May 8, 2013

What’s worse: being stuck in a bunker for two months or translating Dan Brown?


The bunker the translators of Dan Brown’s Inferno were kept in for two months (artist’s rendering).

Recently, there have been a number of reports of the hellish conditions endured by the translators of Dan Brown’s upcoming blockbuster, Inferno. According to the Independent:

The translators are said to have worked seven days a week until at least 8pm, in a windowless, high-security basement at the Milan headquarters of Mondadori, Italy’s largest publishing firm.

The 11 were forbidden from taking mobile phones into the bunker, which was guarded by armed security personnel. Their laptops were screwed to the workstations, and they were allowed access to the internet only via a single, supervised, communal computer.

This begs the question: what is worse—being forced to live in a horrible bunker with little contact with the outside world for two months, or translating Dan Brown?

Dustin Kurtz: I think the answer to your question is clear, Alex. Do we even need to keep going? These people were made to read Dan Brown. Horrors like that are against the Geneva Convention. That’s some black site nonsense. The list goes, in order of severity: waterboarding, stress positions, that part in The Da Vinci Code with the big zany albino.

Alex Shephard: Yes, but holding people in HORRIBLE, DANK, BUNKER CONDITIONS is actually part of the Geneva Convention (probably) and not just some hipster joke about hating something that loads of America’s aunts and uncles love. Your computer is nailed to your desk; you have to let people know where you’re going all the time; there are armed guards; you don’t get to go hang out in Milan, which has excellent nightlife. This isn’t the typically glamorous world of literary translation. This is totalitarian brutishness.

D: Did you know I’m an uncle? Those kids are cute. Less cute, now that I know they share most of their genome with Dan Brown. The man’s prose is like ash gently burying all that is good and right in the world, Alex. And these people, these poor, innocent, hopefully very well remunerated translators, essentially had to read this book twice. No. Worse, they were made to WRITE this book. They are complicit now. That’s terrible.

A: Yes, they were made to write the book. Under duress. Under armed guard. Under hellish, INFERNO-LIKE conditions (nailed it). They were in a circle of hell, Dustin (high five).

D: They were in a bunker, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t literally on fire. Whereas Dan Brown’s Inferno is basically the match put to all of world literature (wait, I think I can do better). And anyhow, we don’t know all that much about their conditions. Most of the things you’re describing have had to be INFERred (perfect) from the word “bunker.” No, I think it was probably nice. I bet they had chairs in there and everything.

A: Well let’s take a look at some of the first hand reports, then. Here’s an excerpt from the Telegraph’s coverage:

The hotel where they stayed was “lost in the middle of nowhere”, and [Catalan translator Esthel Roig] desperately missed her cat, she said.

Carole Del Port, another French translator, said: “The time outside the bunker was essentially reduced to nothing – lunch, dinner at a very late hour (we were mentally exhausted) and sleep.
“But it was a unique, fantastic experience – a rare opportunity to work in a group for weeks and to experience total immersion in the world of Dan Brown.”

First, this woman missed her cat, Dustin. Her cat!!!! Would you keep this woman from her cat? It probably has an adorable name like
Señor Mittens and is cute.

Second, all these people were allowed to do was eat and sleep and translate Dan Brown—literally the best part of the experience was translating Dan Brown. That is horrible.

D: Exactly. Sleeping in a hotel sounds pretty good. Food: sounds fine. What part of this equation might be so bad that it’s led these people to share their harrowing stories with the media?

Look, I’m sympathetic to the argument that if people like it, who am I to judge? Let them read what they want. I’m not the emperor of words over here. But at some point I just … Alex look at this sentence. This is from The Da Vinci Code: “‘The Knights Templar were warriors,’ Teabing reminded, the sound of his aluminum crutches echoing in this reverberant space.”

The sentence is painful. Of course it is. But the worst part, the very worst part, is that behind it you can hear Brown himself thinking he’s doing a good job. Why should translators be made to suffer through that? Monsieur Mittens was spared by not having to witness it.

A: I mean, the Knights Templar were warriors (I think?) and you do sound like the emperor of words, sitting high on your chair made of Penguin Classics, clad in velvet. You can keep throwing your pennies at the Titanic that is Dan Brown, but that doesn’t change the fact that a woman missed her cat because she wasn’t allowed to leave a TERRIFYING BUNKER 1,000 FEET (maybe) BENEATH MILAN for 2 months. When asked how her experience was, French translator Dominque Defert said, “Milan? Where is Milan?” And you know why she said that Dustin? Because she was (maybe) 1,000 FEET BENEATH MILAN IN A BUNKER AND THUS HAD NO IDEA WHERE MILAN IS. “Where is Milan? Is it in Italy? I don’t know because I was 1,000 feet below the earth.” – French translator Dominique Defert.

No shopping for cool Italian shoes. No artwork. No cathedrals. No Navgili District, where “The nightlife is busy, with not just young hipsters, but also people who enjoy jazz or just being with lots of people out for the evening.” (Which sounds fabulous. I am so there, Milan.) Just horrible gruel and Dan Brown and no internet and no cats for anyone. Reverberating aluminum crutches is an afterthought compared to what these people went through in that bunker.

D: I can see why you like Brown, Mr. Broken Metaphor.

But bunkers have their advantages! First: they’re safe. From, I don’t know, cats I guess? Second, no internet. This guy in New York just tried that and he loved it. Third, when you are in a bunker nobody can see your face, a face shaped into a permanent Munchean howl by having to read, with your actual eyes, a book written by Dan Brown. I bet they weren’t even in the bunker for secrecy—the horror on their faces was contagious and they were put there to shield the rest of us.

Wait, did you just Wiki some district in Milan?

A: TripAdvisor, actually—apparently the traffic in Milan is very bad. And you know what, Dustin, my first thought when I saw that sentence from TripAdvisor was “This is as clunky and wooden as a Dan Brown sentence.” I’ve tried to hide the fact that I have no interest in this man or his novels about a mulleted professor of symbology/mullets at Harvard University but I just can’t do it.

I still would rather translate Dan Brown than live in a subterranean bunker that is 1,000 feet beneath the earth and filled with skulls and permanently kept at 125 degrees (maybe), but I can’t hide the truth: translating Dan Brown is also terrible and tortuous. I think that being in that hellish (nailed it) bunker is worse than translating Dan Brown, but nothing is worse than being in that bunker AND translating Dan Brown.

D: Agreed. And yes, I’ll let you borrow my copy when it comes out.

Alex Shephard and Dustin Kurtz work at Melville House and are friends.