Two articles on the craft of literary translation

I’ve been reading a lot about the art of literary translation recently. What it means to translate a text faithfully, how to come up with a text in English that people will want to read, and all the variations in between.

I normally tweet links to these kinds of articles (follow me at xlationarticles), but Damion Searls’ Mamihlapinatapai and Plek: A Critical Essay about Translation seemed deserving of more than a 140-character introduction. In fact, you could take great chunks of it and tag them what-peter-mccambridge-thinks-about-translation.

What translators do is read to decide what’s important and what’s less important, then re-create what they’ve decided is important. These decisions tend to get made unconsciously and instinctively, even if the translator likes to rationalize them afterward. 


There are dozens, hundreds of permutations, and don’t forget that each one resonates differently with everything else in the rest of the page, the story, the book. So you place your bet and you take your chances, but there is nothing in a dictionary you can use to defend your final choice. 


If anything is “untranslatable,” it’s what lies behind every decision that goes into a translation.

Also well worth a read is Michael Hofmann’s “notes from a guilty business”, “Sharp Biscuit – Some Thoughts on Translating“. Quirkier and more rambling (in a good way!) than Searls’ thoughts, Hofmann wonders out loud about how see-through a translator’s style should be:

Whose words are you going to use, if not your own? Reprising Buffon, Wallace Stevens said: “A man has no choice about his style.” Why shouldn’t it be just as true of a translator as of  John Doe, author?
But where is the fidelity, you may say, where is the accuracy, the self-effacement, the service!? For me the service comes from writing as well and as interestingly as possible: it comes from using the full range of Englishes, the different registers, the half-forgotten words, the tricks of voice, the unexpected tightenings and loosenings of grammar. 
David Bellos characterizes translation as liable to produce a sort of moyen language, clipping the extremes of an original, tending toward the 
accepted and the established and the center, the unexceptional and the unexceptionable. I don’t mind much where my extremes come from — whether they are mine, or my authors’, but I want them to be there. 
Yes, a translator is a passenger, riding in relative safety (and deserved penury) in a 
vehicle that has already been built, but I would still rather he were a passenger of the bobsleigh kind — a converted sprinter, someone who at least puts his own bones and balance and reactions into his work.

Isn’t that comparison between a translator and a bobsleigh passenger just fantastic? I think it perfectly sums up the effort we put into every translation, all while noting that we’re not quite in the driving seat and that it’s not our own car, although we are of course responsible for any accidents along the way.

Hofmann stands up against “a neurotic impatience with the idea, even, of there being a translator. In their cars, as they conceive of them, there is but one steering wheel, and an author is at it (in fact there are dual controls).”

Woe if the translation should happen to show itself, to obtrude. There is only disfavor forthcoming. Their wrath will be terrible to behold. A translation is only possible — only bearable, one thinks — so long as it remains meek, clothy, predictable, a little old-fashioned. It should wear its inadequacy on its sleeve. Whereas, to me, to sit over something professionally disappointing, necessarily doomed, and perennially half-empty would be a waste of my life.

It’s all fascinating stuff.

2 thoughts on “Two articles on the craft of literary translation

  1. Pingback: Translation in the extreme | Learning and teaching English in the Netherlands

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