I first heard of Max Porter when I was asked if I wanted to translate his book, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, into Romanian. Right from the title, I knew I’d love to. And I did. It wasn’t like anything I had translated or read before: an intelligent mix of prose and poetry, full of intertextuality, rhythms and rhymes, onomatopoeia and alliterations, and even invented words. On top of that, a beautiful story, sad and funny at the same time, and an unmistakable and unforgettable voice, Crow’s. Before, during and after the translation process, I was delighted, honoured, scared, challenged, determined, exasperated, nervous, and eventually happy and proud. This being the translator’s view, I’d like to know the author’s.
Hi, Max! Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for your Romanian readers. The book has recently been published in Romanian and it has already received some positive reviews. Can you say a few words about how you got the idea to write it in the first place and what it was like for you to work on it?
Hi, Mihaela. Thanks for all your kind words, and the work you did on the translation. I was thrilled to hold a Romanian paper Crow in my hands the other day.
I got the idea to write it from years of thinking about the death of my father, and my close relationship with my brother (how to write that sibling relationship, maybe as two voices, maybe as one? Maybe with no 1st or 3rd person? With chronology and proper nouns suspended, maybe with fable?). I also adore crows and wanted to write a crow-like book that hopped and danced and was the real bird as well as the mythological trickster, as well as the celebrity of English poetry: Hughes’ Crow. I wanted to say some things about poetic influence, and problematic texts, and I also wanted to shove a rocket underneath the bottom of the English novel.
I feel like I am a writer
Your debut novel was very well received in the UK, nominated for various awards and widely recognized. I hear it will also be turned into a movie soon. Did you expect it to be so successful? Has it changed your life in any way?
No, I did not. I thought it would be a small strange book that a handful of people might admire. It’s totally changed my life. I feel like I am a writer, with things to say, with an audience who might read those things. I feel blessed. I want to write.
It’s been fascinating. Translators have to work hard, and have to invent creative solutions to the problems of the text, especially Crow’s voice. This is less a conventional task of translation that an act of transposition, or re-imagining. People have been wonderful. I have a punky political Catalan crow, a sarcastic, but passionate French crow, a very charming Dutch crow. I can intuit the shifts and changes in the text from the questions a translator asks, but ultimately, I don’t speak these languages so I have to trust. I have to let the book fly off, away from me. That’s a thrill and an honour.
Sometimes you just have to let go, pick your battles
As a translator, but also as a reader, I’ve always wondered what it was like for an author to send their book into the world and trust that someone they’ve never even met would do a good job translating it faithfully and beautifully into another language. Were you nervous at the thought that the translated versions would not do justice to your book?
There are so many things to be frightened of in this horrible world, and so many things to be awestruck by in this beautiful world, so sometimes you just have to let go, pick your battles. It was wonderful to put aside any nervousness and just be pleased at the idea of 28 interpretations, 28 gestures towards the original, 28 birds each with different characteristics.
And, speaking of this, what reactions did you get from all over the world where Grief has been translated so far? Do you have a favourite one?
I really loved how much Dutch readers liked it. I got some wonderful responses there.
You’re an editor for Granta Books, so you read and work on books every day as part of your job. The obvious question: are you working on another book of your own right now?
I am! Only recently. A sad and strange book about Englishness, trust, tragedy and childhood.
Thank you so much for writing a fantastic book and for helping with my queries during the translation process, and also for doing this short interview. Looking forward to hearing from/about you again!
My absolute pleasure. Thank you.