When I just started studying English, my first translations came back entirely red. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t convey the meaning of the original, or made many mistakes, the problem was that I diverted too much from the source text. I would interpret what the writer meant, and then find a nice way to say it in Dutch or English. I quickly learned that this, obviously, was not the right way to translate. Translators stay as close to the source text as possible, even if there are much nicer ways of putting something in the target language, that basically convey the same meaning.
With much gnashing of teeth, I incorporated these lessons into my translations to the extent that nowadays, when I don’t literally follow a source text, I get a guilty, nagging feeling about it. A guilty feeling that sometimes even plays up when I’m interpreting simultaneously; a process so complicated that not missing any sentence is already a feat, let alone trying to interpret almost literally.
Most satisfying translation
Therefore, translating some parts of my own book Officier in Afghanistan has been the most satisfying translation experience I have ever had. I don’t have to worry about what the source text literally says, because I know exactly what the writer wanted to convey. And if I find a way of expressing something in English that is much more nuanced and beautiful than the Dutch original, I can simply do it.
I don’t have to translate the Dutch chapter title ‘De Engelse kolonel’ with a boring ‘The English Colonel’, for example. Instead, I have chosen the name of a British cultural icon, not known by the Dutch, whose behavior is remarkably similar to my real English boss: cartoon character Colonel Blimp.
No gnashing of teeth, no guilty feeling: I find translating my own text the most liberating experience I have ever had as a translator.