Janet Gesme’s path into book translation reads almost like a novel. Or maybe a cartoon.
In February 2015, the multilingual Bend resident and longtime Central Oregon Symphony violist was involved in a car accident when a car pulled into the path of her vehicle.
A tow truck delivered Gesme, her passenger and her car to the venue. Though she was able to play the concert, over the next two weeks, her body began to feel “like a cartoon character that got hit, and everything was fine, and then just fell into a million pieces,” she said.
Her injuries included whiplash and a pelvis that was twisted and turned out of place about 2 1⁄2 inches.
“That alone isn’t so bad. (Doctors) just put it back in,” she said. “But they couldn’t keep mine back in. I eventually learned how to put it back in myself. But it is pretty dang painful. … A lot of times like childbirth-level pain.”
Even walking was difficult.
“Originally, I could walk OK, and then it got to where walking was harder and harder and harder,” she said. Movement was so difficult, “I couldn’t wear pants for probably nine months. It was an adventure.”
Gesme, 47, sums up the year after the accident as one of “not being able to necessarily walk, sit or do anything.”
Nor could she play her viola. If you’ve attended a Central Oregon Symphony concert over the last couple of decades, you might have seen Gesme, with her chirpy grin and frequently changing hair colors, sitting not far from her conductor husband, Michael Gesme.
But in the wake of her accident, sitting even for short periods of time was excruciating, Janet Gesme said.
“I could put the instrument under my chin for, like, 15 seconds, and I would be on the floor sweating and shaking. It was not a good scene.”
Gesme had to face an emotionally painful reality: If she could no longer sit and hold her viola, she could no longer play it. After playing viola professionally from the age of 15, she decided to give her prized instrument to another local musician for safekeeping.
“I couldn’t play music, I couldn’t run. I couldn’t do anything,” Gesme said.
Well, there was something she could do while her broken body healed involving another longtime interest area that required little movement: language.
Since her early 30s, Gesme has studied and become fluent in several languages, socializing with native speakers and inviting them to her home at every opportunity.
It’s almost difficult to keep up with the languages she’s pursued learning. She started with German, followed by Russian. For the past five years, in addition to her music classes, she’s been teaching German at Central Oregon Community College.
She’s also fluent in Spanish, and has taught conversation. “After learning Russian, learning Spanish was ridiculously easy,” she said. “French now is super easy to understand. I can’t speak French very well.” She’s working on Hungarian and Korean lately.
“When I started learning Hungarian, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really hard.’ But then I started learning Korean, and I was like, ‘Wow, Hungarian’s not hard,’” Gesme said.
The book “The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty” — written by famed German luthier Martin Schleske — landed in her lap on the day of her accident.
She’d just arrived at the home of her Newport hosts, “and before I even got in the door this lady held this book out to me in German and she’s like, ‘I wonder if this would be interesting to you.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I just kind of want to die, so no, it’s not interesting,’” Gesme said. “But it turned out to be VERY interesting.”
Schleske’s book explores life and its meaning through the metaphor of building a violin by hand, from the planting of a seed, through growing a tree, to his making a violin, to a concert.
“The way he looks at life through that lens is just pretty phenomenal,” she said. “It’s very, very beautiful text. It will kind of set you back in your chair and you have to kind of let it wash over you. … When I first read it, I was like, ‘This is it. This is the most beautiful book in the world.’”
Gesme was so enamored of the book that she started making inquiries to English language publishers on its behalf.
“I started trying to look for a publisher, and I figured the publisher would find a translator,” she said. Though she’d interpreted before, “I’d never translated a book before. I’ve done a lot of translation, but never a book.”
The trouble was, “I couldn’t get a publisher interested without translating. So I had to translate,” she said. It started with one potential publisher asking her to translate a chapter. Then another company asked her to do three chapters.
“Then I had a publisher ask for the whole manuscript, and I was like, ‘Huh. OK. I guess I’m in,’” she said, laughing.
‘Do I want to be this human being?’
Even though her translation of Schleske’s book has not yet been published, “it’s gotten around to a lot of people already,” Gesme said. That led to a German publisher reaching out to Gesme about another project: German author Christopher Schacht’s memoir “Around the World on 50 Euros.”
The hitch: The publisher wanted her to complete it in just three months’ time. Before she agreed to translate it, Gesme wanted to read the book, in German, of course.
“‘If this has to be a fast translation, do I want to be this human being?’” Gesme recalled asking herself. “And I read the book and I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to be him. Oh, yeah.’”
“He’s such a psycho,” said Gesme, who’s the mother of two young adults herself. At the tender age of 19, rather than head to college after finishing high school, Schacht set out around the world. Over the next four years, he traveled more than 60,000 miles and visited 45 countries, surviving by his wits, charm, willingness to get dirty and the kindness of strangers. If he didn’t like a place, he just moved on. Not once did he take a plane.
The book he wrote about his experiences — including time spent living with members of a drug cartel — became a runaway bestseller in Germany.
Hence the word psycho. Gesme rose to the occasion, quickly completing the translation of Schacht’s book, titled “Around the World on 50 Bucks: How I Left with Nothing and Returned a Rich Man” in English.
As opposed to oral translation, which is more off the cuff, Gesme explained, written translation requires adopting the writer’s mindset. Schacht himself is fluent in English, Gesme noted, but for a translation to have legs, it requires not just word-for-word German to English, but also making the words sound as if they were written in English to begin with, while still capturing the writer’s voice.
“You have to get in your author’s skin, and talk with your author’s voice,” she said. “It’s a great challenge to think, ‘What would this person have said if they were born in this culture?’”
Redmond author and print translator Denise Fainberg agrees.
“You’re always trying to capture the person’s voice, whether it’s written or oral,” she said. “I would say it’s easier to do that in writing, because you have more time.”
As the daughter of immigrant parents, Fainberg’s interest in languages began young.
“I was surrounded by a number of different languages when I was growing up, and I always wanted to know what was going on,” Fainberg said. That proclivity for language led her to major in French as well as study Spanish in college, though there wasn’t a minor option at the time.
Fainberg is equally fluent in French and Spanish and taught both from 1990 to 2011 at COCC. Her degree in French opened the door to her first job out of school, working as a medical interpreter in a Boston-area clinic, she said.
Additionally, Fainberg can speak, and has even taught, German and Russian, “but I don’t really feel equipped enough to translate in them,” she said.
Fainberg specializes in translating documents, including medical translations, college transcripts and art history. She can transcribe French or Spanish into English, and English into Spanish or French.
Though she hasn’t translated any books, she’d like to, she said. However, Fainberg also keeps busy writing guidebooks, including “Explorer’s Guide Oregon” (2010) and “Walking through Sunflowers: Through Deepest France on the Road to Compostela” (2015).
Fainberg said that nowadays, aspiring translators can earn qualifications in school, adding that it’s not absolutely necessary.
“If you don’t have a translation degree, you can still translate. You just have to be very, very familiar with both your source and your target language,” she said. “If you’re translating into English, you have to be really, really good, and careful with English.”
She feels being a writer herself, as well as an avid reader, helps her in translation work.
“You’re trying to capture somebody else’s voice, and you have a lot of voices in your head, because of all the reading you’ve done and the writing you’ve done,” she said.
Helping herself, and others
In Gesme’s case, book translation was a godsend as she recovered from her injuries.
“It gave me a goal. It gave me a purpose,” she said. Spending more time with Schleske’s luminous prose was of additional benefit.
“The book itself, the whole reason I wanted it in English, was because I was like, ‘This book is helping me so much. This book could help other people,’” she said.
Although Gesme hasn’t yet returned to viola, she is the proud owner of a cello, on which she continues to make music with the Central Oregon Symphony.
Gesme’s translation of “Around the World on 50 Bucks” debuted in September of this year. Her English language translation of “The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty” will publish in April 2020. She doesn’t have another project immediately lined up, but she’s heard from another author or two.
“I’m not actively looking for things to translate,” Gesme said, but “I love translation and interpreting.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0349, firstname.lastname@example.org