The Fluent Medium of Translation: An Interview with Sam Garrett

By Claire CameronMarch 28, 2013

“IF YOU KNOW only one language, you live only once,” goes the proverb. Fluency in another language grants us two unique perspectives: an insider's view into a new place, and an ability to see how our culture influences our thoughts. “Language is never neutral,” says Sam Garrett, translator of Herman Koch’s The Dinner. “It shapes our world.” An American writer and literary translator, Sam Garrett has lived in Amsterdam for more than 30 years. He is fluent in Dutch, but also has a writer’s command of English. The Dinner was published in the US by Hogarth (February 2013). It won the prestigious Dutch literary prize, the NS Publieksprijs; was shortlisted for the National Book Award in the UK; and has been published in 20-plus countries to widespread critical acclaim. 

The narrative of The Dinner is shaped around two couples eating a five-course meal at a high-end restaurant. The luxurious setting might sound polished and polite, but the reason for this meeting is anything but. The Netherlands is shuddering in the aftermath of a horrifying act against a homeless woman. Despite a nationwide appeal, the criminals have yet to be identified. As the aperitifs descend on the table, we realize that these four are the parents of the perpetrators, two 15-year-old boys. As parents, they alone know the truth. However, grainy footage of the incident from a security camera has been posted on YouTube and there is reason to suspect that the person who uploaded the video recognized the boys. During the course of the meal, the couples must decide if they should try to protect their children’s identity or turn them in. 

The Dutch have a noun, a word that is difficult to translate into English, that implies belonging or spending time with loved ones in a comfortable atmosphere, usually with good food and drinks at hand: “gezelligheid.” It could be said that The Dinner is the dark underbelly of gezelligheid, the seemingly civil conversation at the next table actually concerns a moral question from your worst nightmares.

An unsettling novel, The Dinner explores a shifting Dutch liberal sensibility. In an increasingly financially and racially polarized country, an anti-immigrant sentiment has reared up and homelessness is more prevalent. The conversation among the characters shows a range of reactions, some extreme, to a country and a culture that is changing.

And while Garrett is, perhaps, the perfect person to help an outsider understand the shifting attitudes in the Netherlands, it appears that, given the international response to the book, the questions raised by The Dinner have hit a nerve. To non–Dutch speakers, The Dinner is not only a passport, but it is also a mirror, reflecting ourselves and our culture back to us.


Claire Cameron: How do you start a translation?

Sam Garrett: By reading the book, and then diving right in. If there are any issues, I struggle with them as I go along. 

CC: Are there things you try to avoid? 

SG: I try to avoid pre-chewing the readers’ food for them. If absolutely necessary, it’s useful to be able to clarify specific cultural elements without intruding too much. But if it’s not necessary, I try to leave well enough alone. Maybe I’m naïve, but I like to think that foreign elements in a text may educate those readers who are willing to think about them, who haven’t lost their sense of wonder.

CC: Natasha Wimmer, translator of 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, has said, “Translation is all about exceptions.” Do you agree?

SG: Translation, like most of the arts, is probably all about exceptions. The kinds of exceptions that allow you to dance to music you’ve never heard before, or improvise a solo on the saxophone. If you could draw up a list of those exceptions, they would probably become rules.

The only rule I care to abide by is that good writing deserves to be translated well.

CC: Is there a point at which you need to stray farther with the words to convey the meaning?

SG: Oh, sure. In fact, that might be another definition of translation: informed and respectful straying.

The words a writer uses not only have a dictionary definition, but also a color and an intention. To pin those down, the translator has to sniff around. From the first to the final word of a translation, you’re leading the reader along a path to a destination. The color is what keeps the reader hopping; the intention is the scent that keeps the translator on the right path.

A good translator has to be not only something of a virtuoso in his or her mother tongue, but also a fluent, knowledgeable, and interested sponge when it comes to the idiom and cultural setting of the language he or she is translating from. If you haven’t absorbed damned near everything, if you’re not fascinated by the picayune details of your second language, you probably shouldn’t be translating.

CC: So a translation is a search for meaning?

A translation is not just turning one language into another. It’s also about opening up a foreign mindset. Our culture is hardwired into us through language. 

CC: How is culture hardwired into us? Was there a moment when you realized that your language shaped your outlook?

SG: When I first moved to Amsterdam, I’d had the usual brushes with foreign languages in school, but it wasn’t until I immersed myself in Dutch culture that I came to understand how much the story behind the words mattered. 

I was with a few friends and we were talking about family doctors in the usual way. I was frustrated with one in particular and said something like, “Doctors make so much money. Couldn’t they also try and be more accommodating?”

My comment was met with blank stares. What I didn’t know back then is that in Holland, the job of a doctor is respected, but the salaries are nowhere near what they are in the US. The pay is more like that of a teacher. I’d been having conversations in Dutch, choosing words, based around a false assumption. I was trying to impose my American mindset, the story in my own mind, on the Dutch situation. It’s fatal, but it’s something you see politicians do all the time. 

CC: What was the allure of this project?

SG: What particularly appealed to me about translating this book was the opportunity to try to get the voice of Paul Lohman, the first-person narrator, down pat. He is, in essence, extremely Dutch, dry and disillusioned. And when crossed, he proves capable of reacting with what you might call “extreme prejudice.” The opportunity to do Paul’s particular brand of extreme prejudice was something I jumped at. The way an actor, I guess, might jump at the chance to play George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

CC: If you are showing the context while translating, where does Koch’s writing stop and your translation start?

SG: I’ve compared my work to that of the pianist Glenn Gould before. It’s a dangerous comparison, I know! Apart from the obvious self-aggrandizement, the point I was trying to make is that the good translator isn’t a composer, but a fluent medium. However well he pulls it off, Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations is not playing Glenn Gould — he’s Glenn Gould playing Bach. 

CC: Gould interprets Bach’s score to make it his own, another example of informed and respectful straying. Did you make changes with regard to the original text?

SG: I took a liberty, for example, when it came to the name of the television show that ran the security-camera footage of what the boys did. Almost no one in the English-speaking world would have understood Opsporing Verzocht as the name of a reality police series, so I tried to subtly place that in a broader context of television viewing, in a way that Koch didn’t have to do.

CC: Paul uses the word “horseshit.” Was that a literal translation?

SG: The Dutch are less scatological than English or French speakers in their use of bad language. They go in more for hideous, lingering diseases, and for the genitalia. Horseshit wasn’t a literal translation. Translated literally, the Dutch equivalent for “horseshit” would be “lulkoek,” which means smegma. The Dutch use smegma in the same way we use “horseshit,” but it seems more disturbingly graphic to me. 

CC: How personal is your translation of a book like The Dinner? 

SG: As a person I have very different sensibilities from the narrator Paul: I can hardly imagine myself knocking someone’s teeth down their throat just because I detest who they are and what they stand for. As a translator I have to be able to imagine what that would be like and to effectively communicate that to the reader. To do Paul Lohman justice in English, to keep him funny and cynical and frightening, I didn’t have to subscribe to his views. But I did have to understand them.

CC: Do reviewers or readers confuse the two, the writer with the translator?

SG: Sometimes, yes. I have a hunch that that happens mostly in the negative sense. A good book is sometimes dismissed by critics because the only thing those critics can read of it is a bad translation.

By the same token, the inferiority of some pretty crappy books is sometimes blamed unfairly on the translation. But a crappy book being embraced on the strength of its translation — no, that seems like a fantasy to me. A fantasy that might make for a very funny novel, come to think of it.

CC: What’s it like to be an American living in Amsterdam? 

SG: I guess I’d have to distinguish between my early years in Europe (when I was feeling “landlocked,” like a salmon that can’t get back to its headwaters) and today, when I seem to be like a computer with two hard drives that I can switch between. I feel Dutch when it comes to soccer and politics, American when it comes to politics and culture.

Now I feel considerably less landlocked in Holland. But I do recognize myself in what I picked up from the writer Elias Canetti, who lived in England for a long time. As an exile there he called himself “der Hund meiner Zeit” — the dog of my day. Like that dog, I’m always sniffing around to discover the “why” behind things, which for the Dutch, just are. That keeps you an outsider, but I’ve found that that’s a role you can grow into.

Meanwhile, I sometimes refer to myself in my relationship to the Dutch, and in their reactions to me, as “the talking dog”.

CC: Does learning a second language change your outlook on life? 

SG: One language is a sort of desert island: no matter how pleasant and comfortable and stimulating that desert island may be, it’s still tightly circumscribed and an obstacle to communication.

When you don’t know a country’s language, you’re always viewing that country across a stretch of shark-infested water. You can never leave the shore and truly visit and understand it. That’s not necessarily a disaster, because maybe the shores you can reach are very pleasant and comfortable and stimulating. But it is a limitation. 

CC: In what way can reading a good translation of a novel open up the original to us? Can it do something a good dictionary couldn’t? 

SG: Think of the story of Robinson Crusoe. Imagine that Robinson was cast ashore on that desert island with a chromatic harmonica. After he meets Friday, he introduces him to Bach by playing, say, “Bourrée in E minor” on his harmonica. Robinson Crusoe’s skill as a performer, his knowledge of music in general and Bach in particular might then be measured by what happens later, when Friday leaves that desert island and goes with Robinson to England.

Although Friday — before meeting this European — had never heard of Bach or listened to his music, he attends an organ recital there and is able not only to recognize what his friend played for him on that island, but also to hum along with it. And perhaps, later, to recognize other pieces as being by Bach when he hears them played, even on some other instrument.

CC: So are you saying that reading a foreign novel in translation can give the reader true insight into a country or a culture? 

SG: When the language of that country on the far shore passes through a skillful and fluent medium, even when it’s performed on an instrument for which it was not originally written, it can serve to enlighten and help you to appreciate the people and the stories of that distant place, and to understand a cultural context that’s not your own. I guess you could see the translator as a kind of virtual ferryman. A good foreign correspondent has to be a kind of translator, too; as does a good foreign policymaker. Too bad there aren’t more of those.

CC: Is The Dinner a ferry? Does it give the reader insight into what it feels like to be Dutch? 

SG: Something is happening in that book that seems to ring a bell with a lot of people. I think that’s because it not only sheds light on the changes that are happening in Holland, but also because it speaks to people about their own lives. How well do we know anyone, even our own family? And where do our loyalties lie? With “society” as a whole, or is blood really thicker than water? The liberal mentality appears to be working for the good of society, but any mentality — if it becomes a knee-jerk reaction — can also become dangerous. I think those are issues that a lot of people are struggling with at the moment. And they’re central to The Dinner.

CC: Should we all try to learn a new language or live in a different country? 

SG: I applaud anyone who sets out to learn a new language. But if we all went to live in a different country, that might pose practical problems. [Laughs] It would be good for the airlines though! What I would say is that if people have the opportunity to spend time in a different country they can profit enormously from suspending judgment at first, by just opening their eyes and ears to that new place. 

Not long after I moved to Amsterdam, I was riding my bicycle one blustery February afternoon along the Singel canal, not far from the city’s central train station. Suddenly, the sun broke through the clouds and the houses along the far side were bathed in a light that seemed to etch sharp lines around each brick, every notch in every gable. It was breathtaking. Dutch light, I realized, this was the famously oblique Dutch light! It felt like a kind of homecoming.

And home, it seems to me, is the point of departure for all understanding. It’s where the adventure begins. 


LARB Contributor

Claire Cameron’s second novel, The Bear, will be published by Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown & Company in 2014. Her first novel, The Line Painter, was published by HarperCollins Canada; it won the Northern Lit Award from the Ontario Library Service and was nominated for an Arthur Ellis Crime Writing Award for best first novel. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, The Millionsand The Globe and Mail. She lives in Toronto.


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