Just Three Things
Literary translation is an intense, complicated, time-consuming process. Anyone who has done any serious literary translation will admit that. There are, however, really just three things that go into the work of literary translation, and mastery of these three things will produce solid translations.
The first thing that needs attention in the process of literary translation is reading. That sounds so simplistic, but real reading – literary reading – is in itself an intense, complicated, time-consuming process. The translator should not assume she can peruse a document in the original, then just reproduce it in the target language. There is a good deal of work that goes into reading a literary text.I often sum up the elements that go into making poetry (and any literary text) using four words: language, structure, image, and idea. A literary reading gives attention to each of these elements and how they fit together within the text at hand. This is what it is to consider the work as a text. At the same time, a literary reading must also consider the work as a cultural product, giving attention not only to how it works internally, but also to how it fits into the world around it. This involves an understanding of the cultural forces involved in formulating the text in the form that it takes, and also the impact it would have had on its original readers. To complicate matters, when working with an older text, the reception it received by generations between its time of publication and the present day can also play an important role in understanding the text. For instance, today it is almost taken for granted that Hamlet can, and perhaps even should, be read with an eye toward Oedipus. It is helpful to note, however, that this was not necessarily the case before Freud. For a couple of centuries, Hamlet would have been read without recourse to a Freudian lens at all. To understand how this development has changed contemporary readings of the play is to grasp the fact that the text has taken on a life of its own, outliving not only the author who penned it, but also the audience who first experienced it. This has profound implications for how we interact with the text ourselves. There are all sorts of angles and questions to be considered in our process of interpreting it, once we take on board both its vitality and mutability.
The second thing we must do when we are engaged in literary translation is to cross over. The etymology of the word “translation” tells us that our work is to “carry across” a text. It is natural to ask ourselves what we are carrying across from where and to what new place. The easy answer is that we are carrying across words produced in one language to another language. That misses the big point of the entire literary experience, though, which is that a literary text is so much more than the sum of the words that produce it. It contains in itself an entire culture, and it is that culture that gives it life. When we translate, we must carry the culture contained in the words over to a new language and its culture. The question of how to do so is closely tied back to the reading experience. In the sort of literary reading described above, the reader considers much more than just the words on the page and how they are put together. She also looks at the readership for which the work was produced (and the broader readership that has come after, where necessary). When we carry over, we might have to make decisions regarding which target readership’s understanding of the text we are translating. Using the example above, we would consider whether a Freudian/psychoanalytical reading of Hamlet would inform our understanding as we translate. Equally important is understanding whom we are translating for. We must carry across the technical aspects of the work, considering how it is put together and duplicating it in such a way that the effects of the text work in the new language. And we must also carry across the cultural weight of the text, bringing it from the shared culture of readers of the original version to a new shared culture, that of the readers we hope to gain for the new version of the text we are creating.
Finally, literary translation involves writing. Translation is never a mathematical equation, plugging in a word from Language A to replace one in Language B. That’s just not how it works, any more than literature can be created through nothing more than an algorithm and a vocabulary list. At this stage of translation, I think it is important to be keenly aware of the new readership. It is imperative that the translator have a finger on the pulse of the work’s new potential audiences. In my own translation, this sensibility comes from my work as a writer, as that is where I am most able to test out how readers respond to the various texts I have produced. But that is not the only place where I get a feel for the sort of reception a text might have. I also spend a good deal of time attending literary events and listening to the sorts of things readers are saying about texts people are producing today, and I regularly read reviews of new work coming out. All of this sits on the periphery of my awareness as I take up my pen and start to produce the new version of a text for an English language readership. I have a feel for how they might respond to the scenes playing out before me on the page in the original language, and I have to use all the craft involved in creating an English language work to recreate the effects the original has had on its own readers. In order to do so, I have to make use of all the resources available to me as a writer of the English language, reproducing not merely the words contained in the text I am reading, but the nuances, the effects, and the life they convey.
It’s just three things that make up literary translation, when you really get down to the work itself. It just so happens that any one of those three things is quite an intense, complicated, and time-consuming task. When put together, the work can often seem quite daunting. But if we break it down into these three parts, it helps make it much more manageable.