May 23, 2013
Gerbrand Bakker and David Colmer: happy together
by Sal Robinson
It’s relatively rare that, when an author wins a major international prize, the main news stories on it show a photo of the author and their translator. It’s even rarer to have the author standing behind the translator. But that’s just what’s happened with Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker, his translator David Colmer, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which went to The Detour (titled Ten White Geese in the US) this week. Here’s the photo in question:
This all makes sense for the IFFP, which is awarded only to fiction in translation, and is also one of the few prizes, along with the IMPAC, that splits the prize money between author and translator. But, to close observers, it might also seem like a natural outgrowth of the apparent warmth of Bakker and Colmer’s relationship. In fact, when Bakker won the IMPAC for his previous book, The Twin, in 2010, he was quoted as saying that it wasn’t until he read Colmer’s translation of it that he realized that “it really is a book, and I am a writer.”
When Colmer began to work on The Detour, Bakker had initial doubts about the possibility of translating it at all. He tells it like this, in an interview with Tasja Dorkofikis on the PEN Atlas blog:
Dorkofikis: Your novel is translated from the Dutch. How closely do you work with your translator, David Colmer?
Bakker: For this novel very close, because I woke up one night, almost two years ago now, almost in a panic. I thought: one cannot translate this novel, there is far too much language-stuff in it, and it is about the translation of an English poem into Dutch! So I contacted David and he stayed very calm and said: “That’s my problem, relax.” He is wonderful. But for the first time I read a translation of one of my novels before it was sent to Harvill Secker. And we worked on it, I had some comments, and then David had counter-arguments, and so on. It was nice to do it like this.
What’s exceptional in this situation is the relative calmness of all concerned: Colmer’s confidence when faced with a panicked author and what may indeed have been some very tricky translation questions, Bakker’s obvious pleasure about the course of the editing process. Though many translators who work on books by living authors have satisfying working relationships with them, you don’t often hear about it on an international stage: the Kundera and Albee horror stories take occasional showy pride of place.
Profiles of Colmer and Bakker together—like this one, where they’re watching the World Cup in a Irish pub—also shed light on the length and depth of the relationship that translators and authors can have with each other, with translators acting as advocates, sometimes over and over again, for a book and an author. Colmer recalls having first read The Twin for a publisher in Holland: “I loved it and wrote a favourable reader’s report, urging them to publish it, but they didn’t.” It wasn’t until some years later that the book was finally picked up, by Harvill Secker in the UK and Archipelago in the US, and Colmer was asked to translate.
In a business that is sometimes dominated by the quick turnaround and the “book of season”—due soon to molder and curl on the back of the toilet seat—it’s good to see such steadfastness rewarded.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.