For this week’s Behind the Book we sat down with Will Stone, writer, poet and translator of many Pushkin books, including Messages from a Lost World, our upcoming collection of Stefan Zweig’s moving essays and speeches in defence of European unity at the time of the Second World War. Read on to find out about Will’s adoration of singer-songwriter Nick Drake, his translating routine and why he’s been somewhat scarred by a traumatic episode in a Czech lift.
Do you have a particular translating routine?
Translating is like sculpting a clay bust from a living subject (the original). I have a mound of clay before me and the first draft is shaping this into a recognisable figure, I then leave it awhile, go back and start to add the key features, attempting to secure the identity and safeguard the likeness of the sitter. Finally the third stage comes where the fine details can be added. I then present the bust to a trusted friend who tells me this is not quite right, or maybe add a little here, remove something there. I then make final checks and when i sense nothing more can be done, and my exhaustion indicates a labour of love has perhaps been enacted, I deliver my exhibit to the gallery (the publisher) and wait for the new language visitors to respond and of course the black fin of the critic to suddenly cut through the water…
What is your favourite word and why?
Carillon – I like its sound, it suits the bells it names and their restful tinkling that floats on the air ‘like ash’ as the poet Georges Rodenbach would have it.
Where are you at your happiest?
In Hawker’s Hut Morwenstowe at sundown, or in the Cafe du Parc Ostend drinking a filter coffee in the old fashioned way.
Which person (living or dead) would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?
Nick Drake (though the likelihood of this actually taking place is not great since i rarely use lifts due to fear of being trapped in them, as occurred once in a dilapidated Czech tower block outside Prague and somehow I sense ND would have always taken the stairs…
What does being a translator mean to you?
I see the translator at his/her best as a heroic figure, who locates a work that has been overlooked or ignored and makes it available to the reader, who without the translator’s gift would remain completely ignorant of its existence. This is often a difficult task, persuading publishers reluctant to take a risk and being patient, waiting for the fateful moment, when the work, following laborious kindling efforts, finally sparks and the beacon is lit.
The song note of translators as they strain to be recognised as creative partners of the author is well known. But in my case and i can only speak for myself, every book i have translated and published I have produced because I felt it was a worthy act of cultural import, that a modest space was in the end reserved for it in the vast catacombs of translated literature.
I made these translations because I wanted to commit to a deeper reading of the work and to share it with others of my kind, also I felt a special kinship with the author, a need to secure an anchorage in their spiritual orbit, or just to find some way of travelling alongside them a little longer, prolonging the journey as it were. With Zweig, it was also because when i first came to him some fifteen years ago he was seriously neglected here, especially in terms of non fiction works.
The Montaigne book did not exist in English, had never existed. Now of all places it apparently sits in an airport departure lounge bookstall in Pittsburgh (just spotted by my transatlantic neighbour) I felt a responsibility to Zweig to reinstate him in this country, because he had found sanctuary here, had espoused an admiration for this island. I felt it was only right hat his work should be resurrected here. Others felt the same it seemed, the zeitgeist did the rest.
Which book do you find yourself reading over and over again?
I don’t tend to read books over and over again as I don’t have time, and there is so much to read, but a book I have re-read and would read again is the indefinable novel The Other Side by the Austrian artist Alfred Kubin, which is concerned with a mysterious dream kingdom and its apocalyptic demise and was said to have influenced Kafka. Like Kubin’s fantastic drawings, the book has an unsettling effect on the morbidly attuned imagination and everywhere one sees persuasive portents for our own gotterdammerung.