I’ve read a fair number of books, and I don’t mind thinking about them critically, be it Twilight or David Foster Wallace, but sometimes I like to go behind the scenes a bit, to delve into the things we don’t often think about when it comes to literature. I’ve touched on reading speeds, reliance on the internet and social media, and the mechanics of the Villanelle.
And now I want to talk about translators.
I recently reviewed Igort’s graphic novel, The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks courtesy of NetGalley. When I had posted my review, Ms. Jamie Richards, the translator of the text from its original Italian, retweeted it. I had taken all of her work, very unfairly, for granted. Her name appeared nowhere on the cover or in the description, and yet, without her diligent work and scholarship, I would never have been able to enjoy Igort’s work in prose that not only read naturally, but still preserved Igort’s original spirit. I was incredibly happy to, in my own little way, give her some recognition by praising the work, even though I never praised her directly, so please let me take a moment to do that now: Thank you, Ms. Richards.
Translators are some of the unsung heroes of literature. Have you read Dostoevsky in a language other than Russian? Thank a translator. How about Baudelaire? Thank a translator! Neruda? Yep—a translator. Sometimes their names appear in small print at the bottom…sometimes in the inside cover…sometimes not at all.
As a senior in college, I spent a semester translating Russian poetry under the skillful guidance and immense patience of Dr. Roger Sedarat, a very accomplished translator in his own right with an upcoming collection of poems. Some of my favorite memories of college were the times I sat discussing poetry and music with Dr. Sedarat, from the processes of translation, to classic rock and folk, to Persian Poetry. I try to bring many of the same approaches that I learned from Dr. Sedarat and Dr. Cooley to my own interactions and lessons with the students that I tutor.
The process of translation itself was, at times, frustrating, and though I was successful in the sense that I produced a manuscript of a dozen translations, I do not doubt that they were, in their own way, off the mark.
I attended several talks with graduate students and sat in a kind of reverence as I listened to Anne Posten discuss the process of translating Anna Katharina Hahn’s Shorter Days, talking about the rhythm of language and the importance of keeping the rhythms and patterns consistent with each character, talking about the city of Stuttgart itself becoming a character, and asking the complex question of how much the reader needs to know. My awe was also in full force as I listened to Esther Allen’s talk, “The Perils of Polyglosia,” emphasizing the importance of dialect and the question of whether to translate a text so that it reads as if it was originally written in English or translate it so that it reads like a foreign text. The considerations in the process of translation are numerous and complex.
In order to translate a text effectively, having a working proficiency in both languages is not enough. You need enough of a command to build language around ideas and concepts, to think in forms, in syllables, in meter, and in tone. But even that’s not enough.
Built around every language is a culture, sometimes multiple cultures. To know a text, to understand it, you need to have the analytical skill to deconstruct it, but you also need to know the culture exceedingly well. I didn’t have the surgeon’s touch in analysis nor the complete knowledge of the culture. Instead, I would trade lessons in Russian culture for English lessons. Granted, I came to know many very kind people, but the process was, at times, very taxing. Still, I wouldn’t trade the experience.
Just as important as the translation itself is the presentation. In Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, Weinberger compares 19 different translations of the same poem. What becomes apparent is that every translation takes on its own style, due in part to the translator’s choices in diction, syntax, tone, and organization. At one point, Weinberger points out in discussing the Chang Ying-nan and Lewis C. Walmsley translation of “Deer Forest Hermitage” that “Wang could have written the equivalent of casts motley patterns on the green mosses had he wanted to. He didn’t.” There are those who sat somewhere in the middle, attempting to maintain the spirit of the poem while still preserving syllabic and sonic qualities of the original.
We have one poem, and we have 19 versions of it that are, in their way, markedly different. There are those who decided to translate the text literally, maintaining what they felt were the literal meanings of the words themselves in an attempt to preserve Wang Wei’s word choice. There are those who took great liberties with diction and syntax in pursuit of preserving the spirit and meaning of the original, but there is still the risk of losing the original. As Weinberger points out, we are to assume that each word is specifically chosen for a reason.
I am not suggesting that translation is a lost cause. What I am suggesting is that translation is a communication. Like any communication, it is never perfect. It is tailored to the receiver, be it a person or culture. Translation is a beautiful exercise that creates beautiful results. It teaches as much as it transmits.
The next time you read a translation, take the time to consider each and every word…imagine a replacement…imagine the source text. Imagine the fact that the entire text was conceived of and written in a language of which you may not (or may) have knowledge of. And, for God’s sake, think of the translator.