* Please see Part One of this story, last week, A Bookshop for Free Thinkers
…. Last Thursday, 27th February 2014.
“Eat. You need sustenance,” says Barbara, my publisher, as the tray with canapés comes towards us. But I can’t eat a thing. My stomach feels tight. In fact, every part of me, including my lungs, feels constricted.
Frau Schwepcke, Barbara’s mother, offers me wine but I know it will go straight to my head, so I ask for a glass of tap water, and sip it whilst circulating around the bookshop, greeting people, thanking them for coming. Most shelves and surfaces at bookHaus carry the small, cloth-bound, cherry-red book – the star of the evening, the reason for the party. The launch of the translation into English of Italian writer Pino Cacucci’s Le balene lo sanno or, now, The Whales Know. Inside, right beneath the author’s name, is my name. Translated by Katherine Gregor. The writer cannot be here tonight, so I have to present the book.
Two years almost to the day of the first book launch I attended at bookHaus, a launch for my book.
I feel someone take me by the hand. I turn around. Barbara smiles. “You look like I’m taking you to your execution.” I follow her through the crowd of people, up to the desk at the back of the room, my mind a blank except for the absolute certainty that I have nothing to say. I suddenly hear my friend B.’s words in my head. If all else fails, just burst into song and start tap dancing. In a surreal moment, I try to think of a song.
Just over a year ago, I signed the contract with Haus Publishing to translate this book. I spent several months trying to give Pino Cacucci an English voice. Trying to be a servant of two masters – faithful to the writer’s intentions, faithful to the reader’s expectations. Building a bridge from one language to another. For several months, I lived and breathed the magic of Baja California, accompanying the author on his journey along this Mexican peninsula in the footsteps of John Steinbeck. Months of visualising a land I have never seen, meeting its inhabitants so full of warmth and wisdom, listening to their stories of buried treasures and infamous privateers. Months of discovering new horizons. Getting to know the whales that come up close to the shore and allow humans to stroke them. Whales who show off their calves, unafraid of humans, because they know that, in Baja California, they have nothing to fear, because they know more than we give them credit for. Indeed, the whales know…
I am too short to be seen from the back of the bookshop. Barbara points to a wide, leather-padded stool and tells me to stand on it. She calls for everyone’s attention, and introduces me. I smile but am not listening to her. I just keep glancing from the soft padded stool to my feet. I am wearing high heels. I have visions of sinking through the leather and crashing down on the desk, or onto the audience in the front. I don’t know what to do. Barbara hands over to me and I have to make a split-second decision. So I slip off my shoes and stand up on the stool in my stockinged feet. “When I was little, a paediatrician told my mother I’d grow up to be average height for a Nordic woman and tall for a Mediterranean. Instead, I’ve turned out short. If I ever get my hands on that paediatrician…”
I have said this too loud and a giggle spreads through the room.
I start speaking about Pino Cacucci – I could not have wished for a better, more accommodating author to translate. Friendly, eager to help, willing to answer all the questions I had about the text and highly appreciative.
Then I read out three passages from the book, narrowed down from the twenty or so favourite passages I’d picked out in the morning. I think I must look like a total idiot, standing barefoot in full view of members of the Mexican Embassy.
I stand down to take questions. Words just shoot out of my mouth, bypassing my brain. People laugh. I guess that must be good.
After the questions, I turn to Barbara. “Was that OK?”
She beams. I imagine she must be pleased.
People ask me to sign copies of the book. I feel a tiny bit of a fraud. After all, I did not create the book but merely built a bridge to it. As a highly-respected translator and former teacher of mine says, “I am only as good as the book I translate. The better the book, the better my translation.” And The Whales Know is a jewel of a book. I feel immensely privileged to have facilitated access to it for English-language readers. Still, I’ve never been asked to sign books before, so I produce my pearwood and chrome Faber-Castell fountain pen – might as well rise to the occasion with swirls of jet-black, glossy ink.
Two years, almost to the day, after the first party I ever attended at bookHaus, another party. Another book launch. If not my book, then one I have the honour of bringing to an English-language readership. A book that has become a part of me, and I a part of it.