Obituary: Jennie Erdal, Scottish writer, translator and teacher

Jennie Erdal, writer, translator and teacher. Born: 2 February 1951 in Lochgelly. Died: 23 May 2020 at home in Anstruther, aged 69

Jennie Erdal in 2012 (Picture: Ian Rutherford)

‘Translators,” Jennie Erdal wrote last year, “are the linguistic equivalent of trainspotters – sad, dishevelled middle-aged men still living with their mothers – or so legend has it.”

She herself was the opposite: bright (double first at St Andrews in Russian and philosophy, the year’s best Humanities degree), witty, stylish, and smart; a mother who brought up her three children virtually single-handedly for many years; and a novelist, lecturer and writer of one of the finest memoirs in post-war Scotland.

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But translation was a lifelong interest, and it’s where her own writing began. At first, her translations were of Russian dissident writers, often imprisoned in Siberian labour camps. Working for London-based publisher Naim Attallah, head of Quartet Books, broadened the range considerably. Leni Riefenstahl, the notorious German film director whose memoirs she translated, was just one among many to realise her talents, singling out her Verständnis (sympathetic understanding). Erdal was soon to need all the Verständnis she could find.

In her memoir Ghosting (Canongage, 2004), she painted a vivid and fundamentally affectionate portrait of her larger-than life, tantrum-throwing, charismatic and generous boss (“think Donald Trump but with charm and literary savvy” the New York Times reviewer explained). She worked for Attallah from 1981 to 1996, in the days when his Soho offices were stuffed full of well-born beautiful assistants with names like Nigella and Mariella who all, Erdal noted, “talked in italics”. At first she helped out as a ghost-writer on the voluminous books of interviews he did with a glittering array of celebrities, preparing questions and editing answers. But by the mid-Nineties he asked her to write two novels that appeared under his own name too.

In Ghosting, the publisher character is called Tiger, and Attallah always denied that he and Tiger were one and the same. But Erdal’s 
portrait of her double life as a St Andrews mother of three and a publisher’s ghostwriter was both entertaining and completely convincing. Serialisation rights were snapped up by the Guardian, it was picked as Radio 4’s Book of the Week, shortlisted for numerous prizes and internationally acclaimed. Although Attallah threatened to sue Erdal (he never did), she was clear-sighted enough to appreciate that he had helped her too. In 1985, when her first husband disappeared from her life and that of her three children, Attallah had at least provided her with work that was financially rewarding as well as interesting. And Ghosting also revealed something else: what a fine writer she was in her own right – something her 2012 novel A Missing Shade of Blue confirmed.

Students at Dundee University’s MLitt course in writing practice and study – writers Claire Hunter and Sandra Ireland among them – soon found out that she was an equally impressive tutor and editor.

Born in Lochgelly to a builder father and a mother who sold corsets, the young Jennie Crawford studied Latin, French, German, Spanish and Russian at Beath High, Cowdenbeath, where she was dux.

In Ghosting she insisted that she didn’t have a flair for languages but felt they were the key to understanding the world. This, she wrote in a fine essay on the A Year Of Conversations website, is what really fuelled her fascination with translation which underpinned so much of her creative work, from translating her boss’s wish to become a novelist, to choosing a translator protagonist for both A Missing Shade of Blue and the novel she was working on when she died.

In 1991 she met and fell in love with David Erdal, then chairman of Fife paper company Tullis Russell, which he was then taking into employee ownership. Their marriage in 1994 was a happy one and their home – first in St Andrews and latterly overlooking Anstruther harbour – soon became a magnet for their many friends.

“It was always great to see Jennie,” said her agent, Jenny Brown. “She had such a lovely and enquiring mind, yet she wore her learning lightly, and she had such a fantastic way of finding comedy even where others mightn’t have”.

The writer Alistair Moffat, a friend since student days, and who based his successful campaign to be rector of St Andrews at the Erdals’ house, remembers her showing him the first draft of Ghosting and being worried that there was too much of Lochgelly in it.

Not at all, he insisted, and indeed, the contrast between a working-class, repressed Fife childhood and the bohemian flamboyance of her publisher – who insisted, for example, that all guests at his Dordogne mansion sunbathe au natural – is part of the book’s appeal. “She was a lass o’pairts,” says Moffat, “and yet was never remotely pretentious. A superb editor and yet also a great creative talent.”

“She was such great company,” adds poet Tom Pow – for whom Erdal wrote the essay on translation. “Such a fabulously dry wit and such a keen intelligence.”

Erdal’s first bout with cancer was in 2012, when she had a double mastectomy. The recovery period was agonisingly long, but she exercised rigorously; always trim, not least through kayaking and sailing and walking at their cottage overlooking Eigg and Rum near Mallaig or on her beloved Fife Coastal Path (she was always an alarmingly fast walker), she became fitter than ever. In 2016 she was diagnosed with a rare but aggressive cancer, mucosal melanoma. Along with her husband, she explored every possibility of treatment, visiting a number of consultants in the hope of finding a treatment that would work. Two years ago climbing Braeriach, she still managed to reach the top of Britain’s third highest mountain three and a half hours ahead of a group of friends the same age as her. Even six months ago, she still led her husband and a couple of good friends on a 12-mile fast hike to a restaurant – the last time she could enjoy wine.

She is survived by her three beloved children – Emily, a music teacher; Jon, a furniture designer; and Katie, the founder of the web-based Scottish Beach Finds shop – stepchildren Nick, a GP, and Sarah, a manager, and ten grandchildren, as well as by her husband.

DAVID ROBINSON

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