This week I translated a sex scene for the first time. It's a short scene and I went through it, in first draft form, just as I would any other scene. When I read back what I'd translated, I started to get nervous. The English version was awful – I mean much worse than first draft awful. I read through the Dutch version again, without thinking about my own language. Straight away, I knew a little more.
I let myself accept that What? was going to come before Why? Literally picturing the scene. The left leg goes here and the right arm goes there…
I read the Dutch version again. I understood more, again. By the time I'd read each version about five times, with re-jigs to the English version in between, I smiled. Next time, reading the English version, I laughed. In a place I am supposed to laugh.
I realised that, to begin with, I had needed to be able to picture all those basic moves clearly, in order to get past them to the emotional content. And even after that I needed to work in a layered process. While I was still preoccupied with movement I couldn't yet see the scene, which has a lot of humour to it, so it functions on a number of levels.
How does translating a sex scene differ from writing one, then? Massively, I've decided. I really don't think about the legs and arms if I'm writing one. I might read through afterwards and decide that an arm really couldn't get into that position unless the character is double jointed, but even that is unlikely. The emotion comes first. It dictates. Whereas, as a translator, it's a bit like being on an archaeological dig, looking for the buried treasure.
Towards the end of the novel, there's a rape scene. I'm curious about how translating that is going to work.