The Director of the Edinburgh Book Festival, Nick Barlay, was a judge for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and that interest in translated fiction carried through to the programming of this year’s festival. There was a series of events discussing the art of translation and many others with international authors of which I attended a goodly number. It soon began to feel as if all these authors and translators were having an ongoing conversation with each other. This is my summary of the salient points and the translator tricks that were identified.
Day One 11.08.2012
Gerhard Bakker confesses to thinking that his novel The Detour was untranslatable. The reason being it is a novel about the translation into Dutch of a poem by Emily Dickinson – the novel ends with the translated poem. How, exclaimed Bakker, can you translate a novel like that? David Colmer’s answer was to insert clues and the Dutch words at appropriate moments in the text so that the final page, which must be in Dutch or the whole point of the novel is lost, does not come as a shock to the English reader.
Day Three 13.08.12
David Bellos, translator of Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare, maintained that the idea of an untranslatable language is absurd. Language is always meaningful and, therefore, always translatable. He claimed that the idea of a literal translation is an oxymoron given that literal means from letters and that letters have no meaning. He was galvanised into writing his recently published book on translation Is That A Fish In Your Ear by the oft-quoted myth that a translation is no substitute for an original. The status of translators, he said, shows the way that a culture feels about itself. The UK and USA are quite secure and so translators are allocated a modest place in the social hierarchy. In Japan, however, the translator’s name is often printed in a bigger font than that of the original author! However, as a word of warning to all translators everywhere, he reminded us that translators were publicly executed in the Ottoman Empire, if those receiving the message didn’t like it.
Anecdotes from his own translating career: Bellos maintained that his English translations of Kadare from the intermediate French feel closer to the original in that they have restored Albanian character names. As he doesn’t speak Albanian, he can’t say if they are better. Only an Albanian speaking very good French and English would be able to make that judgement. As for translating Georges Perec, he claimed there are huge swathes of Perec’s prose that are quite mundane and not at all difficult to translate. He kept his secrets about translating Perec’s fancy linguistic pirouettes close to his chest.
Day Ten 20.8.2012
Translation Duel: Spanish with Bernardo Atxaga, Rosalind Harvey and Frank Wynne, chaired by Daniel Hahn
A sell-out event (who says there’s no interest in translation) during which the translators sat centre-stage. I attended a German equivalent last year and was interested to see how the format worked for a language I’m not that familiar with. It does because the discussion about language is fascinating. Take one short story, two translators and the resulting translations, although technically correct, bear very little resemblance to each other when compared sentence by sentence. Bernardo Atxaga’s short story about a man, an unfriendly dog and a herd of cows posed some interesting challenges. When for instance does a dog tranform from an it to a he/she in English? When do animals scutter?On a more abstract level, discussion about what makes a good translator culminated in this quotation from Edgar Keret: Good translators are like ninjas. As soon as you see them, they stop being any good.
Day ?? Pertinent comment by Anonymous
It is not possible to attend events about translation and translated fiction without the inevitable question about why so little is translated into English – the oft quoted 3% cent. So I apologise to whoever said the following, but I was too busy wondering why this thought had never struck me before, to note it down. He (that much I do remember, Frank Wynne perhaps?) pointed out that Anglophone literature covers many cultures and continents that there isn’t the imperative to translate to the level of 40% of all publications that is reached in France.
Day 17 27.08.2012 Gained in Translation:How the Best Translators do it
An event in which two literary translators, Sarah Ardizzone and Daniel Hahn, discussed their craft with Marion Bourbouze, the Head of Marketing for the Scottish Book Trust. And what were their top tips? 1) Find yourself a good editor (Sarah Ardizzone) 2) Wear two hats: the first being the translator’s hat, the second that of an editor of an anglophone audience (Sarah Ardizzone) 3) Become a good reader in the foreign language and a good writer in English – note you do not need to be a perfect speaker of the language you are translating (Daniel Hahn) 4) Avoid the author who thinks his English is good enough to make final decisions and 5) Don’t be afraid of editing the original by changing the text or sequence of chapters, if it’s not working in English. As Daniel Hahn said, a translator lives with a book for 3 months. If there are mistakes to be found, and frequently there are in books where the editing culture is not as rigorous as in the UK, a translator will find them!
Interestingly both translators came to the profession by chance. That’s less likely to happen these days when literary translation is becoming increasingly professionalised. Daniel Hahn, who is also programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, discussed the mentoring programmes that are now in place for budding literary translators, particularly those seeking to translate from a language other that French, German and Spanish. Apparently there are enough of those to go around.
Plenty of food for thought whether you read translated fiction or not.