When a literary work of great importance and popularity is translated from one language to another, we rarely hear anything of the translator.

"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," for instance, was written by the Chinese writer Dai Sijie in French, then translated into English by Ina Rilke. The process took her four months. Rilke is a literary translator with eight works of translation from Dutch to English and one from French to English to her credit.

Born in Mozambique, Rilke grew up in Portugal, where she attended a traditional English school — Oporto British School — complete with uniform and a traditional English curriculum. In 1962, she moved to Holland, where she took a four-year degree in translation studies at the University of Amsterdam.

Rilke considers herself most fluent in English, but her original languages were Dutch and Portuguese. She also knows Latin, French and Spanish.

"I love translating. I have never wanted to do anything else," Rilke said during a telephone interview from her home in Paris. "I enjoyed teaching at the University of Amsterdam in translation, but I am very glad now to be devoting all my time to translating literature."

Rilke lives in Amsterdam and Paris with her husband, Hugo Brandt Corstius, a professor of Dutch languages at the Sorbonne.

To be a good translator, Rilke said, a person "must be an avid reader" and "be sensitive to what the author has to say and how he says it, have a good mastery of style in the target language and be prepared to work long hours in isolation." Rilke believes translators are "applied artists, not creative ones."

Translators differ greatly in their approaches. Rilke believes a translator should "re-create the book in a new language" but must also "accept the role of servitude to the text." Rilke noted that one does not have to be a scholar to translate well, and in fact, most translators are self-taught.

Whenever she translates any book to English, Rilke talks with the author to learn as much about the purpose and style of the book as possible. But she never attempts a word-for-word translation.

"Being true to the sense of the original is a matter of instinct," she explained. "I just have the feeling I am saying what the author would have said if he or she were writing in English. Whether I have got it right is impossible to prove. It's a matter of taste. The Dutch and Flemish authors I have translated have all read my translations prior to publication, but Dai Sijie did not read my translation."

Sijie does not read or speak English.

Rilke found the book "a delight to translate," and she is "thrilled that it is doing so well. Dai Sijie, a most charming man, deserves it fully."

Sijie, who has lived in France for 15 years, speaks with imperfect French, Rilke said. As a result, the French in his book is "somewhat unpolished and idiosyncratic. But the imagery is very vivid and cinematic and the tone light and quirky. I met his French editor to ask about certain rough edges and learned that they had done little editing to the novel, which explained some inconsistencies in the story."

Rilke decided to retain as much of the cinematic effect as she could.

She said the main difference in translating French to English and Dutch to English is that "the English-speaking readership is far more aware of France and all things French than they are of the Netherlands. So there's more explaining to do within the translation."

According to Rilke, a major challenge is that "often you can't translate humor and have it mean the same thing it meant in the original. What you can do is what we translators call compensation. You make up for lost humor by putting something similar in elsewhere, where the context is more suitable.

"This is the most charming book I've read in a long time, precisely because it is so poignant, unsentimental, humorous, yet also so convincing. It was my first full-length translation from French into English."

But she does not limit her work to books she loves. "My

ambition is to be competent in a wide range of authorial voices. Translators must practice self-effacement. It hones their skills in impersonation. However, I would never do a book that I really dislike."

Her favorite writers are V. S. Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee and Philip Roth.

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"Hardly anything in a text translates exactly from one language to another. What you do is listen to what the author is telling you, shut your eyes and become the author in another language. Ventriloquism is what is needed."

Rilke won the Vondel Translation Award for the Dutch to English translation of Margriet de Moor's "The Virtuoso" in 1999. The Vondel award was named for the famed 17th century Dutch poet and playwright Joost van den Vondel, who also engaged in translation. The prize, administered by the Translators Association in London, is awarded every two years.

She admits that the most serious drawback to her profession is that it is hard to make a living. "Literary translation is poorly paid. Rates for the translation of academic, scientific or commercial texts are far better, even though literary translation is much more difficult and time-consuming. The better you do your job, the less you will be noticed."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com