Award-winning literary translator Susan Massotty has been an active member of SENSE ever since its founding in 1990. Susan is not only known for her 1995 translation of the Definitive Edition of Anne Frank’s ‘Diary of a Young Girl’, but also for her translation of works by Dutch authors as Kader Abdolah, Cees Nooteboom, Abdelkader Benali and Margriet de Moor. Susan won the Vondel Prize in 2007 for her translation of Abdolah’s novel ‘My Father’s Notebook’. In the following interview, she generously shares stories with us about her beginnings, her connection to Anne Frank, and her exceptional career as a literary translator.
You are originally from California’s San Francisco Bay Area, but you’ve lived in the Netherlands for many years. Can you tell us what brought you to the country and why you decided to stay? How easy or difficult was it to absorb the local culture and learn Dutch?
Love brought me to the Netherlands via a roundabout route: I met my future husband on an Israeli kibbutz. We then moved to the US, but after two years decided to give my husband’s country a try. We arrived in the Netherlands in the sweltering summer of 1976 and have lived here ever since. I took to Dutch culture instantly and threw myself into learning the language. I thank my lucky stars that there are a lot of similarities between Dutch and English, so that the learning curve wasn’t as steep as it might have been.
Were you always interested in literature and translations? How did you first ‘meet’ Anne Frank?
I started reading at the age of four and am still a book junkie. It never occurred to me when I was growing up that I would one day be a translator – and certainly not when I first read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager. Although I arrived in the Netherlands with little work experience, I landed an editing job at the Delft University of Technology, which eventually evolved into technical translation. I wanted to translate literature but didn’t know how to go about it. A literary agent I knew fortunately steered me in the right direction and helped me get my first literary assignment. Since she was also the agent for the Anne Frank-Fonds in Basel, she suggested a few years later that I submit a sample translation of the diary to the US publisher, who was planning a new edition. I was speechless when they actually approved my sample and asked me to translate the rest of the diary.
Your translation was published in 1995. Can you tell us why a new translation was thought necessary at that time?
Owing to a shortage of paper in post-war Europe, the first 1947 Dutch edition of the diary was necessarily short. Translations into other languages, like the 1953 translation into English, were of the same length. But by 1995 the diary had become a modern classic, paper was in abundance, and publishers felt it was time to offer readers more material (and coincidentally safeguard their copyrights). In the interim the language had also become a bit dated, so the US publisher was keen to have it freshened up and to have the diary translated, for the first time, into American English. Later I worked together with Penguin Group to anglicize my translation for UK readers.
I understand that you knew the late Barbara Mooyaart-Doubleday, who first translated the diary into English and was also a member of SENSE. Can you tell us about this encounter?
I didn’t want to be influenced by earlier work, so I carefully avoided getting in touch with Barbara or reading her translation before I started on mine. But when I was finished, I thought it was only polite to contact her and let her know that a new translation was on the way. She graciously invited me to her home, and the two of us hit it off immediately. She showed me the handwritten first draft of her translation, talked about her meetings with Anne’s father and explained that she had only been able to work on the translation when her three small children were taking naps or in bed. Barbara and I met many times after that and kept in touch until her death in 2017 at the age of 97.
Anne Frank’s diary is the most famous account of life during the Holocaust and has been read by millions of people and translated into more than 70 languages. In one passage, Anne says, ‘I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.’ Having to immerse yourself so deeply in the text must haven been a profound experience. How did it affect you?
The diary is such a high-profile book that having to be the voice of Anne Frank was both a privilege and a terrifying responsibility. I felt I had to get things right, for Anne’s sake as well as for her readers. This meant total commitment. Or perhaps obsession is a better word. During the six months I worked on the translation, my life went on as usual, and yet part of me seemed to be living alongside Anne in the Secret Annex.
It’s easy to understand the huge technological differences of doing translation work in 1995 versus today, but can you walk us a bit through the challenges and rewards of translating Anne Frank compared to your more recent works?
In that pre-Google era, doing research meant going to the library as well as calling on the expertise of others. I’m still amazed at how eager total strangers were to help me: the BBC who sent me the entire transcript of Eisenhower’s D-Day speech, the dentist who explained what a root-canal procedure was, the doctor who discussed the effect of valerian drops on adolescents, etc. Nowadays facts like these are a few clicks away, which has made research a lot easier, though connecting with people was a much more satisfying experience.
Similarly to what fiction editors must do, literary translators need to allow some space to transmit not only the words, but also the essence and the meaning. What would you say are the most important skills a literary translator should cultivate?
First and foremost, literary translators must be able to write well in their own language. They also need to be aware of the literary traditions and trends in both source and target languages so that they can see the work they’re translating in its proper context. My advice to aspiring literary translators is to sharpen their writing skills and to read, read, read.
May I ask what you’re currently reading? Can you recommend a few books?
I’ve reached the age at which I enjoy re-reading old favourites, though contemporary works fill my bookshelves as well. My current reads include an eclectic range: everything from thrillers (Laurie R. King’s ‘Back to the Garden’) to non-fiction (Merlin Sheldrake’s ‘Entangled Life’) and fiction (Andrey Kurkov’s ‘Grey Bees’). To anyone wanting a firsthand look at literary translation, I heartily recommend Daniel Hahn’s instructive and hilarious ‘Catching Fire: A Translation Diary’.
Blog post by: Paula Arellano Geoffroy