Reflections on Translation as Writing

The MALT Process and Product module at UEA is a brainchild of Clive Scott’s poststructuralism. It’s about what translation actually means to me and for me. Translators have their own subjectivities which are expressed through the creative medium of translation as writing. Translation strategies come from the text: they come from looking and listening, a close reading followed by a conversation. How does it want to be translated? What is it asking for? It’s great if we can collaborate with the author on a translation, but translation is a conversation with or without the input of the author.

But who speaks in a translation? The answer is both the author and translator. Sometimes it is impossible to unpick the voices from one another, indeed it’s what most translators aim for. Translations where the translator’s voice and influence is evident are often seen as ‘bad’ translations, where fluidity of voice is prized. Translations are a whole composed of manifold layers: layers of voice, layers of drafting and layers of style.

When choosing a work to translate, there’s something called the ‘jealousy test’. Do I wish I had written these ideas in my home language? Do I wish I had come up with something so clever and insightful? If the answer to both of these is yes, and I feel a pang of jealousy at not having done either of these, It’s a good indication I should have a go at translating it.

Defining Translation

Translation is a mode of expression for the translator as well as the author. The author has their words expressed in a new language for a new audience, but the translator is expressing them. It’s also useful to look beyond the conventional norm of interlingual translation, from one language to another, and start looking at other forms. There’s intralingual translation, between different forms and modes of the same language. For example, if I were to write a poem in English based on my response to another English poem, that would be a form of intralingual translation. There’s also adaptation, a translation either from one language into another which is only loosely based on the source language, or a new rendition of a work in the same language which introduces a new cultural or temporal setting, sometimes also known as localisation. For example, West Side Story as a modern American retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Some argue that this isn’t translation at all, I would disagree. Intersemiotic translation is also linked to these ideas. It includes translating a work from one medium into another, such as translating a painting into a work of prose. Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse contains an intriguing case of this, as the protagonist Lily Briscoe eventually manages to capture her vision of the lighthouse and her acquaintances on canvas. Woolf then translates this vision into her visionary prose.

Defining Translators

How do we define ourselves as translators? Do we tell others, “I am a translator and a writer?”, or just “I am a translator?” Is the writing part already clear? Or are there still translators who do not even consider themselves writers? In my experience, it’s far from obvious to others that all translators are writers. Many still see translation as a purely linguistic and grammatical exercise, a uniquely constrained form of word substitution. But Jean Boase-Beier points out that all writing is done under constraints. Authors have to choose how to tell a story. Are they going to write a story as creative non-fiction, using a more detached, journalistic style to relate events? Are they going to intersperse factual writing with creative scenes? Or are they going to turn a project into a novel, maybe even a historical novel? All genres have conventions, and choosing the wrong path for a writing project can result in a huge amount of wasted creative effort, time and money.

Writing can be seen as a conversation just like translation. You are always building on what came before, working from what you have already read. You may be taking inspiration from another style, genre or author, or you may be writing against a particular concept. Translations build upon a source text, they are never the same as the source text.

Translation as Writing

There was a time when I didn’t see translation as writing. At university, the focus of my translation seminars was about being as ‘accurate’ as possible, about figuring out what we had gotten ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Collaboratively, we then used bits and pieces of each of our target texts to create a ‘perfect’ text, a completely ‘correct’ model. I liked the collaborative nature of these sessions, and our tutor was careful not to tell us too often that our suggested translations for a particular word, phrase or sentence was ‘wrong’, but at the same time we got a clear sense that there was a hierarchy of target texts, from best to worst, most to least accurate. There wasn’t much emphasis on the text as a whole, on the way it knitted and flowed together. There was no mention of the translator’s subjective creativity, of what they can bring to the text. When taught translation in this way, even at university, it’s not difficult to see why I didn’t see it as writing.

Computer-Aided Translation (CAT) applications such as TRADOS also didn’t help in this respect. These break up the source text into linguistic blocks, making a text much easier to manage and the words much harder to miss. However, it does make translation feel like even more of a linguistic and grammatical exercise. It was like a balance sheet of loss and gain which had to come out at zero in the end. I don’t currently use any CAD software to translate and I tend to translate straight from the paper copy. I’m not sure about going back to TRADOS after my MA year, I’m conflicted. I am aware that sometimes I miss words despite the best efforts of my conscious mind. However, it seems such a shame to destroy the structure and flow of a literary text in this way by putting it into a myriad of little rows and boxes, because we all know that literature is far more than just the sum of its parts.

The subject matter didn’t help either. We mostly focused on translating journalistic texts and updating and extending Wikipedia articles in English, based on pre-existing German articles. Literary texts were a rarity, a chimera. There were scarce opportunities for artistic flair. But the modules weren’t called ‘technical translation’, they were just called ‘translation’- further emphasising the belief that technical translation focusing on grammatical accuracy was the standard, the norm, and that creative or literary translation was the deviation from that norm.

Translation and Skill

Is it necessary, as Catherine Porter claims, to have ‘mastered’ another language and culture before you can translate well, or indeed should be allowed to translate at all? In This Little Art, Kate Briggs initially responds to her claim with pointed silence. She then goes on to describe her Dutch translation classes for beginners. They are ‘learning by doing’, they are experimenting with language through trial and error. It should not be about elite and exclusive literary performance, here. It’s about the joy of language. It’s narrow-minded to expect a level of literary and linguistic excellence beyond all capability for shortcomings. Translators, when they are even mentioned in reviews, are held to impossibly high standards. An emphasis on ‘mastery’ has problematic consequences.

Feeling Words

Erin Moure’s blog post illuminates what it’s like to feel words. How do we know that the word cabin has ‘longer legs’ than hut? Why do we feel that a cabin is lying down rather than standing up?

Do we, as translators, have the right to change a word to one which resonates more with us, even if it takes us further away from the ‘meaning’ of the word in the source text? I would argue so.

I often teach English as a foreign language where I cannot speak the mother tongues of my students. When we do vocabulary sessions, we start off by categorising adjectives on whether they express positive or negative attributes. What are the connotations of these words?

I ask them to feel the words. I tell them to tell me if they’re good or bad, dark or light. Say it to yourself, and you’ll see. The vast majority of the time they’re correct, even with a low level of English and no knowledge of the word itself. Why does ‘cheerful’ sound breezy, and ‘scaly’ sound creepy and dark? There are not many positive words which start with ‘s’ – there’s something suspiciously sinister about sibilance. Language is intensely and inherently metaphorical. The patterns of sounds represent things. Language is not a reality, just as literature is not a reality, it is an interpretation and an abstraction of reality.

When I look at my finished translation, I think to myself: what made me choose this word and not another? To quote Berman, there are underlying networks of signification everywhere, a genealogy as well as an etymology to words. Every word choice is a manifestation of a hidden network of connotations, collocations and meaning.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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