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Translation in the time of Covid

Translators Laura Vroomen and Lorraine T. Miller stayed two weeks at the Translators' House in Antwerp in July. They interviewed each other about their shared stay.

Masked translators Laura Vroomen and Lorraine T. Miller
Masked translators Laura Vroomen and Lorraine T. Miller

Laura Vroomen: We'd originally planned to spend two weeks in Antwerp in early May. The coronavirus lockdown put a stop to that. But luckily the Translators' House was able to open its doors again in July, and so on Friday 17 July we arrived in Zurenborg to form a 'bubble' and put the finishing touches to our translation of part three of Walter Lucius' Heartland trilogy, 'De stad en het vuur'.

What were your expectations about spending time at the 'Oostkasteel'?

Lorraine T. Miller: I really didn’t expect our visit to happen. But then we heard there was still space in July, August and September and we could take an option and wait and see. As Penguin kindly extended our deadline and the borders between the Netherlands and Belgium slowly started to open up in the late spring, suddenly it became a possibility. I’d once done a week-long Literary Translation workshop in Antwerp and I was excited about going back to a place I had such fond memories of. Probably back to a much less lively city given certain restrictions were still in place, so in that regard I didn’t know what to expect.

Translating is such a solitary endeavour. Now we’d be face-to-face for two whole weeks, what did you expect?

Laura: I must admit I was fixated on the idea of chilling on the roof terrace at the end of the day, with a refreshing drink in hand. As for sharing the space, having been even more solitary than usual during lockdown, I actually welcomed being in a bubble with someone – even someone who might be too bubbly! And as much of the whole world has now learned, Skype and Zoom meetings can be tricky, so I relished the prospect of sitting around a table and talking in person (while sipping coffee and enjoying Belgian treats).

I’d been umming and ahhing about travelling to Belgium, but in the end I gathered together my growing collection of face masks and boarded a Eurostar. It was less nerve-wracking than I’d feared. Perhaps my plan to keep a photo diary made it more of an adventure.

The roof terrace of the Translators' House at sunset
The roof terrace of the Translators' House at sunset

How nervous were you about Covid-19?

Lorraine: I was concerned that the UK might shut down their borders the moment you were ready to depart and it didn’t make sense to me if you couldn’t come to go without you. I was in a much less stressful position in terms of travelling because Amsterdam isn’t all that far away. And my very cooperative husband was also happy to drive me to Antwerp. So for us it was a welcome road trip after months of being confined to our apartment.

Needless to say, once we arrived Antwerp went into a stricter lockdown with masks required in shops, restaurants, markets, museums. No matter: I had a lot of work to do and needed to put my nose to the grindstone. Not sure how I even managed the exceedingly long days. Perhaps it was the solitude, being away from everyday life. Of course fuelled by coffee, bubble baths, afternoon drinks on the roof terrace together, shared vegetarian dinners and daily short cat naps/moments of meditation.

Funnily enough, one thing we never discussed (not even over cocktails) is how we each felt about finishing up this trilogy and the ending of our partnership after so many years (we started in 2013 with a long sample, followed in 2015 by the first book).

You’ve translated more books with other translators so you probably have more general thoughts on this kind of collaboration than I do?  As well as our project specifically?

Laura: I’ve co-translated a few nonfiction books with colleagues, which were one-off projects and therefore a very different experience. With this trilogy we’ve had a degree of job security that’s quite rare for freelancers and I’m sorry to see that go. But even more than that, I’ll miss having a sounding board. It’s been great to be able to share decisions, and a project shared is a project improved – that’s to say, I feel that our collaboration has left me much improved!

Lorraine: I agree. Our collaboration improved the book tremendously and having you as a sounding board has also made me a much better translator. I always find completing a project difficult. Not only because you can keep reworking a translation seeking ‘perfection’, which doesn’t really exist, but also because I get attached to the characters: they become like members of my family. So being together for this farewell phase made it much easier. And also thanks for dragging me away from my desk now and then!

Antwerp in black and white: the Stephan Vanfleteren exhibition and a view of the MAS museum
Antwerp in black and white: the Stephan Vanfleteren exhibition and a view of the MAS museum

What were some of your favourite Antwerp moments?

Laura: I loved that we stumbled across a Sicilian street food restaurant called Arrikiiati that turned out to be a gem (in the Schipperskwartier, not far from the MAS). The Stephan Vanfleteren exhibition was truly inspirational, especially for an aspiring photographer like me. With theatre and music off the agenda, I spent more time outdoors than I might otherwise have done, swapping performances for walks around the neighbourhood, the beautiful cemetery at Schoonselhof and Middelheim, the open-air sculpture museum. And did I mention the roof terrace?

Lorraine: So when all is said and done it was about being immersed in words, the wonder of nature and art, food and drink, which luckily even a pandemic couldn’t put a damper on. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our last Antwerp supper outside on a medieval square at a bistro owned by Belgian author Margot Vanderstraeten and her husband (recommended by a colleague who visited the Translators' House earlier on). It was the perfect setting to say goodbye to our time together at the Translators' House and the city.

Nov 18th, 2020