Verfreundungseffekt: On Translating Gregor Hens’ Nicotine

Part-way through completing a translation of Gregor Hens’ Nicotine, our resident translation columnist Jen Calleja finds herself asking questions about authenticity and exactitude and whether or not translation is creation. (Illustration by Richard Phœnix)

I have just sent off the final draft of the book I’ve been translating for the last three months. It feels like a good time and a healthy idea to reflect upon and celebrate something so intense, all-consuming and satisfying as my second ever book-length translation. If I were a smoker, this is where I’d light up a cigarette.

In Nicotine, German author Gregor Hens has written both a highly-personal memoir where he considers his actions and relationships connected to his smoking habit and a long-form essay on the socio-cultural significance of smoking, tobacco, cigarettes, addiction and quitting. Encouraged by his mother to smoke his first cigarette at the age of five or six, Hens considers this a mind-opening moment – when he truly came into existence. Some of his most formative and traumatic experiences are linked directly and indirectly to smoking, and in quitting he both loses a part of his self and gains the distance to clearly consider his lifelong habit. Hens unpicks the concepts of willpower and compulsive behaviour, challenges smoking myths and medical certainties, while searching for the private story of his addiction, all in calm, subtle and unembellished prose. It is mind-bending, suffocating and darkly funny, and I’d actually read and loved it three years before Fitzcarraldo Editions asked me to translate it.

As well as being a novelist, Hens is also a translator himself. He’s translated, among others, Leonard Cohen, Marlon Brando and Jonathan Lethem into German. Most recently he’s become Will Self’s translator and will soon start work on translating Shark.

Self is writing the introduction to the book and is the first person other than myself to have read a first full draft of my translation. If my fifteen-year-old self knew this I think they’d be horrified. The sardonic, Snapey slenderman from Shooting Stars reading a piece of my unfinished written work is almost too much to bear.

I also got the fear a bit when I looked up Hens before starting the translation. He was a linguistics professor for twenty years in America. I bet he could do a pretty good translation of his own book if he tried. When Hens interviewed Will Self at a British Council event earlier in the year in Berlin, the latter told an anecdote about their exchanges while Hens was translating him: “My books have been translated into many languages and each time I’ve tried to help the translators, but Gregor’s queries were nothing to do with any of the obscure cultural references and linguistic turns…but were almost always corrections of my text”.

We met for coffee while he was over in London for a few days. I had almost finished the first draft. He’d only slept a few hours. He’d been on a night walk around a large part of London with Self and a couple of other writers, but he seemed far sprightlier than I do after a full night’s sleep. He spoke gently and slowly, he came across as serene and relaxed, which I think put me at ease for the rest of the translation process.

He had some encouraging words about translation, he would, after all, understand what I’d be going through and the pressure I’d be under, though in a more extreme way in his case: “I lost 10lbs translating [Self’s] Umbrella,” he told me, still smiling. He also put my worries to rest about reams of corrections: “I won’t meddle. I’ll let you do your thing”. Near the end of the coffee he repeated “I think it’s quite a straightforward book to translate”, something he’d said in an email before I began, which I kind of took up as a sort of dare to myself, perhaps an unfair yard stick to work against.

The first draft isn’t really a text. It’s something like a number of possible texts merged into one: a bit of a mess to anyone that’s not me. It presumes every noun, adjective and verb could end up being in a different form once the text’s all there and the tone’s been established. I try and translate quite literally, not straying from the text too much from the start, I either go for the most common word or I put two or three words that spring to mind in that moment separated by forward slashes. This text is the placeholder for the book, for every line and word of the book, but it’s not yet a book.

The second draft is where the text is double-checked, line-by-line. Decisions are made, and the multiples are removed. You could read it, but I don’t imagine you’d enjoy it. It’s like a cold-hearted robot has written it: it’s a dead text rather than having a life of its own.

It then goes through redraft after redraft where sentences are rearranged, merged together, split up. “It should be pretty straightforward” would resurrect itself from time to time to haunt and to mock me whenever I untied long sentences into component parts then got stuck knotting, untying and reknotting them.

I spent long days working on it, preferring to keep going if I felt I could. Other days I just couldn’t let it go, and would work for twelve hours on it or more.

I read and re-read sections, like pressing play-rewind-play on a tape player to make out what’s being said and to hear the real voice again. It’s like in Inception when Leonardo Di Caprio goes up and down in the lift to relive the same scenarios in the same spaces that are slightly different each time. When Hens is crying in his tracksuit in a bar smoking his first cigarette in eight years. Hens chain-smoking in a hotel room in New York. Hens’ former chain-smoking fire expert father screaming at Hens’ brother for being caught smoking on the roof of the boarding school. Hens dissecting a cigarette on a piece of white paper in his apartment. Hens tensely gripped in his armchair in a hypnotherapist’s study.

I had around twenty-five questions for Gregor after the first draft (the mess draft), things ranging from whether he went to a ‘boarding school’ or a ‘reformatory’, to if a term was supposed to have right-wing connotations, to if I’d understood correctly that politicians were knitting in parliament in one part of a book. There’s almost always a power hierarchy between the author and the translator, even when there’s an attempt to stand on equal ground in what could be seen as a collaborative enterprise. It felt like I was doing my dissertation again, awaiting feedback, being deflated by tiny mistakes and euphoric from the most casual words of praise.

A strange moment was Googling ‘Gregor Hens Jen Calleja Nicotine’ out of curiosity and seeing the book’s mocked-up cover appear for the first time in a line of small, blurred, pixelated images and seeing a string of links to Amazon, Rough Trade, Waterstones for a book that didn’t yet exist. That I was at that moment bringing into existence. It was like it was watching me.

In between the first and second draft, and between the second and third, and the fourth and the fifth I went away on a couple of short tours, only ten days in all. It was a welcome break from the translation, but replacing a desk chair with a seat in a van and prolonged days of intense concentration and introversion with performing and having to be social wasn’t what I’d call a holiday. I tried to leave the book behind, but of course you can’t. Immediately before going away I worked on it, the moment I got back I worked on it.

I knew I was putting pressure on myself, but working on your own so intensely can do that. A couple of conversations I had with people in the other bands we were playing with while we were away – one with GF in Sheffield and one with MJD in Glasgow – resurrected me from the obsessive cycle of thoughts and reminded me of why translation is so important, why it’s important to me – and why you have to fall into the void of madness simply due to its very nature.

I had got pretty frazzled. I started to doubt whether I could even speak English. But eventually the book changed from a stream of contained lines that I almost feared disturbing to becoming a broken-in narrative spoken by one consistent voice.

It’s read over and over. Am I convinced by this sentence? Is this an English sentence? Do I believe this is a book? Because I am writing a book, with opening lines, tension, humour, but always referring to a book that already exists. Sleeping on it works like a dream; you’re suddenly able to see the text again, things jump out at you. Richard, who draws the portraits for my column, had just read On Immunity by Eula Biss, also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, so he gave it a read to see if it was feeling right too.

When translating you have to do constant research, look up cultural references, people, specific objects you’ve never come across before, turns of phrase. I’d look up the different cigarette brands and see a multitude of sophisticated, attractive-looking packs come up on Google images. But the one thing that the internet couldn’t really tell me was how to speak like a smoker. I’m translating a book about smoking addiction but I’ve never been a smoker. There’s part of the book where Gregor talks about knowing immediately when an actor isn’t a smoker in real life. “You can’t fool me”.

I sent a questionnaire to ten of my good friends who smoke, five got back to me immediately.

What’s the difference between a manufactured cigarette and a roll up?

PF: Craftsmanship in itself is also a substantial difference, as the ‘art of rolling’ is a substantial part of the experience and what a lot of ex-smokers miss the most within their routine, meaning I have had many ex-smokers requesting to roll cigarettes for me that they will not smoke etc.

What sensation do you feel in your mouth/nose/lungs when you smoke?

JL: You breathe in or suck and then inhale and the taste is at the back of the mouth, it’s like a harsh whiskey and a little dirty. Imagine being in a steam room but the air is grey. Then there’s a gravelly burn on the back of the throat which you take to mean you should stop breathing and close the throat. You hold it in and feel it whispy and tickling in your chest. light gets a little brighter, the head becomes a little lighter and you become calmer. If it’s the first of the day or after a big meal, you become a little giddy. Then you let the smoke out, maybe through your nose and it’s the same experience in reverse.

What’s your favourite bit of smoking slang?

SB: Two’s.

HP: Two’s

In a later part of the book, having talked about how smoking helped his writing process, Hens proclaims: “I no longer smoke and I can only hope that it doesn’t affect the book. Actually, I no longer smoke and I can only hope that you can see it in every line of the book.” Will you be able to tell that I’m not smoker? Will you be able to tell that Gregor no longer smokes via my text?

Can I translate a book about smoking having never been a smoker? Well, firstly, I have, which I suppose voids the question. But I would say I can for the same reasons that a non-smoker can and should read the book. I may not be or have ever been a smoker, but smoking has featured heavily in my life, like a lot of non-smokers; parents, boyfriends, friends.

I consider the book as being about compulsive behaviour, growing up, the fallibility of and your alienation from your parents. But, as Hens told me in the café, it’s intended to be a positive book. It’s supposed to bring hope, to bring about a revelation, to help you lift a cloud and consider your day-to-day actions, and it certainly achieves that. It did for me. Over and over again.

Nicotine is published November 2015 by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Jen Calleja is a writer, literary translator and musician based in London. Her short fiction, poetry, articles and reviews have been published by the TLS, Structo, Asymptote and Modern Poetry in Translation, and she has translated prose and poetry from German for Fitzcarraldo Editions, Bloomsbury, PEN International and the Goethe-Institut. She edits the Anglo-German arts journal Verfreundungseffekt. She plays in the bands Sauna Youth, Feature and Monotony

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