“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.