In translation, the angle of light changes, and your attention is redirected.

Suddenly, your attention is redirected, the angle of light changed…

Author Sarah Bower works with the British Centre for Literary Translation and here reflects that behind many a great book is a great (and mostly under-valued) translator.

You know how it is. Something you’ve never really noticed, taken for granted all your life and then, suddenly, your attention is redirected, the angle of light changed, and this thing, this piece of the scenery, moves to centre stage.

In the summer of 2011, I was recommended to the writer and translator Daniel Hahn as a possible co-ordinator for a scheme he was setting up to match selected emerging literary translators with more experienced mentors, to help promote not just the nascent careers of these mentees but an awareness of literary translation more generally.

As any translator will tell you, they (translators) are woefully under-appreciated and underpaid, though perhaps their condition has improved a little over the past three years thanks to what has become the British Centre for Literary Translation Mentoring Scheme and other initiatives.

The name change of Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (from the original Asia Pacific Writing Partnership) is just one piece of evidence that the climate for literary translators is improving, though there is no room for complacency.

I have been as guilty as the next woman of taking translators for granted. I have fallen under the wheels of Anna Karenina’s train, mused with Gregor Samsa on the consequences of becoming a cockroach, faced the firing squad with Colonel Aureliano Buendia and tried to remember the date of my mother’s death with Meursault. I have worried, with Prince Mishkin, about smashing china, and about murder with Raskolnikov, without ever considering how these texts, most of them written originally in languages I do not understand, came to me.

They were simply ‘the classics’, ‘the canon’, the books you read if you were an informed reader and particularly if, like me, you aspired to be a writer. Their status in no way differed, for me, from that of great books written in English, from Great Expectations to The Great Gatsby.

My meeting with Danny Hahn and my three subsequent years of running the BCLT Mentoring Scheme with him have changed all that.

Spending half an hour listening to three translators debate the best way to translate the word ‘maman’ in the iconic opening sentence of Camus’ L’Etranger (and there again…The Stranger, or The Outsider?), and realising the discussion of that one word, with all its cultural and emotional baggage, could go on all day, nay all week, a lifetime even, has changed all that. Not only has it sharpened my appreciation of literature in translation, but of literature in general.

Three translators walked into a bar...

Three translators walked into a bar…how translation has changed in the past 150 years

It is a sad fact that, when fiction writers gather, what they mostly talk about is advances, agents and, increasingly nowadays, the ‘evil empire’ of Amazon. There is only one fellow inmate of our particular asylum with whom I ever talk about why and how we do what we do.

Among translators, however, there seems to be a wonderful, fresh eagerness and enthusiasm to talk turkey (in Turkish, possibly, or Khorasani Turkic) and to share technical and creative know-how.

Creative. Now there’s a word. I recently participated in a summer conference at BCLT part of whose purpose was to examine the notion that translations are creative works in their own right. As part of a series of workshops in which we translated, among other things, picture books and birdsong, I gave a creative writing workshop. Alas, I succeeded in terrifying my participant translators, despite my best endeavours to provide them with exercises designed to entertain. It became clear during the workshop that they did not see themselves as original creators but as interpreters of their source texts, channels, if you like, of other writers’ imaginations. They missed their safety net, even if it was a recording of a kookaburra or a set of images from an anarchic, contemporary French Red Riding Hood.

It involves an identification with the original author not dissimilar in mystery and intensity to the author’s involvement with character.

I suggest two responses to this. Firstly, the act of interpreting and translating someone else’s imagination is surely a creative act. It involves an identification with the original author not dissimilar in mystery and intensity to the author’s involvement with character. What writing fiction feels like is a process of translating the thoughts, feelings and actions of a set of characters into words.

What translation looks like, to me as an outsider (or stranger?), is what the eminent translator and educator, Michael Henry Heim, called ‘creating the same text.’ A good translation is true to its original, but in seeking after artistic truth it may diverge from the ‘fact’ of the original. Word order, for example, will almost always vary from source to target language, but beyond the basics lie the many complex, nuanced decisions translators have to make in order to translate a culture.

Take fat. Fat, in English, has become an ugly word, associated with greed, physical ugliness, a lack of self-control. In other cultures, however, it has positive connotations – of having sufficient wealth not to go hungry or to have to engage in physical labour.

So, if you are translating a positive culture of fatness into English, you cannot use the word ‘fat’. You must choose an alternative which does not carry the same negative baggage – ‘plump’, perhaps, or ‘generously proportioned’, or ‘curvaceous’. Of course, each of these has a different meaning in English, so before you can choose you must delve into the psyche of the original writer and try to divine his intent.

This seems to me not too far removed from the process I go through, as a novelist, in order to divine what my characters mean when they act in certain ways and put this into the right words.

Here is a quotation from the Israeli playwright, Amos Oz, whose English translator, Nicholas de Lange, we are also privileged to count among our mentors. This is from Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness:

‘My father could read in sixteen or seventeen languages, and speak eleven… My mother spoke four or five languages and read seven or eight. They conversed in Russian or Polish when they did not want me to understand…Out of cultural considerations they mostly read books in German or English, and they presumably dreamed in Yiddish. But the only language they taught me was Hebrew.’

When the older members of the family wished to gossip or tell lewd stories, they did so in Russian, to protect the child. The young Amos, on the other hand, could swear in Hebrew with impunity because it was a language his parents only knew on its best behaviour and they did not understand street slang.

In Europe, our medieval ancestors believed a facility with languages was a gift of the Devil. You can see how that might happen. The Devil, of course, has all the best tunes.

Sarah Bower is a UK based novelist and short story writer whose membership of APWT is a legacy of her six months as writer in residence at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, where she taught classes of Chinese, Korean, American, and one Slovakian, students, in English. As well as running the BCLT Mentoring Scheme, she also organises, and helps to teach, masterclasses in Japanese to English translation for BCLT and the Nippon Foundation. She speaks no language with any conviction other than English.