Anyone who knows me or is familiar with my work will know that I am not a paid-up member of the literal translation school. I’m also (despite rumours to the contrary!) not a fan of picking over translations in search for what may either be minor errors or sensitive adjustments to carry the original into the target language. However, I worry that the understandable emphasis on producing a translation that is a thing of beauty in its own right can lead to translators depriving readers of some of what is most essential in the source text.
This came home to me last week when I was working on a sample translation of La desaparición de paisaje, a novel by Bolivian author Maximiliano Barrientos. At first sight, the style is plain and the meaning is fairly clear. The following paragraph gives a reasonable taste. (Skip forward if you don’t read Spanish – translations and explanations are provided.)
Horas más tarde, ya bien entrada la noche, no podía dormir. Entré en el cuarto de María, me senté en una silla frente a su cama. Ella respiraba con dificultad por todos los cigarros que fumaba. La observé sin despertarla: la boca estaba entreabierta, las arrugas bordeaban sus ojos. Se ahogó pero luego volvió a respirar sin dificultad, por los movimientos continuos de sus labios. Se podía deducir que sus sueños eran violentos. Acerqué mi cara y sentí su respiración, el aire caliente que exhalaba. La saliva se escurrió por una de las comisuras y manchó la almohada. Había una fiesta en una de las casas del barrio. Las canciones llegaban apagadas hasta el dormitorio de María, hasta el dormitorio que muchos años atrás había sido de mi madre. Observé por la ventana los autos estacionados en la calle. Las risas de toda aquellla gente se mezclaron con las voces de los cantantes mexicanos de cumbias que siempre cantaban sobre amores no correspondidos, amores que acaban mal, amores perdidos.
Before I show you my initial attempt at this passage, I’m going to highlight three of the salient features of Barrientos’ style:
- the combination of short, grammatically complete sentences into lists that are separated only by commas
- the deliberate use of ambiguity, as a result of concise – at times almost cryptic – phrasings
- a description of physical phenomena that is at once very concrete and at the same time slightly abstract: as if the person experiencing them does so at one remove.
As a translator, I always try to get input from colleagues, and I find it particularly useful for this kind of stylistically challenging text. So I sent my first draft to fellow translator Nat Paterson for developmental editing, and here’s what I got back (comments below):
Several hours later, long after night had fall en,I couldn’t sleep. I went into María’s room and sat on a chair next to her bed. Herbreathing was laboured because of all the cigarettes she smoked. I watched her without waking her up: her mouth was slightly open, her eyes were surrounded by wrinkles. She choked, then began to breathe easily again[JIWP1] , and from the way her lips moved continuously I could tell she was having disturbing dreams. I brought my face close to hers, feel ingher warm breath as she exhaled. Saliva dribbled from the corner of her mouth, leaving a damp patch on the pillow. There was a party in one of the neighbouring houses. The muffled noise ofthe music could be heard in María’s bedroom, the bedroom that – many years before – had also[JIWP2] been my mother’s . I looked out the window ,at the cars parked in the street . The laughter of the partygoers mixed with the voices singing Mexican cumbias[JIWP3] , telling as always of unrequited love, of love affairs that ended badly, of doomed love.
clear when she was breathing easily before.
[JIWP2]Or by ‘also’, do you mean that they used to share the room? I take it the music is only muffled here, not where it is being played?
[JIWP3]The voices of the partygoers or of other people? Are the songs or the voices ‘telling’? Is there any significance to Mexican music in a Bolivian novel?
As you’ll see, Nat picked out a few bum notes in my translation, and also unfailingly put his finger on everything that sounded odd. (That’s exactly what I asked him to do – and I specifically told him not to worry about the source text or attempt to second-guess points where an unnatural phrasing might be justified by the source text.) He also had a few queries of the sort that will hopefully occur to the intelligent reader when they encounter an unusual or unfamiliar text.
But this left me with a dilemma. Should I attend to these comments and adjust the translation to make it sound less ‘strange’, more ‘flowing’, more ‘natural’? Should I resolve some of the ambiguities? Should I ditch some strange phrasings in favour of more natural ones?
Here’s my final version (draft 5):
Several hours later, well into the night, I couldn’t sleep. I went into María’s room, I sat on a chair next to her bed. Her breathing was laboured because of all the cigarettes she smoked. I watched without waking her up: her mouth was slightly open, wrinkles surrounded her eyes. She choked then began to breathe more easily again, from the way her lips moved continuously I could tell she was having disturbing dreams. I brought my face close to hers, feeling her warm breath as she exhaled. Saliva dribbled from the corner of her mouth, making a damp patch on the pillow. There was a party in one of the neighbouring houses. The muffled songs reached María’s bedroom, the bedroom that many years before had also been my mother’s. I looked out of the window at the cars parked in the street. The laughter of the partygoers mixed with the voices of the Mexican cumbia singers who always sang of unrequited love, love that ended badly, doomed love.
In some places I simply took Nat’s advice on board, but generally his comments prompted me to look back at the source to see what was going on there. And as I did that, I realized there were a number of points where I’d drifted away from the source text in a desire to make my translation sound a bit more ‘natural’ but where I was, as a result, losing the style of the original.
Let’s start with some minor changes in wording:
long after night had fallen
well into the night
her eyes were surrounded by wrinkles
wrinkles surrounded her eyes
saliva… leaving a damp patch
saliva… making a damp patch
she … began to breathe easily, and from the way her lips moved…
she … began to breathe easily, from the way her lips moved…
In each of these, I’ve replaced something more natural with something that it is more unusual. I wouldn’t die in a ditch for any of these translations, but cumulatively I’d argue that they are actually a better reflection of the style and feeling of the source text – or, to put it another way, choosing the more conventional options would in some sense betray the original.
The following example involved slightly more extensive rewording but the principle is the same.
the muffled noise of the music could be heard in María’s bedroom, the bedroom which…
the muffled songs reached María’s bedroom, the bedroom which…
The original was “las canciones llegaban apagadas” (literally, “the songs arrived muffled” – although there’s nothing particularly odd about the Spanish structure here). My initial draft was an attempt to find the most natural way to say this in English, while also avoiding a repetition of “song”, which appears in a later sentence. I think it’s not bad at all: a nice example, if you like, of not getting too hung up on the source language structure.
However, I decided to cut it back for two reasons. Firstly, Barrientos’ style is quite laconic, and to capture it one really has to keep the English as concise as possible. Of course, sometimes a bit of expansion is inevitable – but in this case I think it is unnecessary. More importantly, though, my initial version refocuses the sentence, directing the reader’s attention towards the music, introducing an unspecified listener (who hears the music), and distracting the reader from the bedroom, which is actually the real focus of the sentence. So here, my ‘natural’ translation introduces a series of minor shifts which, taken together, significantly alter the focus and feel of the sentence.
In the following example, I had again introduced some stylistic tweaks at first draft – “telling” to avoid repetition of “sang”, omission of the singers (ditto), addition of “affairs”, and repetition of the word “of”:
the voices singing Mexican cumbias telling as always of unrequited love, of love affairs that ended badly, of doomed love
the voices of the Mexican cumbia singers who always sang of unrequited love, love that ended badly, doomed love
Again, I was quite pleased with my initial translation, and in one sense it’s more natural: it avoids repetition (“singing” + “telling” rather than “singers” + “sang”), the addition of “affairs” arguably helps to make “love [affairs] that ended badly” feel a little more at home in English, and adding “of” again helps to clarify that there are different kinds of “loves” (ones that are unrequited, ones that end badly, and ones that are doomed) not one single kind (which simultaneously is unrequited, ends badly and is doomed). But the cumulative impact of this is to rob the original of some of its feeling. There is a repetition of “canciones”, “cantantes” and “cantaban” in the original; if I replace this (as I did at first draft) with “noise”, “singers” and “telling” then the effect is lost.
Now all of these might seem quite minor. Until we remember that this is a short paragraph in a full-length novel. The impact of applying all these naturalizing tweaks throughout the text would undoubtedly be to transform the style of the original (laconic, unusual, occasionally dissonant) into something much more ‘natural’ and flowing. And that brings me onto my main point.
There is an understandable tendency among literary translators to stress the importance of target language writing skills, to argue that the translated text must stand on its own two feet, even – perhaps – to be somewhat dismissive of the whole issue of accuracy or fidelity. That’s all fine, but only up to a point. As translators, we also have a duty to the source text (obviously) and that duty must surely extend to seeking to find ways to carry the style of the source into the target language. But we can only do that if we attend very closely to the author’s specific choices, and at times that must mean that we should reject translations that are natural, flowing or simply ‘prettier’ in favour of ones that are not. Literary translation is not a beauty contest.
Please contact me if you would like to see an extended sample of this translation.
You can find out more about La desaparición del paisaje, and read an interview with the author here.
Maximiliano Barrientos es autor de La desaparición del paisaje (Periférica, 2017). Hablé con el sobre su novela, la traducción y la literatura en general.
TG: La desaparición del paisaje es uno de esos libros que parece sencillo: la historia de un hombre de 32 años, que vuelve a Bolivia después de 12 años en EE.UU. Pero cuando intento describirlo a amigos y compañeros me aturullo. Me doy cuenta de que, a pesar de ser relativamente corto (unas 270 páginas) y tener una trama más o menos sencilla, toca muchos temas. ¿Me lo puedes resumir en pocas palabras?
MB: El más explícito de todos es el del regreso, lo que significa volver al lugar en el que sucedieron las experiencias importantes y también el lugar de donde el personaje huyó, ya que la novela parte de esa huida no narrada. Hay una problemática en todo regreso porque uno vuelve al espacio físico pero no al espacio mental, emocional, donde sucedieron esas cosas. Uno vuelve al lugar, pero no al pasado (este aparece todo el tiempo como un espectro). Por lo tanto, el pasado es otro de los temas importantes de la novela. El tercer gran tema, a mi parecer, es la familia, especialmente la relación entre padres e hijos, y la lucha que los hijos emprenden cuando se ven amenazados por los demonios de los padres. En esa lucha creo que se aborda la construcción de la masculinidad, de cierto tipo de masculinidad, que procesa la pérdida desde la rabia y desde la violencia.
TG: Una de las cosas que me encanta cuando me pongo a traducir un texto -que en este caso solo consiste en una muestra hasta ahora- es que me obliga a leer con mucha atención. Confieso que no soy un lector particularmente atento por naturaleza (¡dicho de otra manera, soy vago!), pero cuando empiezo a traducir me fijo en todo: la puntuación, las ambigüedades, los pequeños silencios, el ritmo de los diálogos. Es como si, por arte de magia, me hubiera convertido de repente en una especie de lector superdotado. Al traducir las primeras 15 páginas de La desaparición del paisaje, me di cuenta de que tu estilo -que a primera vista parece sencilla- también es bastante idiosincrático. ¿Me puedes comentar como concibes tu estilo, en qué consiste?
MB: Concuerdo. Es interesante como traducir nos obliga a ser lectores puntillosos, yo he tenido una experiencia muy discreta y totalmente amateur traduciendo algunos cuentos de autores como Peter Orner, Aimee Bender, Mary Gaitskill y Rick Bass para un taller de creación literaria que imparto desde hace algunos años. Como quería comentar algunas cuestiones estructurales de ciertos relatos, y como no había traducción al español, yo les pasaba el original y adjuntaba la traducción que había hecho.
Creo que el estilo no se escoge, siguiendo a la gran Flannery O’Connor, es un don, algo innato, con lo que uno se topa en algún momento después de innumerables fracasos, después de innumerables lecturas en las que intuyes lugares por los que no querés irte como narrador. Ayuda más al estilo descubrir qué cosas detestas en ciertos escritores que descubrir qué cosas adoras. La educación literaria es un campo de batalla en el que hay que tomar partido por un bando o por otro, no hay neutralidad.
El estilo es un descubrimiento, pero sin el aprendizaje del oficio queda amorfo. Se lo potencia con el oficio, y supongo que ese es el aprendizaje del escritor. A mí me interesa que el lenguaje produzca la ilusión de la experiencia, induzca una vivencia en el lector, y para ello tiene que invisibilizarse y convertirse en una cadencia, en un ritmo, en una respiración que esté al servicio de ciertas imágenes claves. Lo primero y más importante para mí es la imagen: el lenguaje trata de traducirla.
TG: Que yo sepa, antes de leer La desaparición del paisaje solo había leído una novela boliviana en mi vida: Los afectos, de Rodrigo Hasbún (traducido al inglés con el título Affections, por Sophie Hughes y publicado por Pushkin Press). ¿Te sitúas dentro de una tradición literaria boliviana, o más bien dentro de algo más amplio: la literatura latinoamericana o incluso en lengua española, sencillamente? ¿Hay algún escritor en particular que ha tenido mucha influencia en tu trayecto como autor?
MB: Creo que es difícil hablar de una tradición boliviana o latinoamericana ya que bajo esa etiqueta se asocian a escritores que no tienen nada que ver entre sí, que tienen poéticas muy distintas, contrapuestas. Yo me siento en deuda con ciertos escritores bolivianos, latinoamericanos, norteamericanos y europeos. Si tuviera que hacer algo así como una tradición, las puntas de lanzas serían poetas como Jaime Saenz, Viel Temperley y Zbigniew Herbert. Novelistas como William Faulkner, J.G. Ballard, Vladimir Sorokin, Cormac McCarthy y Juan José Saer. Cuentistas como Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson y Mariana Enríquez.
El concepto de tradición estrictamente literario no puede mapearse por territorios sino por afinidades con el imaginario y con la sensibilidad, y por lo tanto no hablamos de estructuras sólidas sino de estructuras movedizas. Un escritor no siempre pertenece a un mismo linaje: se producen rupturas en el tiempo.
Si lo pensamos desde una perspectiva territorial, la tradición funciona más en términos de lobby. Si un escritor mexicano o argentino publica una novela la tendrá mil veces más fácil que uno ecuatoriano o boliviano, eso por el mismo sistema de producción, por la misma infraestructura. ¿Se aborda con la misma expectativa una novela escrita por un paraguayo que una escrita por un colombiano? Sería absurdo pensar que sí. Todo el sistema está montado para favorecer a las tradiciones fuertes.
Este es el texto original de la conversación que mantuve con Maximiliano por email. Figura en inglés en este artículo, que ofrece una reseña La desaparición del paisaje, acompañada por una traducción de las primeras 12 páginas de la novela.
Y aquí escribo sobre el reto que supone intentar captar el estilo de Maximiliano Barrientos al traducirlo al inglés.
During the course of this year, I’ve blogged on a range of topics, including translation criticism, collaborative development, theatre translation and client queries. But always, when writing, I’ve had in my mind former translation students from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Although I only taught there for three years, that experience made a huge impact on me, and much of my subsequent writing and collaboration with colleagues is to some degree an attempt to fill the gap that was created when I moved to Cadiz in the south of Spain (which would have made for a rather long commute).
Another inescapable feature of my year in blogging has been Tim Parks. Whenever I’ve talked about translation criticism in particular, his name has cropped up. In fact, sometimes one gets the impression from fellow translators that all Tim Parks does is criticize other people’s translations. I know that’s not true. He also praises them, writes about the business of literary translation in general and reviews both fiction and non-fiction, translated and otherwise. He writes novels and non-fiction of his own. And, of course, he’s translated some of the biggest names in Italian literature: Calvino, Moravia, Leopardi, Machiavelli and, right now, Pavese. He teaches at IULM University of Milan, and I see that in January he’s going to be teaching a new ‘check-up’ course, whatever that might mean, for translators in Florence.
So it seemed appropriate to round off my blog for this year by talking to Tim Parks about teaching translation: what can and can’t be taught, how he approaches it, whether it makes any difference…
TG: In your writing about translation, it’s obvious that you set great store by a close reading of the source text, one that pays attention to register, style and nuance. How much of this, I wonder, can be taught?
TP: Well, I wonder that too, just as I always wonder how much one can teach a person to write in a creative writing class. What you can do is invite people to read texts more carefully, with method, being aware of the kinds of pleasure they give the reader and how they deliver them. I’ve always felt it was crucial when translating to have a strong sense of why the work you’re translating is good, why it makes sense that someone wants this in my language. Over twenty and more years of doing this with students in Milan, I’ve noticed that some get the point and learn rapidly, others slowly, others not at all. So although close reading is only a starting point, I think at least that can be fostered in a class. Of course then there’s the problem of how the reading you’ve done is going to drive the writing you have to do when you actually start translating.
TG: I’m intrigued by how that works in practice. Let’s take a concrete example. I’m assuming one of the things you ask your students to do is to translate extracts from novels. Do you talk about the source text independently, requiring students to read the whole book first? Or do you jump straight into the translation but then discuss it, and the challenges it poses, in relation to a close reading of the text? In other words, what is the relationship between reading the source text and writing the translation?
TP: In the second year course I’m teaching now in Milan, second year postgrad that is, I’m alternating between genre and ‘serious’ fiction. We start with chick lit, since after they graduate this is the kind of thing young translators in Milan get asked to do. We read the opening pages of the book we’re looking at. We think about the genre and how it works, above all the relationship of complicity it sets up between narrative voice and reader, the kind of humour, how local or otherwise it is. We translate a page or so and discuss the various versions. Then we look at the first pages of three or four famous chick lit books (on PowerPoint) and see how they’ve been translated and what the publishers want, what the criteria seem to be when it comes to choices about realia and idioms and so on. Then we translate a bit more of our book and go back over what we’ve already done. Each week they do a bit more and send it to me for homework. I put all their versions side by side and send them back to all of them. So they can all see what the others are doing and how I reacted. So they get used to criticism, my famous criticism. I put examples up on a PowerPoint of different versions. And so on. In general, we have fun.
After about a month, that is four or five lessons (three hours each), we shift to a different book, this time literature, but literature dealing with the same issues as the genre fiction. For example, after the chick lit, we look at Letty Fox, Her Luck by the wonderful Christina Stead about a young woman in New York in the late 1940s. Again the same process. But with the added intrigue now of establishing the difference between this and the chick lit: above all, Stead’s far more sophisticated use of irony, far more complex relationship with the reader. We look at a published translation after we’ve done our own version, and think about whether it is as good as it could have been. And the student begins to sense, or some of them do, how their writing strategy has to adapt to the nature of the text they’re working from. For example, maybe they’ve really enjoyed getting the voice of the chick lit, finding the right colloquialisms in their Italian, the right feel, then they try to do the same thing with Christina Stead and it just muddies the waters. It’s still a colloquial voice, but the register and the relationship with the reader is quite different. It’s a different aesthetic. So they have to think again.
TG: I’m going to come back to some of that in a moment. But before we get onto the issue of how students (or any translators) put things into their target language, I’d like to probe you about the role of the source language. My Spanish is pretty good. I’m not fully bilingual but I occasionally ‘pass’ and I’m generally very comfortable in the language. Even so, I’d say that some of the things you mention here – narrative voice, humour, irony, register – are the trickiest things to pick up. (Even native speakers sometime miss them.) How do you address that in your teaching? Obviously you can explain these things for texts you’re working on in class, but you won’t be able to hold students’ hands once they graduate.
TP: Going right back as far as St Jerome or Roger Bacon or Leonardo Bruni, commentators on translation have always pointed out the problem posed by the need for deep competence in the source language. You think you know the language, but you don’t. There are things you’re missing. And yes, of course, even in our native language we miss things; literature is so much less important in our culture now that many readers are only competent up to a point. For sure I can’t give my students in seventy hours of lessons the English they need to translate well. But I can show them some exciting text, let’s say the opening of Middlemarch, and look at a few Italian translations. And they can see who’s got what, who’s missing what and where they’re trying to place the work in the Italian literary context. And they’re alerted to the immense and wonderful problem of language complexity, which is what makes literature so exciting, of course, its depth, subtlety, nuance. Once alerted, it’s up to them. Some of them will run with it, and grow much more aware, learn what they need to learn, others will be daunted. Thinking back on my own years in Italy, nearly forty now, I’m aware of how little at the beginning I really felt or grasped the tone of this or that. Translation is something you grow into.
TG: This is a slight digression, but I have to say I’m envious of the amount of time you seem to be able to dedicate to teaching and feedback. When I was teaching I had to really make a case for the need for individual feedback on everything my students did. And the amount of hands-on translation practice could have been doubled, even tripled, and I still would have wanted more. But I felt I was in competition – a losing battle, even – against institutional pressures, the demands of other courses, theory, research methods…
TP: I hear you. Young people come out of a first degree, do a Masters in translation, hoping to work in the field, and the universities hit them with ‘translation studies’, much of it interesting but a lot of it mere ideology, and very little of it practical. Perhaps this is because they have students from many different countries and it’s hard to work with all of them on the same translation, from this language to that. Plus there’s the fact that it takes a long time to work through your students’ homework. For years I had both first- and second-year classes (all Italian students) and was correcting – yes I’m going to use that word – and giving feedback on around fifty students’ work over the weekend. But it’s the only way.
And it’s important that they see the other students’ work too, and what I said about it. Because that way they begin to see how other people translate in different ways, how each of us has a sort of signature in the way we translate. They understand each others’ strengths and weaknesses. With students obsessively close to the structure of the original, I’ll be suggesting they experiment with something more flexible; with students who love to change everything, I’ll be inviting them to make sure they’ve said exactly what the source text said, and so on. I should say that this degree also has courses in technical and commercial translation. So the students work with a wide range of texts. And this is crucial. It’s a mistake to focus entirely on the literary, at least at the beginning. You want to be exposed to the language across the board. Certainly, the ten or so years when I was translating everything from fashion shoe promos to diesel filter manuals was incredibly useful to me.
TG: Going back to the issue of close reading… Particularly among literary translators, it’s commonplace to hear people saying “it’s the ability to write in your target language that really matters” or something along those lines. When you teach translation, do you also see yourself as a ‘creative writing’ teacher in any sense?
TP: A translator has the task of reading a foreign text for the home audience and delivering to them what he or she has read. Not creating something ex nihilo. So the creativity of the translator’s writing is not in finding anything new, but in finding a way of getting that original text to happen in the target language. As we all know, when translating, the biggest obstacle to writing well (Luther said this wonderfully) is the syntax, structure and lexical segmentation of the other language. We know that the text won’t go ‘straight’ into our own language. So we have our work cut out. On the other hand, everything we decide to put down, we should do so with our experience of the original in mind. That’s our job. My impression is that many translators write poorly because they haven’t really grasped what the original is saying, or how it is saying it. It’s not easy to write if you don’t know quite what you’re supposed to be doing, if you’re filling in, papering across the cracks in your knowledge.
This was the burden of my famous, perhaps infamous, article on Stuart Woolf and Ann Goldstein’s translations of Primo Levi. Because they didn’t really grasp the idiomatic nature of what they were translating, they were writing poorly too. Once you’ve really understood, it might not be easy to get the text into English, but it’s a lot easier. At least you know what you’re doing. And that’s the kind of writing I’m trying to teach. Let’s focus on what the original deeply means, and the flavour of how it was said, and let’s experiment with different ways of having that come out in our language. Above all let’s avoid adopting a style that we think suits our publisher and our market, regardless of what’s actually in the original. This is all too common today and makes a mockery of the pieties of bringing cultures together.
TG: You probably know from my blog and elsewhere that I’m passionate about collaborative arrangements, with translators critiquing each other’s work, sharing ideas, getting together for workshops and so on. Some of the benefits of that are obvious: you receive constructive input that helps you to improve your translations and hone your skills. But there are also other less obvious benefits. I actually learn a lot from reviewing my colleagues’ work, not just because I’m lucky to work with some very talented translators but also because the whole process of thinking about what does and doesn’t work in someone else’s translations gives you a different perspective. Do you have any thoughts about the less immediate benefits of translation teaching, both for students and for teachers?
TP: For sure it’s good to have a few people you can rely on when you run into trouble with a translation, and you can always learn from looking at other people’s work and seeing what they’re up to. I’ve learned an immense amount from teaching; partly from the need to analyse the texts when I’m preparing lessons – that’s where the book Translating Style came from after all – but also from the students themselves, who often see stuff I’ve missed, and who naturally write far better Italian than I do. Which is chastening! One problem with seeking help from others, though, particularly when you’re translating a difficult author, is that you can’t expect the other person to be as deeply into the text as you are, and you can end up losing evenness of style if you start accepting suggestions left, right and centre.
In this sense it’s a good idea to distinguish between classroom or workshop situations where you’re learning and a situation where you have a serious job to do and you have to be the expert yourself. It’s hard, for example, to ask for help translating Pavese because his style is so strange, so knotty and allusive, that people who don’t know it really can’t help. Then there’s a great difference between collaborating with native speakers of the language you work from and collaborating with native speakers of your own language. I’m used to teaching Italians, but I must say I’m rather excited to see what’s going to happen with this new course in Florence, where I’ll be working with professional translators into English. Hopefully, I’ll have much to give, but also lots to learn. One’s never too old to learn a new trick or two. And it’s only fresh learning that keeps you excited about your work.
I was recently invited to take part in a panel discussion organized for the Translators Association* on the topic of reviewing literary translations. Having spent much of 2018 earning myself a reputation as someone who was not afraid to voice unpopular ideas, I had been asked along to ensure that the proceedings were not too sedate.
I have to admit that I was expecting a torrid evening of being grilled for daring to criticize one of Ann Goldstein’s translations in the Guardian or for suggesting that, just maybe, literary translators shouldn’t be monstering Ben Moser on social media because he didn’t like a book that other people had enjoyed. Perhaps I would even be forced to defend the dastardly Tim Parks!
The evening was expected to address such questions as the following:
“How should reviewers critique translations? Who should do the reviewing? How do you assess a translation without knowledge of the source language? When does constructive criticism become destructive? How do you identify a ‘bad’ translation? What constitutes a ‘bad’ review? Is it pedantic to cherry-pick awkward choices, or necessary to support an opinion?”
I confess that such questions leave me at best indifferent and at worst suspicious. Who are we, as translators, to start issuing guidelines for reviewers? And are these questions, just possibly, merely a thinly veiled attempt to suppress negative commentary of any sort?
My own preference would be for us to embrace criticism, both from reviewers and from colleagues. Indeed, I would actually go further and say that self-criticism, the constructive criticism of colleagues, and the disinterested criticism of reviewers are absolutely essential for our professional development, and for creating authentic relationships with our peers and with our readers. The alternative is to live in a world of puff pieces and phoney praise.
But I knew that things were going to go well when Ros Schwartz, chairing the discussion, kicked off proceedings by quoting approvingly from Tim Parks’ latest article in the NYRB. (Okay. I’ll admit to a slight twinge of disappointment. I rather liked the idea that the English had become so soft that they’d been reduced to flying a Scotsman in from Spain whenever they wanted an argument. You can take the man out of Scotland…)
Instead of grappling with just where to draw the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ criticism, a consensus quickly emerged that literary translators have been far too sensitive about this issue recently, that it was time to grow up a little (grow a pair, even) and not get our knickers in such a twist whenever anyone says something vaguely negative about our work. (I suspect that if we’d been holding this event in the United States we might have spent longer – or even the whole evening – wallowing around in the swamp of policing precisely what criticism is and isn’t acceptable to the powers that be; thankfully, this was London, not New York.)
My fellow panel members – translator and editor, Sophie Lewis, and book reviewer, Nick Lezard – helped ensure that the debate was not marred by the oversensitivity that so often characterizes such discussion online. And perhaps the biggest contribution of all came from the audience, who moved affairs in a rather unexpected direction, one that just happens to coincide with my own particular passion (obsession even): the importance of peer review and collaborative working, to improve not just the quality of our translations but the quality of our professional relationships.
In that spirit, I would like to suggest three ways in which literary translators could incorporate criticism into their daily practice.
1. Start a three-way collaborative partnership
For the last two years, I’ve had an ongoing collaborative partnership with two colleagues: VictoriaPatience and Simon Berrill. We take turns to review and comment on each other’s work, we get together (via Skype) for a monthly translation slam, and we share advice and support via email and WhatsApp. It’s been a source of training, professional support and deep personal friendship, all rolled into one.
If you’re interested in exploring this idea, I’d suggest linking up with a couple of like-minded colleagues in your language combination. (They need to be people who you trust and respect, people who will share their work and their opinions honestly, people who will take and receive criticism in a constructive spirit.)
I’d then suggest sharing short excerpts from early drafts of your work. (The earlier the better, before you get locked into choices and interpretations.) Comment on these in the spirit of developmental editing – basically, identifying anything that is unusual, strange, interesting, impressive, and using that as the basis for discussion (either in the form of an annotated copy of the translation – or through email or via Skype). Here is an example of the incredibly helpful comments I received from Victoria on a first draft of a sample I translated when I was pitching Potosí for translation. (If you want to see the final English version – The Mountain That Eats Men – you’ll just have to buy the book.)
And, to keep it varied – and also just because it’s great fun – choose a text for all of you to translate once a month or so, then meet in person or via Skype to discuss it. If you love translation and enjoy talking about it but perhaps suffer from the isolation that can affect us all, this is really the best remedy. And there’s nothing like explaining why you’ve made certain choices and defending them against somebody else’s choices to really hone your skills.
We co-authored an article in the ITI bulletin about our partnership. And we also have a Facebook group to provide ongoing support for colleagues who’ve been inspired by our example. If you’re interested, please get in touch with me via my contact form or through social media.
2. Peer review in a safe online forum
This idea came out of the audience, and I think it probably needs a bit of collective input for it to happen. However, I guess it might operate along the following lines:
- any literary translator working into a given target language (English for most readers of this, I guess) joins a closed online forum, which is lightly moderated and open to approved members
- my preference would be for a closed group on Facebook, but it could also be a bespoke forum hosted elsewhere or even an email group
- members post a translation they are working on, along with the relevant source text, and invite comments
- I’d suggest sharing work at early (or even first) draft stage; obviously this is a question of preference, and I know some translators never share their early drafts, but against that I’d argue that it’s much easier to accept and incorporate criticism of work that is still a long way from being finalized
- other members of the group post their comments in the form of an annotated version of the translation
- these, together with the original translation, provide the basis for an ongoing discussion.
We’d obviously need some basic guidelines, but I think you could summarize these as follows: be respectful, be truthful, be helpful. (So no nastiness, but no empty praise either. And suggestions only if you think they would genuinely improve the translation.) Or, if you prefer the short version: don’t be an arsehole!
3. Bringing a critical edge to the translation slam
Translation slams have, quite rightly, grown in popularity over recent years, both for general audiences – at literary festivals and other events – and in more specialist contexts – within the framework of conferences, workshops and summer schools. (For anyone not familiar with the concept, a ‘translation slam’ is where two translators work on the same text, and present the results in front of a live audience, typically with a third translator chairing proceedings to keep the discussion on track. Sometimes with the author also involved. Audience participation optional.)
I think slams are a really powerful tool for engaging with members of the general public, and also provide a great platform for discussing our craft among ourselves. At such events, we generally (and understandably) avoid the notion that a translation slam is about comparison and criticism (whose translation is better, whose solutions are right or wrong), in favour of more open-ended discussion and appreciation.
But I do think that the notion of criticism, in the broadest sense, could help take translation slams to the next level. Here are a couple of suggestions:
Comparing a published translation with an unpublished alternative
When slamming for a general audience (e.g., at a literary festival), instead of just choosing an interesting piece from whatever book fits with the festival’s wider programme, what about comparing a published translation with an alternative version of the same passage? It’s quite likely that the published version (having been through more versions, editing and so on) would be better. And that in itself would be interesting and informative. And it would also be exciting for readers to see how even the ‘definitive’ translation reflects just one possible solution; to see how, in someone else’s hands, the whole book might have come out quite differently.
I know that some translators will be wary of the idea of exposing their work to this kind of scrutiny, but without such exposure it is impossible to truly engage readers. And I think we overestimate the risks. I’m pretty sure any minor loss of face caused by finding an embarrassing slip in your work or just feeling that you weren’t quite on point when producing that particular translation will be outweighed by the kudos and recognition you’ll earn from putting yourself out there in the first place. And that’s before we consider the huge benefits for your own skills and self-confidence that you get from taking part in such events.
To add a bit of focus, I’d also suggest selecting a passage that embodies a particular challenge: dialogue, physical description, cultural references or whatever. That would help take the slam beyond just observing that “these translations are different” and would allow the audience to really see how translators solve problems, how these solutions may differ widely and, yes, how some solutions may indeed be more convincing than others. (This thematic slam could be combined with the ‘published vs. unpublished’ comparison suggested above, or used in the more traditional format of two translations which have both been produced from scratch for the purposes of the event.)
I think the thematic approach could be particularly good for events that occur within a professional context (conferences, workshops) but I also think that general audiences would appreciate it. If general audiences are already impressed by the fact that the different translations are, well, different, imagine how they’ll react if we open up the whole process a bit more, showing how we grapple with particular problems, how these problems are susceptible to different solutions – and how these solutions may vary. Hell, at this rate translators will be the new rock stars!
*Reviewing Translations, Translators Association, Free Word Centre, London. 13 November 2018. Organized by Charlotte Collins, Ruth Martin and Catherine Fuller.
This morning, the first thing I saw on Twitter was a new prize for emerging translators. It was being organized by well-regarded indie publisher, Peirene Press and you can find all the details here.
(Please note that the prize conditions may have changed since I wrote this article. Any such changes are not coincidental; they are the result of efforts made by myself and others, on social media and via email, to raise our concerns with the publisher.)
In summary, the prize is open to previously unpublished translators (defined as those who have never had a full work of translated fiction published). You need to translate the first chapter of an Italian novel. The prize is worth £3,500, and your translation of the whole novel will be published by Peirene Press.
But let’s think about this. What they’re really saying is that the prize is a fee for performing a piece of professional work. So literary translation is no longer something that you are paid to do, but rather something that, if you are lucky enough, someone rewards with a cash prize.
And it gets worse. There is no entry fee but Peirene Press “think it is important that everyone who enters this Prize gets something out of it. So in lieu of entry fee, we have decided to ask all entrants to instead subscribe to Peirene Press.”
Or, in plain English, the entry fee consists of a subscription to Peirene Press, and we (Peirene Press) think it is important that we (Peirene Press) get something extra out of the prize, namely, additional subscribers.
And then it gets weird. Entrants must attend an obligatory writer’s retreat in the Pyrenees (no travel expenses available, although the wording on the Peirene website suggests that they think the Pyrenees are in the UK!) and there are no details of whether the retreat involves any editorial input. Apart from just feeling a bit bossy and pointless, this excludes potential entrants with commitments (family, work or whatever) , other circumstances (e.g., physical disability) or just personal preferences that might prevent them from going on the retreat.
When I commented on the prize on Twitter, someone from Peirene replied that their initiative was intended as “a celebration of translation” (preceded by the inevitable “I’m sorry you feel this way…”).
Well here’s an idea. Why don’t you celebrate translation by:
- not presenting paid work as something that translators should compete for the privilege of performing;
- not packaging the fee payable for that work as a ‘prize’, and;
- not forcing translators to go on ill-defined writers’ retreats as one of the conditions for performing our work?
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the concept of a translation slam, the format is generally as follows: two translators present their translations of the same text, in front of an audience, and discuss the challenges of the translation, pinpointing similarities and differences, explaining the reasons for their choices and perhaps also recognising points where, in hindsight, they might have done things differently.
It’s perhaps best to think of it not so much as a competition or ‘duel’ (the other term sometimes used) but rather as an opportunity to put the translation process on show and explore in public how the same text can give rise to two different translations. I’ve been to a few slams in my time, both under the auspices of specific literary translation gatherings and for more general audiences at book festivals, and I was particularly happy with the way our slam went in Girona.
From left to right: Kymm Coveney, Carlos Mayor, Maeva Cifuentes, Tim Gutteridge. Photo credit Cesc Anadón. (c) MET
Here, in order of importance, are what I think make the ingredients for the perfect slam:
- Choose the right text. This seems obvious, but if your text doesn’t provide opportunities for different interpretations and different voices, then the slam is likely to suffer. For our slam in Girona, we translated El viaje, by Cristina Fernández Cubas. This was a piece of flash fiction (a one-page short story) about a Mother Superior who briefly leaves her convent but swiftly returns. It was absolutely perfect: self-contained, so all the ‘ripple effects’ that occur in translation were contained within the text, and included lots of great talking points – physical description, cultural references, voice, ambiguity – all in a mere 274 words! Hats off to Kymm Coveney for a brilliant choice. (And to Cristina, for writing it.)
- Audience participation. This might seem surprising as a second choice, but for a slam to really come to life, you need an audience that is engaged – and is willing to really question the translators’ choices. We couldn’t have asked for a better audience at Girona. Fifty colleagues – bringing to bear their experience as translators from different languages and in different fields, and also drawing on their personal backgrounds, and their readings of the text. The last thing I’d want, as a slammer, would be deference or polite appreciation. What I want is people contesting my choices, offering improvements of their own, and getting their teeth into the problems of accuracy, voice, coherence and all the rest of it. That was exactly what the METM crowd gave us.
- Moderation. I’d never really thought about this before, but taking part in the slam made me realise just how important the moderator’s role is. You need to be gentle yet firm, making sure that the translators get a chance to explain their choices, bringing the audience into the conversation – and teasing out anything important that you think has been missed. And you need to communicate your own enthusiasm for the source text and for the translation process. I would take my hat off to Kymm, but I’ve already done that above, and we translators hate repetition, so I shall remove my headgear instead.
- Translators. So what do the actual slammers bring to the party? Well, to start with you have to have the guts to put your work up for discussion (in this case, for an audience of peers, many of whom were inevitably far more experienced than either of us). Beyond that, the slam participants need to take a distinctive approach to the text – one that goes beyond ‘correctly’ translating individual sentences and instead provides a coherent interpretation of the source text, told in a distinctive voice. You need to be prepared to explain and defend your choices, but also to identify points where you feel you may have slipped or where other options – either from your fellow slammer or from the audience – might constitute improvements. And you need to be able to communicate your love of translation – the joys, the frustrations, the ambiguities, the beauty – to anyone who is prepared to listen. I hope that’s what my co-slammer Maeva Cifuentes and I managed to do. If I was any good at that, it’s only because I’ve had a year’s worth of training from my colleagues Victoria Patience and Simon Berrill, with whom I’ve been doing a monthly slam via Skype as part of our ongoing collaborative professional development partnership.
- The support team. An event like this doesn’t happen on its own. You need a venue, publicity, coordination and printouts, to name just a few factors. Unsurprisingly, the team at MET – who put together fantastic annual conferences and organise a programme of events throughout the year – did a great job. Well done Aisha Prigann, Helen Oclee-Brown and Kelly Dickeson, among others.
The real stars of the show? MET members study the slam texts. Photo credit Cesc Anadón. (c) MET
Am I the only one to feel uncomfortable with the rather fierce response to Benjamin Moser’s critical review of Katie Briggs’ This Little Art? I understand that people have strong feelings both about the book and about Moser’s review, but much of the response on social media reminds me of seagulls attacking a holidaymaker on the seafront.
And the ‘open letter’ to the New York Times strikes me as – frankly – rather odd: the ‘great and the good’ of the literary translation community declaring one of its members persona non grata. To my mind, an open letter is for an issue of public interest, not because some people liked a book and someone else didn’t. The invocation of status (“even after our many collective decades active in translation and translation studies”), the personal nature of the criticisms (“condescension”, “misogynistic”) and the list of signatures at the bottom all detract from rather than add to the force of the letter’s arguments.
More widely, I really worry for a community that responds to a critical review in this way. It sets up a particular approach and a particular way of writing about translation as an orthodoxy and, worse than that, raises the threat of ostracism against any individual who dares to challenge that orthodoxy. In that context, intellectual debate becomes impossible.
I have no intention of commenting on This Little Art publicly at the moment. I would, however, urge you to read it for yourselves. Support the publisher by purchasing it direct from their website:
I would also encourage people to read Benjamin Moser’s review. For what it’s worth, his review inspired me to read the book:
And finally, here’s the open letter:
The following piece was written as the introduction to the bilingual edition of La Golondrina/The Swallow (Guillem Clua), published by Ediciones Antigona. The English version of the play is on at the Cervantes Theatre, London, from 8 to 26 May, 2018.
If you compare the original Spanish text of La Golondrina with its English translation, The Swallow, the first thing you’ll notice is that the protagonists of La Golondrina are called Ramón and Amelia, while their counterparts in the English version are Ray and Emily. But their names are not the only thing about them that is different: Ray and Emily don’t just speak English, they are English. That might seem obvious. What else could they be? Well, they could be American or Scottish, for a start. But they aren’t. Or they could be Spanish – after all, when we watch Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, we don’t have a problem with the notion that its Spanish characters are speaking English. Or they could be from anywhere and nowhere, like the tramps in Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot in its original, French version).
So why did I transfer the action of La Golondrina from Spain to England, and what effect did this have on the translation? The first thing to realise is that La Golondrina itself is based on action that has been transferred. In this case, a real world event – an attack on a gay nightclub in which those who died were the victims not just of a terrorist atrocity but of a homophobic hate crime – is relocated from Florida, USA, to an unspecified provincial Spanish city.
In a sense, then, the original play has two locations: it is set in Spain but also in the USA. And the effect of this shift, paradoxically, is to emphasise the universal nature of the themes explored in the play (homophobia, gay love, mother–son relationships, misunderstandings, truth and lies), because the action is at once anchored in the local setting and refers to an international event. If you transfer this play to the London stage, then, it makes sense to replace the ‘local’ setting of the original script with the local setting of the English-language production.
What impact does this decision have on the translation? We’ve already seen perhaps the most obvious effect: the protagonists’ names are changed. But the decision to relocate a play, once taken, ripples all the way through the translation. Potentially, it influences every single line of the text. Here, I will identify a few of these changes.
Despite its universal feel, La Golondrina contains plenty of references to Spanish culture. Where possible, I adapted these to make them feel more ‘British’. Amelia cooks paella and cannelloni for her son, while Emily prepares roast chicken and spaghetti bolognaise; Amelia refers to watching an episode of Masterchef, while Emily watches Great British Bake-Off; Amelia and her son dance at a Verbena (a traditional Spanish open-air festival to celebrate a local holiday), while Emily and her son attend a Summer Fair, and so on.
Some of the references are more subtle. When Ramón reveals that he studied translation and interpreting before completing a master’s or two, I decided that Ray would have a degree in Spanish. I didn’t have to change his qualification, but sticking with the original had a distractingly technical ring in English. The modification also allowed me to acknowledge the Spanish origins of the text and – perhaps most importantly of all – by introducing the idea that Ray was familiar with Spanish culture, it helped me to keep one cultural reference that I had no intention of changing, an issue to which I will return at the end.
If it is fairly obvious why relocating the play will affect how the translator deals with cultural references, another effect of the decision not just to have Emily and Ray speak in English but to make their characters English is that the translator has to strive for a fully idiomatic translation. (If our characters are ‘foreigners’ speaking English – perhaps Olga, Masha and Irina in an English-language production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters – then not only do we not expect them to speak highly idiomatic English; we might find it distracting if they did so.)
Some of these differences are reasonably easy to identify. When Ramón refers to the bar as el bar de moda (literally, the fashionable bar), Ray calls it the ‘in’ place. And I deliberately opted for contractions (it’s, I’m etc.) and colloquial words and phrases – wad of cash (rather than bundle of notes), telly (and not just TV or television) – wherever possible.
Less immediately noticeable, perhaps, but arguably more important is the effort to ensure that the translation doesn’t bear the scars of the source language. For example, Ramón and Amelia use the word sí nineteen times in the original script. In the translation, the equivalent word – yes – appears a mere three times. Near the start of the play, when Ramón asks Amelia if she knows the play’s title song La Golondrina, Amelia answers Me es familiar, sí. (I’m familiar with it, yes.) But when Emily is asked the same question by Ray, she simply replies I’m familiar with it. I could have kept the yes or perhaps moved it to the start of the sentence, but it felt far more natural in English to omit it altogether.
And on the subject of omissions, although I changed Amelia to Emily, you wouldn’t know unless you read the programme or the script. In the original play, Ramón addresses Amelia by name no fewer than twelve times. In the English version, Ray doesn’t use Emily’s name once. Why? Because Spanish allows Ramón to protect himself against the charge of over-familiarity by prefacing the first name with Señora. I could have had Ray address his boyfriend’s mother as Mrs Emily but it would have sounded rather stilted. The more natural choice, particularly in a one-to-one dialogue, was to drop the name altogether.
I’ve talked so far about some of the many ways in which the decision to relocate the action from Spain to England influenced my translation. However, the play is still very identifiably the same: almost every line in the English matches an equivalent line in the Spanish text, in effect if not in literal meaning. And there is also one key cultural reference that remains unchanged in both versions. Without giving too much away, a key moment in the play revolves around a volume of poetry that Ramón/Ray has given to his boyfriend Dani/Danny, some years earlier. The book is by Federico García Lorca. But Lorca is there not simply as a cultural reference point to anchor the action in Spain but also because of how he lived and how he died: a gay poet and playwright who was unable to declare his sexuality in public, he was assassinated by right-wing nationalists in the wake of the military coup that brought General Franco to power in 1936. He was, in other words, the victim not just of a political assassination but of a homophobic hate crime.
Although I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction to my last blogpost, it wasn’t universally liked. (No bad thing: if nobody disagrees with you, what you’ve said probably wasn’t worth saying.) The most substantial criticism was a remark on Twitter to the effect that it was unethical of me to criticise a fellow translator’s work without giving them the right to reply.
I don’t agree, but I don’t think it’s a trivial point. After all, I can certainly imagine criticising a colleague’s work in an unethical manner, so what are the defining features of ‘ethical translation criticism’?
Let’s get the ‘right to reply’ issue out of the way first. There are several objections to this.
There’s no other sphere in which we would apply this test. We don’t demand that writers critically reviewing a colleague’s novel offer a right to reply, or that the retired footballer who comments on the state of play at half-time offer a slot to the goalkeeper who has just conceded a soft header. (In fact, there seems to be general recognition that the book review industry is already in something of a crisis due to friends and acquaintances reviewing each other’s work. I think we can all guess what would happen if you had to get the author of the reviewed book on board as co-author of your review every time you wanted to say something negative.)
There’s something slightly worrying about the phrase ‘fellow translator’. Does this mean that the stricture only applies to reviews between translators? (I’m guessing so because in practice there would be no way of enforcing it on writers and commentators who publish reviews in the press.) I’m all for a bit of solidarity but this arrangement smacks more of the medieval guild than of the trade union.
I’m also unsure how the rule would work in practice. I don’t have a hotline to Ann Goldstein (the subject of my last piece) or any way of contacting her. Applying this rule would at best slow down the work of low-status critics like me and at worst simply render it impossible. (The ‘same’ bar, needless to say, would be far lower for a well-connected translator or someone writing in a commercial publication. Make of that what you will, but to me it smacks of one law for the powerful and another for everyone else.)
Balance of power
This brings me onto my next point. Ann Goldstein already has a right of reply, if she wants it. She has direct access (as far as I know) to the Guardian and the New Yorker, and I’m guessing she could easily contact other publications as well. If she decided to post a blog I think it’s fairly certain that it would have greater reach than the double-figure retweets and handful of likes that is the most my own humble post can aspire to.
My last point is very straightforward. My post was my piece of writing. As long as it is not unethical in other ways (see below), then it is for me and me alone to decide what I write and whether or not to invite others to participate in that process, to respond to it and so on. By posting on social media, I am already providing a platform where anybody who disagrees with me can reply if they so wish.
I hope I’ve convinced readers that the right of reply is an ethical red herring (and one which would, if applied, have the effect of making criticism virtually impossible), so let’s get on to the broader issue of what might constitute ethical translation criticism. Anyone who read my last piece will know that I like a good maxim, so here goes.
- Be accurate
Don’t say things that you don’t believe to be true or for which you have no evidence.
- Be fair
Don’t use accurate examples to paint an overall picture which is misleading. Anyone can cherrypick the odd mistake from a full-length novel or quibble with specific phrasings in a text which is generally well written.
- Be clear
It’s easy to take a swipe at a translation, but if you’re going to criticise it then you need to show why (in your opinion) the translation is unsuccessful. You can’t just say “the translator gets things wrong” but have to show what those things are and explain why. An intelligent reader should be able to read your criticism and dispute your conclusions on the basis of the evidence you provide.
- Don’t be personal
If you’re criticising someone’s translation, stick to the text. There may be grey areas; if the translation appears to be poor because of lack of knowledge of the source language, then it’s obviously okay to discuss that and even to produce biographical evidence to back up your point, but that shouldn’t be used as a pretext for character assassination.
- Be commensurate
If you believe you have shown that a piece of work is truly awful, it’s legitimate to reach strong conclusions on that basis. If all you have identified are a few minor slips and the odd stylistic infelicity, then it would be unjustified – and unethical – to reach a damning conclusion.
All of which leaves me a little perplexed as to why some have taken exception, in principle, to my expressing strong criticisms of the work of a named translator. I think that the problem – as we translators love to say – is context. Perhaps a joke might help to understand what is happening.
A community of nuns live in a closed convent. The community has a strict rule of silence which is only broken once a year, on Christmas Day, when one nun is allowed to stand up at the end of the meal and utter one sentence.
At the end of Christmas dinner on the first year, Sister Antonia stands up. “I don’t like the food,” she announces. She then sits down and the convent lapses into total silence for another year.
At the end of Christmas dinner on the second year, Sister Josephine stands up. “The food’s alright,” she says. She then sits down and the convent lapses into total silence once again.
At the end of Christmas dinner on the third year, Sister Agnes stands up. “I’m leaving,” she declares. Her fellow nuns are so shocked by this revelation that they forget their vow of silence and all shout “Why?” in unison.
To which Sister Agnes replies, “There’s too much arguing about the food.”
The problem, of course, is not the amount of argument but the amount of silence.
And I wonder if that is the real problem in the literary translation community. Compared to other translators (technical, medical, corporate or whatever), literary translators talk surprisingly little about the craft of translation, about the nitty gritty of which translations are good, bad or ugly, and why.
Instead, literary translation talk (at least on social media) is dominated by prizes, books, grants, conferences and the like. And most direct comments on translations take the form of encouraging remarks: “Another fabulous translation from the talented…”
That’s nice, of course, but it means that when someone expresses critical opinions about a fellow translator’s work, there is something slightly shocking about it, as if a taboo had been broken. The critic, to quote Billy Connolly, can feel about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit.
The best response to this problem, in my opinion, is not to strengthen the taboo further, but to fill the critical silence with translation chatter. (Or, to stick with the Big Yin, to accept that the odd fart is a price well worth paying if we are to reach the moon.)
I’ve tried to do this myself by consciously engaging with authors, fellow translators and source language readers in the discussion of issues I’m struggling with in whatever text I happen to be working on at the moment. Perhaps if we all did a bit more translation talk, we wouldn’t be quite so shocked to hear the occasional critical opinion.
And I absolutely promise that my next post will focus on some words that I am struggling to understand in one language and some meanings that I am struggling to express in another.
In the meantime, here’s a picture of some nuns:
I’m not a fan of Translation Theory. Translation is a very practical activity: it involves making judgements about the meanings and connotations of a text and deciding on the best way to convey these into another language. A good solution for one problem in one situation may well be a terrible solution when applied to an apparently similar problem in a different situation. At best, Translation Theory helps translators identify starting positions from which to solve problems; at worst, it provides them with highfalutin justifications for bad solutions.
Personally, I’d swap all the Translation Theory in the world for a few good maxims. And if I was only allowed one maxim (my Desert Island maxim, so to speak) it would be this:
“translate meanings, not words.”
It would be great if we could train translators just by shouting this at new members of the profession, repeatedly and at ever higher volumes, like a British tourist on the Costa del Sol. Unfortunately, life is never that easy.
So the first thing we need to do is to add some clarification. The key word in this maxim is ‘meanings’ and by meanings here, I refer not just to the referential meanings but also to all the other connotations of language: style, register, literary effect and the like.
Even so, this maxim is hard to apply. Most novice translators default into literal translation. When you point out that they have ‘translated the words, not the meanings’ they often stare at you blankly. And when you suggest that some passages of their translation are awkward, unclear or even nonsensical, they are wont to reply along the lines of ‘but that’s what it says in the original.’
So I’d add some practical advice to this maxim:
“Read your translation as you produce it. Reread it once it’s complete. Read it again once you think it’s perfect. If the style is awkward, change it. If the meaning is unclear, clarify it. If you find yourself writing nonsense, either you’ve badly misunderstood the source text or expressed yourself poorly. And if the reader needs to understand the source language to decode your translation, you haven’t done your job.”
Any decent professional translator will recognise all of this as something that they do instinctively, so much so that it feels like common sense. How else could one translate? Well, if you want to see what happens when somebody translates without applying this approach, try reading Ann Goldstein’s translation of Elena Ferrante latest column for the Guardian.
It’s quite short (just 400 words – one or two hour’s work for a translator) but manages to pack in a series of errors, including at least one which is catastrophic.
The subject of the article is laughter and how this provides temporary relief from the constraints of our lives. Ferrante introduces her topic with a childhood anecdote.
“I remember a design that was very amusing to me as a girl. You have to imagine the sign that prohibits honking: a trumpet in a circle, crossed out by a diagonal strip. Next to it is a convertible, and a slow-moving pedestrian who keeps the car from proceeding. The driver is leaning out over the windshield and playing the violin in the pedestrian’s ear. I laughed, and my girlfriends said: ‘Why do you find it so funny?’ ”
I read this a few times and really couldn’t make out what was going on. What was this ‘design’ that so amused the young Ferrante? It sounded like a road sign. Did 1950s Italy specialise in humorous road signs? It seemed unlikely. And then I remembered that the word disegno in Italian doesn’t usually mean ‘design’ at all, but is more typically a drawing and, by extension, a cartoon. The next two paragraphs are devoted to further discussion of the ‘design’ but unless the reader has realised that Ferrante is actually referring to a cartoon, they don’t make much sense.
Now, it’s true that any translator can unthinkingly reproduce misleading cognates in their target language. Not for nothing are these words called false friends. A decent translator, though, quickly develops the habit of questioning such cognates and will often instinctively avoid them. Fortunately, when really treacherous ones slip through, they’re easy enough to spot. One review of Goldstein’s version above should have alerted even the most lackadaisical reader to the glaring error.
If you manage to struggle through the first four paragraphs of the article (and I’ll come back to a couple of other issues in a moment), you will then meet the following sentence:
“Laughter for me can do only this: stretch what is tense to the point where it is unendurable. Otherwise it seems to me overrated.”
At first sight, this sounds reasonable enough. Until you stop and think. Is Ferrante really saying that this (stretching what is tense…) is the only thing laughter can do? That’s what Goldstein’s version says, but laughter can, undoubtedly, do lots of other things as well. Either Ferrante doesn’t know about laughter’s other qualities, or what Goldstein was trying to say was:
“Only laughter can do this…”
(Laughter can do other things as well, but there are no other phenomena capable of stretching what is tense.)
That makes much more sense, and is confirmed by the next sentence:
“Otherwise it seems to me overrated.”
If, as Goldstein has it, there is only one thing laughter can do, then the ‘otherwise’ is somewhere between superfluous and just wrong. If, as I assume Ferrante had it, laughter has at least one unique quality, then the ‘otherwise’ makes perfect sense: despite this quality, laughter is not all it is cracked up to be.
Again, reading the translation for meaning would have picked up this problem immediately, and even an inattentive translator should have been alerted by the glaring non-sequitur that was a side effect of the initial error.
There are, in my opinion, at least two more clear errors in this text. In the penultimate paragraph, Ferrante/Goldstein writes:
“Ridicule, yes, annoys the powerful, but it doesn’t bury them. Yet for the moment we’re laughing, we feel their grip on our life relax a little.”
In context, we understand that ‘for the moment’ means ‘right now’. But it’s odd. ‘For the moment’ in English usually means, ‘at this time (and until something changes)’. For example, “I’m quite happy in my job for the moment (implication: but I might look for a new one next year).” Here, there’s a minor slip in meaning but context forces the reader to correct it almost without realising.
And in the final paragraph, Goldstein has:
“That must be why the laughter that interests me most, in the context of a story, is incongruous laughter, the laughter that explodes in situations where laughing is inconceivable, in fact seems an enormity.”
Here, the meaning is clear enough, but the grammar is all wrong. The simplest fix is to replace the comma after the second instance of ‘laughter’ with a semi-colon. Again, most readers will do this on the fly, reading the erroneous comma as if it were a semi-colon or a full stop, probably without even realising they are doing so. That’s fine – but there’s another way of looking at this, which is that a shoddy translation is forcing the reader to do work that the translator really should have done for them.
The problems with Goldstein’s translation, though, don’t stop at these errors of meaning and grammar. There is also something forced about the structure of many of the sentences. Let’s go back to that first error:
“I remember a design that was very amusing to me as a girl.”
Even if we correct ‘design’ to ‘cartoon’, we are left with a rather tortured structure: “…that was very amusing to me as a girl”. We know what this means but, as it stands, it’s not quite English. More natural ways of saying this might be that the young Ferrante found it funny, it made her laugh or even just that she loved it.
And once you start to notice this kind of thing, you will see that the text is peppered with these odd ‘English but not quite English’ constructions:
“…a pedestrian who keeps the car from proceeding”
“…I get on well with anyone who can come up with this type of idea”
“laughter for me can do only this”
“ridicule, yes, annoys the powerful”
Let’s call these constructions ‘Italianate’. What, you might ask, is wrong with that? After all, Ferrante is an Italian writer. The problem is that these structures are quite normal in Italian (the linguistic term is ‘unmarked’) but they are strange in English (‘marked’). There’s nothing wrong, per se, with strange or marked constructions. Indeed, without them original writing would be impossible. But there is a problem when the translator takes ‘unmarked’ constructions from the source language and routinely translates them with ‘marked’ ones in the target language. The effect is to make the original text seem stranger than it really is, and to render it unnecessarily difficult to read and to understand. It’s what we call ‘translationese’.
If you think I’m being too harsh or indulging in cherry-picking, I’d reiterate that all of this occurs in a 400-word translation that would normally take a translator between one and two hours to produce. Or, to set it in a professional context, if I was doing quality control for a client and they asked for my opinion on this text, my verdict would be that the translation, as provided, is not fit for purpose, and that they should remove the translator from their database of suppliers.
I would also suggest they pass the following feedback on to the translator:
“Read your translation as you produce it. Reread it once it’s complete. Read it again once you think it’s perfect. If the style is awkward, change it. If the meaning is unclear, clarify it. If you find yourself writing nonsense, either you’ve badly misunderstood the source text or expressed yourself poorly. If the reader needs to understand the source language to decode your translation, you haven’t done your job.”
I’ve been a professional translator for 20 years. In my time, I’ve translated academic texts, marketing texts, legal texts and medical texts, to name just a few. However, it was only about a year ago that I decided to try my hand at literary translation. Since making that decision, I have translated four stage plays, am currently working on a literary non-fiction book (due for publication in autumn 2018) and have also translated a number of fiction samples, a couple of which are being pitched to publishers in the UK and the US.
Until I started networking with literary translators, though, there was one term I’d never used to describe what I do when I’m not translating literary texts: ‘commercial translation’. For a while, I used it reluctantly (often with extra quotes around the word ‘commercial’, to distance myself from it). It seemed a convenient if somewhat stilted way of referring to non-literary translation.
But I have decided that enough is enough. Here’s why:
- ‘Literary’ translation is just one specialism among many. It doesn’t contrast with ‘commercial’ translation but with a range of other specialisms – medical, legal, corporate, marketing, academic, audiovisual etc.
- On a broad definition, all professional translation (including literary) is ‘commercial’ – you translate a text, you get paid for it.
- On a narrow definition, some forms of translation have a commercial goal while others don’t. On this definition, all of my literary translation is also commercial (there is a product – a book or a play – with, hopefully, paying customers at the end) while much of my non-literary translation (academic papers, NGO documentation) is also non-commercial.
So use of the term ‘commercial’ to refer to all non-literary translation is just incorrect. (And if you’re a translator but don’t care about words being used incorrectly, then you’re probably in the wrong job.)
Perhaps, though, ‘commercial’ versus ‘literary’ is just clumsy code for ‘easy’ versus ‘difficult’? Well, every field of translation has its own challenges:
- Many non-literary fields require detailed subject knowledge and the ability to handle both specialist terminology and in-house language.
- Working in these areas often also requires translators to be proficient users of a number of software tools: not just Word, but PowerPoint and Excel, computer-assisted translation packages such as memoQ or Trados (and their associated terminology management tools), OCR programs and desktop publishing.
- Non-literary projects often come with very tight deadlines.
- Non-literary texts are often produced by authors who are not professional writers (generating text as a side product of their job, if you like). This poses a particular challenge because these texts are frequently poorly written, and the translator may have to do a lot of editing and rewriting on the fly to spin source language dross into target language gold.
Literary translation, of course, has its own challenges. These include the need to capture the nuances of source texts that tend, by their very nature, to use language in idiosyncratic and creative ways, and the ability to produce a final translation which functions as a literary text in its own right. I’m not convinced, though, that these challenges outweigh the many challenges translators encounter in other fields.
But my real objection to the use of the c-word is that, lurking not far beneath its surface, is an attitude that smacks of elitism and snobbery, an implication not only that literary translation as an activity is more challenging than non-literary forms, but that its practitioners occupy some moral high ground overlooking the fetid swamp of ‘commercial’ activity below.
It’s an attitude that is both ignorant and patronising, but the real losers are not those of us who practise non-literary translation but the world of literary translation itself. Translation, despite what some of its practitioners may claim, is always a craft even if it is sometimes also an art. It is built on knowledge, skill and technique. And translators get better by recognising the importance of these factors and by honing them every day. Taking refuge in misconceptions about the supposed superiority of one field of translation over all others can only make that task more difficult.
I’ve just been helping a fellow translator to submit queries about her translation to a direct client, and it made me think about why we send queries to our clients.
Maybe the question seems stupid. Surely, we send queries when there is something we haven’t understood in the source text or if we are unsure about target language terminology, particularly if it might involve in-house language?
Not quite. Before submitting queries, I would ask the following questions.
Can the client reasonably be expected to help?
Seems obvious, but there’s no point asking a client who operates exclusively in the target language to help you decode the source text. Or asking a client who operates exclusively in the source language to help you resolve target language terminology issues.
How many queries do you have?
If your source text generates a vast quantity of queries, then either you have taken on a text which is beyond your capacities (your problem, not the client’s!) or the source text is seriously flawed. The latter is quite common, but the best solution is simply to make a general comment to this effect rather than to rub the client’s nose in every spelling mistake, grammatical error and logical non-sequitur. And if the text is genuinely untranslatable, then say so.
How easy/difficult is it for the client to answer your query?
Direct clients are often not language people. Vague questions (can you explain this to me?) tend to generate vague answers.
I always try to frame queries as one of the following:
- a yes/no questions
- a choice between a short list of alternatives
- a request for a very specific piece of information.
And remember that clients may not have access to the individual responsible for generating the source text. For example, I quite often translate public tender specifications. My client is an LSP; their client is a (target-language) company considering submitting a bid; the author of the text is a (source-language) government defining the conditions for that bid. Nobody in my chain has access to the author, and the timeframe doesn’t usually allow for it, anyway. So it would be pointless for me to query ambiguous wordings in the source document in this instance.
It’s also worth thinking about what benefits you can get from the query process (besides the obvious one of obtaining information to improve your translation).
Start a conversation
One of the big challenges for any translator, whether working for direct clients or LSPs, is to build a relationship. Sparing use of queries will help you to start a conversation with your client. And feel free to use the exchange as an excuse to build a more personal relationship. (I often throw in little personal titbits – where I’m off to on my next holiday, a comment about my pets or whatever.)
I’d be very wary of openly criticising a source text from a direct client, but do use queries as an opportunity to identify errors in the source text, in a non-judgemental way. For example, when translating financial reports you might be surprised at the frequency of material errors. I even alerted one client to a potentially catastrophic confusion between ‘millions’ and ‘billions’ in one text!
Blow your own trumpet
As translators, we are often invisible. People take our work for granted and only notice when things go wrong. I work for an LSP which often provides me with quite ‘rough’ source material (project documentation produced by field officers working for NGOs). I don’t generally query much in these texts, but I do usually include a comment to the effect that the source material was a little rough and ready but I think I’ve done rather a good job of turning it into something clear and readable.
Or you can use a query to draw attention to a particularly neat piece of work. I recently translated a tourism text which included the line ‘Salchichas alemanas, el arte del embutido gourmet‘ (Literally: German sausages: the art of gourmet sausage-making’). I translated this as ‘Germany – where wurst is best!‘ and checked with the client: ostensibly, to make sure they were happy with my creative approach, but really to flag up a piece of inspired brilliance in order to remind them why they needed me to translate their texts and not someone else.
Cover your back
I’m slightly wary of including this one. In fact, I think a lot of the over-use of queries by translators is probably sub-consciously prompted by a desire to avoid taking responsibility for the final product. (You can’t – it’s what you’re being paid for!) However, there are some exceptions to this rule. Where the source text is truly ropy (see above) then it’s worth mentioning it, in the politest possible terms – and perhaps rephrasing it as praise for one’s own work rather than criticism.
And where there is a specific issue which you really can’t resolve and can’t be expected to take responsibility for, then you may want that on record. I have one client who often asks me to translate software documentation while the software itself is still at the localisation stage. As a result, the target language screenshots are not necessarily available. I always flag this issue up to the client and specifically remind them that they will need to check my translations (with relevant sections highlighted) against the final target language version of the software, website etc.
The following post is based on an article I co-authored for the ITI Bulletin with my colleagues Victoria Patience and Simon Berrill.
Peer pressure: how collaborating with colleagues can be a great source of professional development
Amid all the talk of continuing professional development, translation technology, marketing skills and subject specialisation, it’s easy for us to lose sight of our biggest asset of all: the connections we can make with our fellow translators.
Tim Gutteridge, Victoria Patience and Simon Berrill all work from Spanish into English, and they’ve established a successful collaborative arrangement that spans three countries and two continents and provides them with detailed feedback on their work, career development tips… and even a bit of life coaching!
In search of quality
Tim: I’ve been translating full time for nearly twenty years but for much of that time I’ve worked in near isolation. I’d been to the odd meeting and occasionally worked with colleagues (either outsourcing or, less frequently, working on large projects together where there was some editing and feedback) but my work paradigm until quite recently was basically to fly solo. Then, in late 2016, I received a message from Victoria, a colleague I’d connected with on Twitter, asking if I’d be interested in joining a group that she was setting up.
Victoria: Around the time I wrote to Tim, I’d been hearing a lot of online talk about quality. Quality as a market strategy, quality as a way to prevent our jobs being taking by robots, quality as an end in itself. Although my clients seemed happy with my work, I had the feeling that I was churning out stuff that was good enough but no better than that. I wanted to improve the quality of my work – but how?
Simon: At the same time, but quite independently, I wrote a blog post on the issue of quality which I published under the title ‘The Quality Conundrum’. Like Victoria, I had a feeling I was producing translations that weren’t really good enough, but it seemed difficult to do very much about it.
Ideally, I would have all my translations edited by a second person, but constraints of time and money mean that’s a luxury I can rarely afford. However, without that critical editing process it’s easy to drift along and never really improve. In my post, I suggested various ways in which I might be able to improve quality, one of which I described as ‘sample reviews’. The idea was to team up with a colleague and each would review samples of one another’s work free of charge.
Victoria: I already work with a partner, María Inés Martiarena, who translates in the opposite direction to me, and we sometimes review and comment on each other’s texts. After reading Simon’s post it occurred to me that doing a similar exercise with other Spanish to English translators might be beneficial. So I wrote to Simon and also to Tim, whose tweeted translation tips were already improving my work.
Tim: When Victoria got in touch, I was already thinking a lot about the issue of quality. In particular, I was struck by the way that translator talk on social media and blogs seemed to be dominated either by a very technical approach to quality (focusing on technology, terminology and subject specialisation) or sidestepped the issue altogether in favour of discussion of business issues such as marketing and rates.
All of these are important, of course, but unless you can unpick complex ideas in the source language and express them in clear, elegant sentences in the target language, then all the technology, terminology and marketing in the world won’t make you into a good translator.
Simon: Before we actually started revising each other’s work, we exchanged a few emails to make sure we were on the same page. We were all clear that feedback needed to be robust and that it would be a waste of time if we held back for fear of causing offence. Other than that, we decided it would be best to take an open-ended approach, just sending each other work and seeing how it developed.
Victoria: We each take it in turns to send the other two a short extract of something we’ve translated, both source and target texts. These are mostly finished translations that we’ve already sent to clients, although occasionally we work on ‘live’ texts, confidentiality permitting. The two revisers have a week to send corrections, suggested changes and comments. This feedback process usually takes about an hour.
Tim: Although we refer to it as ‘revision’, we’ve deliberately been quite free in our approach. Each of us has our own style: Victoria tends to give texts a very thorough edit, I’m a bit more discursive but with less attention to detail, Simon is probably somewhere between the two extremes. Despite this, we almost always seem to focus in on the same issues in each text we review and we generally suggest similar solutions.
It’s also important to understand that the process is not really about improving specific translations. After all, most of the texts we work on are ‘dead’ in the sense that they have already been submitted to clients. Instead, our focus is on building our skills as translators so that we can produce better work in the future.
Victoria: We quickly went beyond giving advice on word choices and the flow of texts to discussing other things translators often grapple with alone, like rates, marketing and specialization, and from there to raising bi- or trilingual children, fitting work and family together, local politics, and our shared love of single malt.
Tim: When we first started out, I think we probably expected to identify a list of our own weaknesses: typical mistranslations, specific structures that we tend to overuse or misuse, that kind of thing. There has been a little bit of that, but for me the main benefit of regularly giving and receiving feedback is that it has made me much better at critically reading my own work. I often find myself looking at a sentence or a particular phrasing and asking myself, ‘What would Simon or Victoria think of that?’
Simon: I’ve had the same experience as Tim. When I’m translating a tricky text I often now imagine Victoria or Tim looking over my shoulder and encouraging me to cut a word, rework a sentence or look a bit further for exactly the right solution. I’ve learned that even translations I consider good can sometimes be ‘undercooked’ and need a little more work. It’s also been a good experience in terms of learning to take criticism – something I’ve never been particularly good at! But there’s a mutual trust involved in this kinds of exercise that puts us all on equal terms. I don’t always agree with what the others say, but I know that any criticism is constructive. And I often find myself nodding in agreement as I read their comments.
Victoria: We did consider expanding the group at one point, but in the end we decided that three was the perfect number: communication is manageable, you get more than one person’s feedback on each text, but don’t have to wait too long for it to be your turn to be reviewed.
Simon: Recently we’ve decided to vary the format and do the occasional translation slam, where we each translate the same text and then compare the results. Although it sounds simple, this is actually more difficult to structure because we really want to do more than just look at each others’ efforts and nod. We prepare our translations separately, then compile them into a four-column document to make it easier to compare the different translations. This then provides the basis for a videoconference where we analyse our translations, discuss the differences, and talk about any aspects we found particularly challenging or solutions that work well.
Tim: When we talk to other translators about this, they tend to assume it’s basically an arrangement for swapping proofreading services. But it’s really much more about professional development: improving our skills as translators, and having a place where we can share ideas with trusted colleagues. One simple example of how it’s changed my practice is that, after talking to Simon, I realised I could probably boost my output without compromising on quality. It’s easy to ignore other people’s claims of how many words they translate per day, but when the person telling you is a respected colleague and you can see the quality of his work, then you are less inclined to be dismissive and more likely to be inspired to up your own game.
Simon: We’ve got to know quite a bit about each other’s very different lives, too, which helps build trust and gives the three-way relationship a warmer, human element. When more people started asking to join us, I set up a Facebook group, the Standing Up Revision Club, to help match up others who want to establish their own, similar arrangement. More members of the Facebook group are very welcome – we hope it will lead to more translators connecting to improve the quality of their work.
You can join the Facebook group here:
In his essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell railed against confusing and unclear writing.
He summarised his advice in six rules, which have been the mainstay of English style guides ever since:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Unlike writers, translators are constrained by their source text. (I also bridle at the absolute nature of Orwell’s rules.) So I have adapted them for translators:
- When translating a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, you don’t always need to use the direct equivalent in the target language. You may not wish to use a figure of speech at all. And if you do, try to avoid using any figure of speech that feels tired and worn out.
- When translating a source text that is packed with long words, remember that the best translation will often involve shorter words.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, consider doing so. It may make your translation clearer and more elegant.
- Avoid using the passive where the active would be a more natural choice.
- Only use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if the field and register of the text mean this is the best choice or if there is no everyday English equivalent.
- Never write anything that is outright barbarous, even if the source text reads as if it was written by Attila the Hun.