Translation from Life: A Flemish Cultural Award for Ina Rilke

On Amazon the translation of Arthur Japin's first novel The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi (De zwarte met het witte hart) is reviewed as being ‘ably translated by Ina Rilke’. That’s a bit of an understatement, because it’s an excellent translation. And it’s way misleading, because as a translator Ina Rilke rises above mere ‘ability’.Rilke was born in Mozambique in 1943 and brought up in Portugal, where she received an English education at the Oporto British School. She moved to the Netherlands in the early 1960s, where she took a degree in translation studies. As a translator she has specialised in archaeology, architecture and history of art. In recent years she has concentrated on literary translation, for which she was awarded the biennial Vondel Translation Prize in 1999.As we mentioned here last week, Rilke’s translation of W.F. Hermans’ The Darkroom of Damocles (De donkere kamer van Damocles) is presently on the Best Translated Book of the Year Fiction Shortlist in the US. Close, but still no cigar (she has to wait for that until February 19th, when the winner will be announced). But to tide her over, Rilke already got another ‘cigar’. Last night in Hasselt she received one of the Flemish Culture Awards (Vlaamse Cultuurprijzen) for her translations. As this is a Flemish Award, special attention was of course being paid to Rilke’s translations of Flemish authors, and more specifically to her translations of three novels by Erwin Mortier. The most recent of these translations is Shutterspeed (Sluitertijd), Erwin Mortier’s deceptively simple tale of an adolescent boy growing up in a Flemish village with his aunt and uncle, which was included on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist last year.Rilke has an impressive track record, with names of ‘big’ Dutch authors Hella S. Haassse, Cees Nooteboom and Adriaan van Dis among the blessed translated ones. Blessed, because as indicated above, Rilke surpasses the mere ability of a translator. According to the jury of the Flemish Culture Award for Translation, Rilke writes actual new texts in the target language. An ace at finding seemingly effortless solutions to transcend cultural differences between source and target, she immerses herself completely into a book and its author, and that’s how she succeeded in capturing the spirit of Mortier, deeply steeped in Flemish culture and everyday life. To boot she invests time in the training of new translators at the Expertisecentrum Literair Vertalen, and is a damn fine literary ambassador when it comes to promoting Dutch and Flemish books abroad.So when Alan Radcliffe writes about Shuttertime’s ‘elegant prose’ that brings ‘the world of the novel to vivid life’, we should keep in mind that this is a joint effort of both author and translator. Here’s a sample of that:‘I fancied I heard wheelchairs rolling squeakily down a hallway long ago, in some castle or other full of nymphs in winged head-dresses and wards with row upon row of dazzling white beds in which the sick lay wrapped in sheets like caterpillars in silken cocoons.’ No wonder then that one reviewer wrote about this: ‘Mortier’s prose – in Ina Rilke’s shimmering translation – has an icy clarity that is gentle and quietly moving.’ This a work of love, where anything that gets lost in translation, is gained in the end result. Boris Pasternak once said rather condescendingly that translation is very much like copying paintings. Same lines, same colours, same brushstrokes. But that’s not the case with Rilke: as a translator she does not merely copy a work of art. Rather she paints from life, as an artist in her own right.