Freshly published this month comes the latest in the series of interconnecting Second World War novels from Otto de Kat. The Longest Night is the powerful and deeply moving story of a dying woman looking back at her life and the trauma she suffered in wartime Berlin. Exclusively for the lucky readers of the MacLehose blog, Otto de Kat talks to his translator Laura Watkinson about his experience of writing, her experience of translating and the secrets of alchemy and pseudonyms …
Laura Watkinson: Some authors apparently despair when they hear the question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I can see that it must be a tricky one to answer. How does someone pinpoint where the notion for a book began? Still, I’m interested to hear a little about what motivated you to create this beautiful series of books. Did you start by focusing on the period of the Second World War and develop your plot and characters around the historical events? If it’s not too personal, did your own family history influence the plot at all? You were born in 1946, so I can imagine that the stories you heard as a child informed your writing of this series.
Otto de Kat: My novels are built on the tensions between the stories I have heard about the war, and the stories and experiences of and in my own family. All five novels are in fact a mixture of very personal insights in the world of my own family events, and the historical events in the world outside that family. I have made the big events smaller and the small events bigger.
LW: The same characters feature in your books, The Figure in the Distance, Man on the Move, Julia, News from Berlin and this most recent title, The Longest Night. Sometimes a character has a bit part, while in another of the books they have the starring role. Did you always intend to write a series of interconnected books? Or did you find certain characters so intriguing that you later had to write them a book of their own because you wanted to find out more about them?
OdeK: No, I didn’t start writing with a concept of a series. My first novel was completely influenced by two major tragedies: the death of my father and the death of my best friend, twenty five years old, married to the woman who later became my wife. So a very ‘personal’ start. And my latest novel is deeply influenced by the death of my mother, so again a very personal starting point.
And the books in between: Man on the Move, Julia and News from Berlin, these three novels are the result of my fascination for the stories of WWII, a war that had such a big impact on almost every family in Europe. Man on the Move is based on the life of my father’s brother, my uncle Rob, whom I never met, as he died in 1952, suffering from the radiation of the atomic bomb, having been a prisoner in Nagasaki in 1945. His story led me into the warzones of the world, and later, in Julia and News from Berlin, that war was again omnipresent. And you can hear a loud echo of the war in my latest: The Longest Night.
LW: Your plot is based in part on true events. Do you feel that authors of fiction have a responsibility to be historically accurate in such cases? Can we take historical fact and reshape it as fiction? The answer is surely yes, but is that a more complicated process when you’re dealing with relatively recent and tragic events?
OdeK: Indeed, I use historical facts and events. Of course you can write a novel based on these facts, but a writer is bound to use them very carefully. If you give certain details, dates and atmosphere, you have to be sure they are accurate. If you write: the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 1938, you are wrong: it’s the Frankfurter Zeitung. The word ‘Allgemeine’ was added after the war, as my German translator corrected me. If those kinds of details are false, it has an effect on the trust a reader must have in the writer when he speaks about history. By the way: as a writer of fiction situated in the past, you have to read and do a lot of research, but while writing you have to forget most of it. Otherwise you become an historian, and not a literary writer, whose aim it is to let his characters live.
LW: When writing The Longest Night, did you consider that the euthanasia aspect might appear controversial to certain audiences? Or was it simply a natural part of your plot, informed by the generally relaxed and pragmatic attitudes in the Netherlands to old age and passing away?
OdeK: In The Longest Night it is my mother who is in her last days and nights and moments. She stopped eating and drinking, and then a team of doctors team helped her: we call it a ‘palliative sedative’ treatment, which of course is a form of euthanasia, and completely along the lines of the law. In my novel, Emma, the main character, is so glad she can go, and half of the character is my mother, half of her is a totally different person. The Thomas in the book is me, a part of me of course, and it was Thomas who held her hand in the last moments, it was Thomas who comforted her till the end. For me a natural thing to write: I have not had a single moment during my writing that I hesitated, never thought of other people in other countries who could be offended or terrified by this palliative sedative treatment.
A practitioner called me the other day to tell me how moved he was by the scenes of Emma’s dying: he had seen it so many times, and the writing, he said, was very close to what he had experienced in his professional life. And that moved me!
LW: You’re a poet too, and your prose writing contains poetic elements, including poems by other writers in The Longest Night. Your characters are also vivid and strong, and your plotting is taut and emotionally involving. When you’re writing and when you’re reading, do you feel more excited about poetry or plot? Or is that a false division?
OdeK: For me, poetry is the beginning and ending of my writing. A poem a day keeps the doctor away. My style has poetic elements, I am aware of that. I seek brevity, I seek silence between words, I like suggestion more than long sentences. Show, don’t tell.
But of course the poetry could be an opponent to the plot. Too poetic is not good for a plot. And a good plot is a joy for ever.
So I try to get them both in balance…
LW: Here’s another rather personal question. Your name, Otto de Kat, is a pseudonym. There was, of course, another Otto de Kat, a Dutch painter, who was born in 1907 and died in 1995. I’ve been dying to ask you. Is there a connection? And why the pseudonym?
OdeK: My grandmother, my father’s mother, was called De Kat van Barendrecht and Otto was a family name. So that’s why I took this pseudonym. The painter was a distant cousin. But the reason for choosing a pseudonym was because I have been a literary critic, and also a publisher. I didn’t want to be judged on the basis of those two professions (even the publisher to whom I sent my first manuscript didn’t know who I was). They wrote me the finest letter I have ever received in my life, saying they would gladly publish my manuscript, but they asked me who I was, they had never heard of Otto de Kat. There was apparently a long silence in the office when they realised it was a fellow publisher! And also, this name gives me a sort of safe feeling – it’s a shelter.
LW: Are you writing something new? What’s next for Otto de Kat?
OdeK: At the moment I’m finishing a new novel, probably called Freetown. It’s totally different from the other novels, WWII is never mentioned, it’s set in the present, and it’s based on a lost boy from Sierra Leone.
And now, Laura, I have some questions for you. Firstly, the basic question that will haunt every writer: how on earth is it possible to translate a language that consists of totally different words, grammar, tone, rhythm? It must be pure alchemy, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke states: ‘A translator is a sort of an alchemist, he makes gold out of “strange” elements’. But that’s a statement, not an answer. How did you come that close to my novel, Laura? How is it possible that I feel so ‘at home’ in your translation? You have done such an incredibly fine job!
LW: That’s wonderful to hear, Otto. Thank you so much. Ah, but we translators are reluctant to reveal our alchemical secrets! Seriously, though, the aim has to be for the translation to have a similar impact on the reader as the original text would have had on its readers. Of course, there’s so much subjectivity involved, with both the translator’s interpretation and the reader’s reaction to the book, so the best you can do as a translator is to have a strong sense of the text and to attempt to replicate that in another language. You want to get beyond the words and to feel what’s happening within the text before you start trying to present your own version in words.
Of course, it helps a great deal when you start with a text that’s already gold, although that can be daunting. As a translator, you have a responsibility to both the author and the reader. You don’t want to tarnish that gold. I can only hope I’ve done your book justice.
In the case of The Longest Night, this was a book that I very much wanted to translate. Even as I first read it, I felt an affinity for the text and could already hear an English echo of your words. That’s when I know it’s a book I’d like to be part of.
OdeK: Are there moments that you would like to throw away the book that you are translating?
LW: Hmm… would I confess this to you in writing? But honestly, no, I’ve never had that experience. I can see why it might happen but I’m quite careful when accepting translation projects, so – touch wood! – I haven’t yet felt the need to throw a book away. That’s also because I love the process of literary translation. Reading, thinking, drinking tea – it’s my dream job.
The only time I ever felt the desire to throw away a book was when I was studying for a master’s in linguistics and we had to read a text on philosophical logic, which I really couldn’t wrap my head around. I wanted to tear the book up and throw it out of the window. Grr. So I guess I won’t choose to translate any books on that subject!
OdeK: Does a translator have to love the book he is translating? Does that help, or is it possible that love is blind and that he/she therefore is not aware of possible faults in the text?
LW: You don’t have to love the book, but I think you do have to like it at least, and love is always good. You spend several months in the company of that text, so a positive relationship is needed. As for any faults, translators are largely in the fortunate position of being able to focus on transforming the text, rather than spotting and correcting any flaws. I don’t envy editors – or authors, for that matter!
OdeK: How free can you be in your interpretation? I could imagine that a translator would like to alter, or to correct a text. A translator is the best reader a writer can have!
LW: I think we’re certainly the closest, most attentive readers a writer can have. That does mean that occasionally you’ll pick up on factual errors, like your Frankfurter Allgemeine example above. In that case, I’d make the change and let the publisher and/or author know, so that other editions can be corrected. That’s a pretty clear-cut case. Occasionally the meaning might be unclear and then I’d generally contact the author (if that’s an option) to ask for clarification. When it comes to stylistic choices, for example, though, that’s the author’s decision and I wouldn’t interfere. It is, of course, the author’s book. That said, it’s also the translator’s book, to a degree, as ten translators of the same text will produce ten different versions, some freer than others, so it’s clear that we can’t avoid inserting our own voices.
It can be interesting to see how editors deal with translated texts as well, as they’re one step further from the original. An editor can make changes that a translator might hesitate to make or might not even consider, but as long as the author agrees, that’s fine. I remember on one occasion an editor slightly changed the ending of a book I translated, after having consulted the author. The author was happy with the change, as she felt secure in the editor’s knowledge of the target market.
I’ve realised that my answers have perhaps been a little vague in parts. But my final response? ‘Hmm, it depends.’
Thanks, Otto, and thanks also to MacLehose Press, for giving us an opportunity to ask these questions. Translating The Longest Night has been a wonderful experience.
OdeK: Thanks, Laura, it’s a privilege to have fallen into such good hands!