International Booker interview: How Sarah Timmer Harvey translated ‘What I’d Rather Not Think About’

Two questions lie at the heart of Jente Posthuma’s deceptively simple Dutch novel What I’d Rather Not Think About. What if one-half of a pair of twins no longer wants to live? What if the other can’t live without them? The narrator is a twin whose brother has recently taken his own life. She looks back on their childhood and tells of their adult lives: how her brother tried to find happiness, but lost himself in various men and the Bhagwan movement, though never completely. Praising the author, the prize jury remarked, “[Posthuma] skilfully inflects tragedy with unexpected humour and provides a multifaceted look at the search for meaning in the aftermath of suicide.”

Reconstruction, Timmer Harvey’s translation of stories written by the Dutch-Surinamese writer Karin Amatmoekrim, was published by Strangers Press in 2020 as part of their Verzet! Series, and their translation of Thistle by Nadia de Vries will be published by The New Menard Press in 2024. Timmer Harvey’s own Dutch-language poetry and prose translations have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Asymptote, Gulf Coast Journal, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. Born in Australia, she lived and worked in the Netherlands for 14 years before moving to New York City in 2013.

The translator spoke about learning Dutch, the translator’s “compass”, and the importance of constructive criticism.

You were born in Australia and graduated from the United States from Columbia University. That’s right. What drew you to the Dutch language?
I lived in the Netherlands for 14 years and I consider it as much my home as Australia, where I was born and raised. For such a small country, the Netherlands is really bursting with a lot of literary talent and equally passionate readers. So it’s hard not to be attracted to Dutch literature. A lot of Dutch writing tends to be quite experimental and boundary-pushing, which I really enjoy as a reader. Even before I became a translator, when I was reading Dutch books, I often found myself translating novels and poetry in my head.

So you learned Dutch after moving to the Netherlands.
Yes, I learned the language when I moved there. I was supposed to move for one year and well, I ended up staying for 14 years. I actually have never had an adult job in Australia. My professional history has only happened in the Netherlands and I immigrated to the country when I was quite young.

You are an author too. You have published books. Now as an artist, you can express your creative urge in your own writing. So why translate?
That’s a really interesting question. I’m a writer and I still write. I’m actually very slow – I’m working on a novel between translations. I find translation equally as fulfilling, if not more. I tend to get really excited about my translations in a way that I don’t about my own writing. And I’ve been thinking about this recently, wondering what it is.

But I think it’s the collaborative aspect of it because even if I’m not directly working with the original author, I’m engaging with a text that’s not mine and creating something from it using someone else’s art. And I find that very exciting – though that might change. I’m not going to box myself in or limit myself. I may prioritise my own writing again at some point in the future. I really do think that the key to creative fulfilment is to do what excites you and scares you. And when it gets too comfortable, you change it up.

I believe translating helps with your own writing too.
Oh, absolutely. It completely does. Although I do have to be careful when I’m really immersed in a novel or some amazing poetry. I do find myself sometimes taking on the style of the novel or the poetry that I’m translating. But yes, it’s always inspiring – like reading any good writing is.

When it comes to translating into English, I gather that you have to construct phrases in American and British English, which is different from Australian English. How do you do it? Since the Dutch language is free from these complications.
Before I start any translation, I always ask the publisher and the writer, if I’m able, what English we are aiming for. What is the logical English to be translating into?

There are so many Englishes. I have lived in Australia and I was educated in British English and I now live in America. So I’m able to draw on all these nuances. But even outside of the countries that I’ve directly experienced, I like to research the various Englishes around the world. I think it’s really important as a translator to understand how each generation and each region is using English and expanding it.

I also always search for a model for the narrative voice. And sometimes that comes from novels that have been recently published in English or around the same time period as the English I’m trying to translate into, but it can just as easily come from film, television, and social media. And even my friends and family around the world.

Do you use any tools or any particular dictionaries for these things?
Sometimes I do get a little confused, especially with slang and I’m thinking, well, I have heard someone use that in this country, but is this typical? So I always cross reference and see how is it being used.

How did you come across this book?
Oh, that’s a lovely story. I’ve been a big fan of Jenthe’s work for a long time.

I adored her debut novel, People With No Charisma. And right at the start of my translating career, I approached her former publisher about perhaps translating it. I hadn’t published very much at the time, and I don’t think they were particularly impressed with me. I didn’t know this, but at that point Jenthe was in the process of parting ways with that particular publisher.

So it didn’t work out at the time but I sort of put it aside and continued on with other projects. And then we cut to 2020, the pandemic year. And one of my dear friends in the Netherlands sent me a pandemic care package. And part of the care package was this book with a note from them saying, I haven’t been able to put this book down, you have to read it.

Of course it being the pandemic, I didn’t have much else to do. I immediately read it and fell very much in love as I had with the debut novel. I reached out to her publisher and they were luckily just as keen to have me translate it as I was to translate.

It all worked out this time.

What is the particular aspect of the book which you like so much?
I think the way that Jenthe looks and explores human relationships is really fascinating. Um, I think that her ability to handle such a tragic subject with humor and compassion just speaks to me.

Now this book is published by Scribe Books in the US and UK. Can you tell us a bit about this independent publisher?
Oh yes, I’ll be very happy to. I love Scribe. It was set up by a man called Henry Rosenblum in the 1970s in Melbourne, Australia, my favourite city. They’ve got offices in Melbourne, London and the US and they publish around 65 titles per year, in fiction and nonfiction.

They’re very committed to translated fiction and publish a lot of really good translated fiction. In fact, one of the other books on the International Booker Prize shortlist Mater 2-10, is also a Scribe title. So when they picked up What I’d Rather Not Think About, I was also excited to work with an Australian publisher.

I worked primarily with Marika Webb Pullman, who is the publisher in the Melbourne office and I would say one of the best and most thoughtful editors in the business.

Please tell us more about Jenthe Posthuma.
Jenthe is an incredible writer and also one of the funniest people I know. She worked as a journalist for many years and also published quite a bit of short fiction in some very well-known Dutch journals and magazines before she published her debut novel, People with No Charisma, in 2016.

People with No Charisma was nominated for several awards in the Netherlands and very well received. She published her second novel, What I’d Rather Not Think About, in 2020 which was shortlisted for the European Union Prize for Literature. It’s also been translated into multiple languages like Spanish, Bulgarian, and German.

She has recently also published a Dutch-language book called Hex, Hex, Hex, which is a, an exploration of witches and the representation of women in Dutch folklore.

Tell us more about What I’d Rather Not Think About.
The novel is about two twins and they are called One and Two. We never learn their names but the two of them grow up in each other’s pockets. They slowly start drifting apart the closer they get to adulthood and become estranged with rather tragic consequences. I think the novel examines the unimaginable grief that comes from losing a sibling or a close family member.

But I also think it’s a really good exploration of human relationships and how so many of us fail to listen to other people when they tell them and show them exactly who they are and how they feel. I think Maya Angelou said when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. It sounds straightforward, but I think it’s something a lot of people fail to do because they’re so attached to their idea of someone and can only look at them through that one particular lens.

What I’d Rather Not Think About really brilliantly explores this phenomenon and how it affects intimate relationships. But also our view of public figures and how blind we can be to the true natures of certain powerful and famous people, even when they have shown us and told us exactly who they are.

Jente has handled the situations of the suicide of a fraternal twin and grief very successfully. What do you attribute this success to?
That’s a great question. I think Jenthe has a unique ability to look at something and infuse it with humour because that’s what real life is like.

I think when we’re grieving, it’s not one note. We have good moments. We have bad moments. We look back and we laugh at memories. We recognise our blind spots. Jenthe does all that in brilliant, empathetic language. It speaks to the reader. It feels real.

What are some of your interesting experiences of translating the book?
Early on in the translation of this novel, before we had a publisher, there was a certain European literary arts funding institution that offered their support. But they also asked me if they could assess my translation.

I was actually really pleased because their support at the time could have really made all the difference in terms of which publishers would look at the sample and be interested in. This was a real passion project for me. So I was really invested. In any case, I always think it’s really good to get as many eyes on a translation as possible.

I welcome criticism and I think that it can only improve a text. But the feedback that I got from this particular institution was really brilliant. They questioned, in actually quite a rude and patronising way, some of the translated details about New York, my language and word choice, including my ability to translate Dutch humour at the time. They said I might be better suited to translating serious nonfiction books. I was really shocked because I’d already shown the draft to several people in the New York publishing industry and they had found it very funny and hadn’t raised any of the issues that this assessor from the institution had.

Nevertheless, I was really crushed. The assessment made me question my instincts as a translator and wonder if I was indeed up to the task, if I was going to do Jenthe’s brilliant writing justice. So I asked for a meeting with the institution and I quickly realised that the people who had assessed my work didn’t necessarily have any real knowledge about New York. They weren’t really up-to-date with the humorous Gen X and millennial voices that were being published in the UK and the US at the time. And some of their language and style notes just felt really outdated for the kind of narrative voice that Jenta had written in.

But even after the meeting, I still thought, well, this is a well-known institution. I should adjust my translation. So I did. I did adjust it, but it felt really off. It didn’t read as well. And I had another editor friend, an American, look at it and, and the feedback was, it’s not as funny.

So after a lot of debate, I ended up reverting to my original and sending out a much longer sample to publishers.

How much time did it take for you to translate the book after all?
Around six months in total, but, you know, there was back and forth and I also like to put translations down and away.

I always try to build in time to put something away and come back at it with fresh eyes. It’s really important for my practice. Between the bad assessment and my deciding to send out my own version, only a few months. Scribe wasn’t the only one who wanted to publish it but one of the reasons we went with it is because they said they picked it up for the humour. By now, I had learned a really important lesson – to trust my gut.

Even seasoned professionals and institutions can have their blind spots. I think the way the industry is set up, these kinds of institutions and funding bodies do essential work in supporting writers and translators, but they aren’t infallible.

And I really wish that someone at the time had told me it was okay to push back if I felt something wasn’t right. You know, I think that honing your own compass for what works and doesn’t work in writing and translation is just as important as the language itself. It’s also really important to find readers that you can trust, who can criticise your work in a way that is thoughtful and informed and aimed at helping you improve it.

Working with Jenthe on this book has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a translator. I’ve got to know her as a person and deeply understand her writing. I think building that kind of relationship with a writer as a translator is wonderful.

We are excited about our next project with Scribe, where I’ll be translating her debut novel People With No Charisma.

Listen to the interview here.

Harshaneeyam’s podcast focuses on translated literary fiction from around the world.

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