Lost and found in translation

“A great age of literature is perhaps always a great age of translations.” –
Ezra Pound

Translated literature is not given enough attention and value nowadays, especially considering that the publishing and literature industries are experiencing a little splash of the bitter commercialism disease. But we need to shine the light on these very valuable pieces of literature as they don’t only provide us with a good read, but they also provide us with the voice of other cultures, other people, and just the taste of the otherness. In addition, they represent a form of cross-cultural communication in which we cross the boundaries of space and time and allow ourselves and our senses to dive into new waters out of our “comfort zones”.
On a mission to spot the light on translated literature we interviewed our valuable translator Will Firth, who gave us some great – insider – insights. The following is the little interview we conducted, which we hope will give a new appreciation and understanding of translated literature:

– How do you capture and find the essence of the story through translation? Do meanings get lost?
I don’t have a simple answer. A lot depends on the individual book. As a translator you have to be able to not just understand but also “feel” what’s going on in the story. Meanings do often get lost in translation, especially fine nuances and humour. I suppose this happens more when the two languages are a fair distance apart linguistically and culturally, like English and the Slavic languages. Sometimes there are also awkward things you need to get around. In Robert Perisic’s Our Man in Iraq, which I recently translated from Croatian, I changed the name of the main protagonist from “Tin” to Toni because of the associations in English: “Tin” sounds just too much like the metal, or a tin box, and it may be reminiscent of Tintin, who’s a totally different kind of character. If a joke or witticism is proving hard to translate, it’s sometimes possible to recast the sentence and make a somewhat different joke in English. Or to create wordplay in the spirit of the original somewhere else in the story where English phonetics or vocabulary avail themselves. The main thing is to convey the feeling of the story in English – to reconstitute the mix of emotions in the same proportions as in the original. That can involve a bit of alchemy. It’s at moments like this when I think translating is at its most creative. And its most strenuous!

– How do you keep the quality of the books?
That’s a hard question! There are so many elements that come together to make up quality, and perhaps some of them do get lost along the way, even in a good translation. But the translator should be able to recreate some of that spirit so that the overall impression on the reader is similar. Interestingly, there are also times where you need to deviate from the original to make sense. In a Russian story I translated recently, the author mused that his grandchildren would learn to use smileys along with other forms of punctuation, and he went on to mention several common punctuation marks that kids learn how to use at school. The trouble here was that the punctuation marks difficult for Russian schoolkids are not the same as the ones we have trouble with in English, so I changed the author’s “brackets, exclamation marks and ellipses” to “colons, hyphens and apostrophes”, since these arguably pose more problems in English. That was a fairly minor intervention, but sometimes there are major issues. Several years ago I translated a novel by an older Macedonian writer which was full of pathos and family pride. That may work OK in the cultural and historical context of the original – but try presenting that to a young Western European audience in the 21st century… My solution was to tone down the pathos, and the publisher even edited out some highfalutin sections. On the one hand I felt this was being unfaithful to the original, but on the other hand it was an effort to make the story readable and stay true to the overall message. I think it worked.

– What is the process of translation? – are there any steps that you follow?
Translation is about conveying the style and content of the original in a corresponding authentic style in the target language. Most people would agree at that general level. But you’ll probably find that translators work in quite different ways, and the steps they follow may not all be the same. For instance, there are various opinions about whether or not a translator should read a book of literature before they start translating it! Or another issue: I’ve heard there are translators who ruminate briefly about each individual sentence and then spit out an almost perfect translation. But I’m not like that. I pull the text apart, look up lots of things even when I think I know what the best translation is going to be (sometimes dictionaries and encyclopaedias provide interesting alternatives), and then gradually reassemble the text in the target language over maybe a dozen separate drafts. The first is an absolute mess, full of notes and brackets and the abbreviations I use, and progressively I refine the text. I guess I’m slow but systematic. The fuzzy thinking and fantasy which is part of the process – the “alchemy” I was meaning – can come in at any stage, but I try to get myself into that frame of mind fairly late in the piece after I’ve dealt with all the nitty-gritty like vocabulary issues, historical details, questions to ask the author, etc. So that’s the way I work, but I think there are a wide range of different approaches.

– What makes translated literature different and what gives them the special attention?
Special attention?! I don’t think translated literature really gets much attention when you look at what percentage of titles have actually been translated and at the print runs of translated literature – or at the low prestige and pay accorded to translators. I think there’s a common perception that “foreign” books are going to be somehow heavy and difficult, and I guess that is often the case. Not all readers wants to read something they will perceive as foreign. At the same time, I think experiencing “foreignness” is something very valuable and that more people should learn to appreciate it: to step outside their cultural “comfort zone” and dip into the world of others. It starts with simple little things like unusual names and flavours and ends up with unimaginable life stories of people in other places and times. Translated literature can take us to wierd and wonderful worlds that can be enlightening, moving and gripping. Let’s hope that more people discover these “benefits”.


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Filed under Contemporary European literature

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