makes the project portable and I have even translated while travelling by bus or when waiting to see someone.

As I finish translating a paragraph or group of lines, I delete them. It’s like a worm coming down from above, eating English and excreting Afrikaans. I use some typing shortcuts such as automatic replacements of recurring words that are hard to type, especially the Afrikaans words with diacritical signs on some letters. I also keep notes of issues to take up with the publisher.

That is by far the most time-consuming stage, taking perhaps three-quarters or more of the total project hours.

After this is when the real fun starts, when I put the original text aside, and work fully with the translation. This is where I concentrate on style and idiom. Occasionally I might look at the original if a passage is problematic, but mostly I operate wholly immersed in Afrikaans.


While the process is consistent from book to book, each project presents its own challenges.

My own books were the easiest to translate in the sense that I knew what the author meant, and where I didn’t understand the bloody idiot (this happened!), I felt free to change it. Actually, with unpublished books I ended up translating both ways, because when I found something awkward in the original or had an idea that made the translation better, I’d often back-translate that to the original. The biggest challenge was to render the more poetic passages or ones with word-play into the other language. Some thoughts are only striking because of the words with which they can be expressed in a particular language.

The AB de Villiers book threw up two unique challenges: One was procedural – receiving the text piecemeal while working against a tight deadline. The second was cricket terminology. For instance, I had a chart with 40-something fielding positions, and still AB managed to mention a couple of positions not on my chart, or any other I could find. The names of specific cricket shots were equally dumbfounding at times.

And there was also the oddity that I had received originally Afrikaans dialogue from his family life rendered into English, and had to back-translate that. I always wondered how the words have changed in the process.

I am still working on the second of two of British crime novelist Philip Kerr’s Bernie Günther novels. The biggest challenges here are the inconsistent rendering of German (and Russian in the third book) in the originals, and some aspects of Kerr’s style. His characters’ über-cool slang is sometimes impossible to decode. From a writer’s perspective, I found some of his choices between telling and showing a bit mystifying. And he occasionally goes to extraordinary and complicated lengths to make a simple point. When he becomes convoluted, it gets hard to translate.

Actually, here’s a general rule: If the original is written well, it is relatively easy to translate. It is when the original is terrible or brilliant that you struggle to translate it.

Translating Wilbur Smith

I left discussing the Wilbur Smith books for last, because they were by far the most problematic – and instructive.

They were mostly early novels by Smith, and perhaps he had become a better writer over time, but I’ll confess that, unlike Kerr, Smith is not a writer on my reading list and I’ll never find out what his other books are like.

What struck me about those early novels was firstly how badly they have been edited. Some of those books have been in the market constantly for 50 years, and still there were blatant inconsistencies, lapses of logic, etc. In one book, for instance, a character who cannot read, kept cut-outs of newspaper stories. This is unusual enough, but these newspapers were only pubished after the guy’s death! Some of these lapses did provide light relief during the translation.

I also spotted quite a few historical errors, but I suppose before Google those were easier to make.

The narrator sometimes casually makes a sexist or racist statement that was probably unexceptional in the 1960s, but which really grates on the reader now. Together with the publisher, we made the decision to tone down the offending sentiments where possible, though we couldn’t do it to the extent where it would affect events in the story. In Donderslag (The Sound of Thunder) the main character, who recently returned from a safari where he shot 500 (!) elephants, still gives one of his lovers a hiding, for instance.

What I learned

So, what did translating Wilbur Smith teach me?

First, that readers of commercial books like stories, and that little else matters. Smith is good at telling stories, especially at making historical events come to life. Even if, in one case, he carried on for a good hundred pages after the natural end of the story. He also has a knack for honing in on the strongest, most basic human emotions. And he exploits the African milieu well. These are, I believe, the main reasons for his success.

Hopefully some of this has subconsciously rubbed off on me.

I always thought that the aspect of writing that interested me least was plotting, but having read Smith, I am less sure. It is something one can get right as a writer and, when you do, it helps to make the book more attractive for readers. I believe it is possible to marry literary merit with good plotting. To be fair on myself, Half of One Thing was written before I translated Wilbur Smith, and has a smart, tight plot.

Smith’s prose never rises to any heights, but is effective, especially in action sequences. When he goes for lyricism or internal monologue, it tends to bog down. And there are shoddy aspects to his writing, perhaps a factor of working at speed. In one book, almost every brown object is described as “chocolate brown”. I’m fairly confident that in terms of prose, my translation improves on the original. So, in a sense, what I learned in terms of prose was how not to do it.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from translating the Wilbur Smith books in particular, is to be far more confident in my own writing.


The film festival version of a genre story

I’ve long been trying to describe what I aim for in my writing. I was first alerted to the problem when a publisher pointed it out to me.

I was in my twenties and had been bothering this publisher with submissions since my late teens, and she finally asked me to come see her. She explained two problems with my writing. One was that ennui suffocated the stories. (Happy to report that I outgrew that.) The other problem was harder to overcome: My stories, she said, fell between two chairs. They weren’t sensational or formulaic enough for commercial success, but nor were they penetrating enough for serious literature.

(They must have had some other merit, because otherwise she wouldn’t have bothered talking to me. I think. Hope.)

It’s the kind of problem my father used to describe as “too big for a serviette, too small for a table cloth”.

Even knowing what the publisher’s problem was – and by extension the buyer’s/reader’s problem – I decided to address it not by changing what I do, but by trying to make it work. To use her metaphor: rather than choose between the two chairs, I wanted to sit on both. I wanted to write books with events and plots like genre stories, but with the careful prose and convincing characterisation usually reserved for serious literature. Not because of rebelliousness or some self-destructive urge, at least not consciously, but because that is what I would want to read. I like stories that make me care about the characters, that have tension and events, and where I can also enjoy the narrative angle and the prose itself.

To my mind, my books since Nobody Dies have achieved what I set out to do, to varying degrees. Half of One Thing, for instance, is a straightforward war story built around the cliché of a soldier falling in love with a woman on the enemy side, but it was actually driven by a theme of great importance in my life – divided national loyalties and how this impacts on love. It’s my most autobiographical book, though heavily masked. Based on reviews, I think readers responded to the easy pace and neatly plotted story, without necessarily picking up on the more personal theme. Parts Unknown is both a tense adventure story and a look at how people can respond to aspects of colonialism.

I’ve been lucky to find some publishers willing to gamble on my work, as well as, of course, many who decline. Reader response has been mixed, which is fine. We don’t all like the same things.

In my occasionally successful approaches to publishers and my invariably failed attempts to interest agents, I have tried to convey my aims as a writer. In one such letter, I wrote:

I believe that it must be possible to write books with dramatic action that also have believable characters, rewarding prose and meaningful themes.

That was rather succinct and clear, I thought. But I recently received an email from a friend who isn’t someone who thinks about writing/books/literature more than the average reader, but who managed to describe what I do more compellingly than I have been able to do after years of trying. Here’s what he wrote in response to Parts Unknown:

I actually thought your book was in the territory of the Bryce Courtenay/Wilbur Smith (as a compliment) but with less of the hero worship of the characters – a bit more honest/authentic – the film festival version of writing.

And that’s it – the film festival version. Next time I’m called upon to describe what I do, I’ll say: “I write film festival versions of genre stories.”


A good reviewer in my book

As a writer, I hope for a good reviewer rather than a positive review.

Although a positive review would be nice, of course, it’s more important to get a reviewer that does their job well.

A reviewer’s job is not to show their audience how clever or erudite they are. (Though, of course, it helps if they are.) Not to paraphrase the story. Not to complain that the book they’re reviewing is not some other book they would have liked to read or have written.

The job of a reviewer is this: To read the book attentively and help their audience decide if they want to invest their time and/or money into this book.

That’s it. If a reviewer does that well, it is a good review.

I have experience of both sides of the equation. I made my living as a reviewer for many years, and have been reviewed often.

As a reviewer, I have made mistakes I regret now. For instance, I badly underrated both The Blues Brothers and When Harry Met Sally. Once, a reader called to ask if she could take her mother see Le Grand Chemin, which I had reviewed, and I assured her yes, there is nothing in the film that would offend her mother’s conservative sensibilities. The moment I put the phone down, a colleague reminded me of the cunnilingus scene…

Anyway, back to me as the reviewed, rather than the reviewer.

I’ve had a case where much of a review was built around the reviewer’s confident assumption that I had read a particular non-fiction book they were clever enough to have read themselves, and had based an important character and some of the events in my novel on that book. This was a bit suspect, according to the reviewer. Only, I had never even heard of the book in question…

Another reviewer complained that in a crime story of mine, the first murder only happens on page 10. (Never mind that the pagination in the book started at page seven.) But what sort of criterion is this anyway, how much you have to read before there is a murder? I do understand, though, what the reviewer had tried to convey, namely that the story moved too slowly for her liking. But then, why not simply say that? I would have no complaints if she did. Taste differs, after all.

I also had a reviewer who revealed several important moments in the book in their review, going so far as to quote one of the more shocking developments in the book verbatim. While that review may have enticed some people to read the book, it also spoiled the reading experience for them.

To my mind, these are just examples of bad journalism. It grates not only because I feel aggrieved as novelist, but also because it offends my journalistic sense.

And then something that isn’t an irritation as much as a mild curiosity: I cannot understand why reviewers don’t simply state if they had enjoyed reading the book. Isn’t that the main thing their audience wants to know?

I’ve had cases where people contacted me personally and raved about a book. Then, when their review appeared, it was so restrained that you could hardly tell if they liked it at all. Why not show your enthusiasm?

It’s okay if you don’t, though. If you’ve read my book well, considered it seriously, presented its contents in general terms without spoilers, decided it’s wonderful/meh/useless, and justified your opinion… you’re a good reviewer in my book. And I’d be happy for you to read mine.