This is not a beauty contest: some thoughts on the challenge of translating style

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):

HSeveral hours later, long after night had fallen,I couldn’t get to sleep. I went into María’s room and sat on a chair next to her bed.Her breathing was laborious because of all the cigarettes she smokedHerbreathing was laboured because of all the cigarettes she smoked. I watched her without waking herup: her mouth was slightly open,there were wrinkles all around her eyeswere 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,let myself feelingher warm breathas 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 music was a muffled noise  here, ofthe music could be heard in María’s bedroom, the bedroom that – many years before – had also[JIWP2] been my mother’s many years before. I looked out of the window,at the cars parked in the street outside. 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.


 [JIWP1]Not 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.

Entrevista con Maximiliano Barrientos

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.

La desaparición del paisaje (Maximiliano Barrientos)

Published by Periférica (Cáceres, Spain). 272 pages.

The process by which some books make it into English and others don’t has always struck me as a bit of a mystery. I’ve read a lot of great novels in Spanish over the last year and I’m reluctant to choose favourites but if you allowed me to choose one text that I think really ought to be translated into English, then La desaparición del paisaje by Maximiliano Barrientos would be my selection.

I spoke to Maximiliano about his work, and also about translation and writing in general. The interview is followed by a synopsis of the novel and a brief sample translation. A longer sample is available on request.


TG: La desaparición del paisaje is one of those books that seems fairly straightforward: the story of a 32-year-old man who returns to Bolivia after 12 years in the United States. But whenever I try to describe it to friends and colleagues, I get tongue-tied. I realize that – although it’s fairly short (270 pages) and doesn’t have a particularly complicated plot – it touches on a lot of different issues. Could you sum it up in a few words?

MB: Perhaps the clearest theme is return: what it means to go back to the site where one’s formative experiences occurred, the place from which the character has escaped – and this escape forms the starting point for the novel, even though it is not actually recounted. Returning is always problematic, because the person who has left comes back to a physical location but cannot return to the mental and emotional space where these events took place. You can return to a place but you can’t return to the past (and it is this past that haunts the entire novel). So the past is another of my novel’s key themes. The third major theme, in my view, is the family and, in particular, the relationship between fathers and sons, and the struggle that sons embark upon when they are threatened by their fathers’ demons. This struggle is one of the sites where masculinity is constructed: or rather, a particular type of masculinity, one that processes loss through a prism of rage and violence.

TG: One of the things I love when I sit down to translate a text – which, in this case, is just a short sample so far – is that I am forced to read much more closely. I have to admit that I’m not a particularly attentive reader by nature (to be blunt, I’m lazy!), but when I translate I suddenly notice everything: the punctuation, the ambiguity, little silences, the rhythm of the dialogues. It’s as if I’d been magically transformed into some kind of super-reader. When I translated the first 15 pages of La desaparición del paisaje, I realized that your style – which at first impression might strike the reader as quite plain – is actually full of idiosyncrasies. Can you tell me about your style, what characterizes it?

MB: You’re right. The way that translating a text forces you to become a more attentive reader is interesting. I’ve experienced this even as an amateur, translating short stories by authors such as Peter Orner, Aimee Bender, Mary Gaitskill and Rick Bass for a series of creative writing workshops that I’ve been running for a number of years. I wanted to discuss some structural aspects of several short stories, but they hadn’t been translated into Spanish, so I gave participants the original text along with my own translation.

I don’t think style is something you choose. I’d agree with the great Flannery O’Connor who described it as a gift, something innate, something you eventually discover after countless failures, after countless readings in which you intuit the existence of places that you don’t wish to explore as a narrator. To be honest, it’s more helpful to identify what it is you loathe about some writers than to identify things that you love. A literary education is a battlefield, one where you have to choose sides, where there’s no such thing as neutrality.

Style is something you discover, but if you never learn your craft then your style remains baggy and shapeless. You strengthen it as you practise. I guess you can think of it as an apprenticeship that writers need to serve. I’m interested in how language can produce the illusion of experience, so that the reader feels they have actually lived it, and to achieve this the language has to become invisible, to convert itself into a cadence, a rhythm, a breath which is at the service of certain key images. For me, the image is what comes first, what’s most important: language seeks to translate it.

TG: As far as I know, before I read La desaparición del paisaje I’d only ever read one Bolivian novel in my life: Los afectos, by Rodrigo Hasbún (translated into English with the title Affections, by Sophie Hughes, and published by Pushkin Press). Would you place yourself within a Bolivian literary tradition or within something wider: Latin American literature, for example, or simply literature written in Spanish? Are there any individual writers who’ve influenced you heavily as an author?

MB: I don’t think we can really talk of a Bolivian tradition – or even a Latin American one, in fact, because that’s a label which is applied to writers who really have nothing in common, whose style and poetics are very different, diametrically opposed even. I owe a debt to certain writers, whether they are Bolivian, Latin American, North American or European. If I had to identify with a particular tradition, it would be with poets such as Jaime Saenz, Viel Temperley and Zbigniew Herbert. Novelists like William Faulkner, J.G. Ballard, Vladimir Sorokin, Cormac McCarthy and Juan José Saer. Short story writers such as Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson and Mariana Enríquez.

You can’t map a strictly literary tradition geographically; instead, such traditions are based on affinities around imagery and sensibilities, so we’re not talking about solid structures but ones that are in constant flux. Because a writer doesn’t belong to a single lineage: over time, the line breaks.

And if we look at it in geographical terms, then tradition really operates more like a lobby. If a Mexican writer or an Argentine writer publishes a novel, it will be a thousand times easier for them than it would be for an Ecuadorian or a Bolivian writer, because of the production system and the infrastructure. Does a novel written by a Paraguayan arouse the same expectations as one written by a Colombian? It would be ridiculous to think that was the case. The whole system is constructed to favour strong traditions.


Synopsis

La desaparición del paisaje  (The Disappearance of the Landscape) is set in the city of Santa Cruz, and is narrated by Vitor Flanagan, recently returned to Bolivia at the age of 32, having left his homeland when he was 20. Vitor’s mother died when he was still a child, and as he grew older Vitor gradually realized that leaving was the only way to avoid turning into his father, a violent alcoholic who was overwhelmed by his wife’s death.

However, by the time Vitor returns to Bolivia, after 12 erratic years in the United States, he has lost contact with everyone who loved him: María, his father’s widow, a kind of substitute mother, and a silent witness to the family’s gradual disintegration; Fabia, Vitor’s sister, who harbours a profound resentment towards her brother for disappearing from her life, for having forgotten about the rest of them; Laura, his former girlfriend, who is married to another man; and Alberto, his best friend at school.

Upon returning to Bolivia, Vitor seeks to undo the effects of the past: taking justice into his own hands and exacting vengeance on a rapist whose attack he failed to prevent many years earlier; reviving an old affair only to be abandoned, in turn, by his former lover; and trying to care for the ageing alcoholic uncle who was in love with Vitor’s mother. But the past can never simply be forgotten or undone, emotions cannot simply be overcome, wounds may heal but the scars remain.

Author data

Maximiliano Barrientos was born in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, in 1979. His short story collection, Diario (2009), received the Santa Cruz National Literature Prize. His first two books – Los daños and Hoteles – were subsequently edited, revised and transformed into the short story collection Fotos tuyas cuando empiezas a envejecer and the novel Hoteles. Both titles were published by Periférica in 2011.

In 2015 he published La desaparición del paisaje, also with Periférica, as well as the collection of short stories titled Una casa en llamas, published by El Cuervo in Bolivia and by Eterna Cadencia in the rest of Latin America and in Spain. His most recent novel is En el cuerpo una voz, a dystopic fable set in a post-civil war Bolivia that has collapsed into chaos and violence. He lives in Santa Cruz. Maximiliano Barrientos is represented by Indent Literary Agency

Sample translation

I hugged María and looked at the armchairs and I realized that it was in one of these that she had found my father dead one morning in 2003.

Your room’s just the same, take your things through and then come and we’ll have something to eat, she said.

I don’t want you to tell Fabia I’m back.

Leave your things and come through here, I’ll cook you up some jerky with rice, you can’t have had majao for years.

I’ll go and see my sister, I said, just not right now.

There’s no hurry, get yourself settled in and then we’ll have some lunch. You must be starving.

I took my bags and went through to the room that had been mine as a kid. The house was in good condition, there were no damp stains on the walls, no peeling paint falling off at the slightest touch, no termites in the timber. Lying on the single bed I listened to María coughing and moving things about, getting the plates out and cooking, doing what she always did, as if this day was no different from any other. I closed my eyes and wished for sleep to come, to blot out everything for a few hours.

The first afternoon following my return to Santa Cruz, when María was out doing the weekly shopping, I let myself into her room and looked through my father’s things. She had kept his clothes on the wardrobe shelves, she hadn’t given them away. There were also bottles with dregs of whisky in his old hiding places. I opened them and sniffed. They smelled of my father. He died of a heart attack. María called me in Chicago to give me the news, I hadn’t spoken to him for two years because of a stupid argument. She said she’d found him dead one morning in the living room. She said my father looked like he was asleep but when she saw him she knew he was dead. I was twenty-one and I’d arrived in the Windy City fifteen months earlier. I didn’t go to the funeral. Instead, I stayed in the States and didn’t talk about his death to anyone. I didn’t speak to María again until a week before I returned, almost ten years after I’d heard the news of my father’s demise.

I lay on the bed and stayed there for a few hours until María found me asleep. She was carrying bags from the supermarket. She said my name. I stood up and apologized.

It doesn’t matter, she said.

I saw his clothes, you didn’t give them away.

I don’t have to, it doesn’t bother me.

And the bottles.

It doesn’t matter, she repeated.

Did he carry on drinking so much, right to the end?

He drank but he didn’t fight anymore. He was old.

When I didn’t reply she said:

Why don’t you try on the clothes? I’m sure they’ll fit, you’re the same size.

His clothes and his bottles were still there. The shoes he wore, his wallets, his cigarette lighters, his old razor. Things that could be piled up, collected, put away in a chest. The same thing happened when my mother died in 1989, when I was nine and Fabia was six.

Please contact me if you would like to see an extended sample of this translation.


If you’re interested in reading about how I approached the challenge of trying to reflect Barrientos’ distinctive style in my English translation, please take a look at my blogpost – This is not a beauty contest: some thoughts on the challenge of translating style.

“Teaching style”: talking to Tim Parks about teaching translation

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.

Release your inner critic: how embracing criticism could make you a better, happier translator

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.

Translators Association panel discussion. Photo (c) Ian Giles

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. 

Thematic slams

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.

Some people liked a book, someone else didn’t…

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:

https://fitzcarraldoeditions.com/books/this-little-art

I would also encourage people to read Benjamin Moser’s review. For what it’s worth, his review inspired me to read the book:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/28/books/review/kate-briggs-this-little-art.html

And finally, here’s the open letter:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/20/books/review/letters-to-the-editor.html