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‘A welcome opportunity to see the book I’m working on in a new light’

Kristen Gehrman recently spent two weeks at the Translators’ House in Antwerp to work on the English translation of The Melting (Het smelt) by Lize Spit. Here’s her report on how she got into a flow and translated more words than she thought possible, with enough time left to soak up the city’s atmosphere.

Away from distractions

At home, I’ve got my office set up just the way I like it. I’ve got a giant monitor, a desk that moves up and down, a printer I actually know how to operate, a chair shaped to my butt. It’s comfortable. But there’s also a vacuum I could run, laundry I could fold, neighbors’ packages to sign for, friends who drop by. My stay at the Translators’ House in Antwerp in January was a rare, welcome opportunity to get away from all my creature comforts and the constant interruptions, to enjoy being alone, reflect on my process and spend even more time with my current translation project (while also taking a step back from it every now and then).

Kristen Gehrman on the roof terrace of the Translators' House
On the roof terrace of the Translators' House © Kristen Gehrman

Perfect weather for getting things done

The translators’ apartment is in a beautiful, Parisian-style corner building in the upscale neighborhood around the Dageraadplaats, close to one of Antwerp’s railway stations. It’s cozy but not cushy, with a bed, a desk, a chair, a coffee pot, a hot shower, big windows, creaky wood floors, shelves bent under the weight of dictionaries, and an excellent radiator (better than the one I have at home).

Two newspapers are delivered every morning, recycling is well organized, and the concierge speaks with such a thick Antwerp accent that it takes a lot of effort to converse. And as much as I would have loved to have caught a few more rays on the roof-top terrace, it was cold and mostly dreary, perfect weather for getting things done. In the end, I translated more words than I thought possible, with the added benefit of being in a city where the language and cultural references aren’t just elements in my book.

Books and bars

In addition to translating, I did a lot of reading—in bars and cafés mostly. My mentor for my current project, David McKay, and I have been talking about the importance of reading books in the target language that are similar in style and genre to the one you’re translating. I’ve heard this before, and it always seemed logical to me, but the book I’m currently working on, ‘The Melting’ by Lize Spit—a suspenseful coming-of-age novel full of rich imagery and (sometimes off-the-wall) details—often feels like it’s in a category of its own. In a way it is, but that’s not to say that there aren’t other books with young narrators in small towns who are trying to piece together the puzzles of their lives with curious descriptions, sentimental musings and bizarre metaphors.

After I’d made my set word count for the day, I’d bundle up, head into the city, find a beautiful, quiet bar (Antwerp is full of them!) and lose myself in novels by English fiction masters with distinct narrative voices and dysfunctional family plots. And while none of them were exactly like my book, they all contained examples of odd-but-convincing sentences, awkward pubescent revelations, tension you can’t quite put your finger on, and suspense and self-deprecation done right.

Antwerp city impressions - Kristen Gehrman
© Kristen Gehrman

The gift of time

While translating, it’s so easy to get caught up in the sentence-by-sentence work. Having more time to read—and not just read, but really notice how images are constructed, how they fit in, how they make you feel—has given me more confidence in translating my current text. I guess that’s what my stay at the Translators’ House in Antwerp gave me the most: time to work, read, and step out of my routine so I could see the book I’m working on in a new light, as an entire work, as part of something bigger than my monitor at home. I am incredibly grateful to Flanders Literature for their support, hospitality and ongoing investment in translators—how truly lucky we are.

Feb 26th, 2020