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Translation as Process: Translator’s Notes and Reflections

The lines between translation and adaptation are blurred. Does adapting someone else’s poem, making it my own with my own words, layering on my own experience, count as translation? How does it change the folds of the poem?

When I’m writing my response to a poem, I think about the point at which the text becomes my own. I have a starting point: maybe I use the same title, or maybe the same theme, or maybe just the same structure, but I move past that point and the text becomes mine, too. I layer over my own experience and my own imagination, my own subjectivities. As translators, our texts belong in a strange grey space of ownership. Our texts are the author’s texts, and yet they are also our own. We cannot publish translations of a text without permission from the author and often also their publisher, but we cannot deny that the words we have put to the page or screen are our own. They follow the meaning of the author’s words, in a different language. Each word was our choice.

For my next re-writing of a poem, I want to start by changing one adjective and then seeing where that takes me, seeing how it can fundamentally alter the mood of a poem, like a butterfly effect.

Translator’s Notes and Process

Translator’s notes often highlight the process behind a translation, but not always. They can cover their specific translation approach and strategies; a close reading of the source; a discussion of translation problems, solutions and examples; an address to the target audience or reader; the intended effect of the target text on the target audience; references to other translations, translators or the context of production; or an explanation of the foreignness of the source culture references. They can contain all, some or none of the above. But to me, the most important thing about a translator’s note is how it offers personal space to the translator to reflect on the process. Translators don’t often get a lot of space to talk about translation and make themselves known, as the publishing world still likes to bury them in the small print. Granted, most readers may even skip over a translator’s note, especially in mainstream literature.

It’s also highly dependant on the publisher, type of literature and audience whether a translator’s note is likely to appear in a printed work or whether the idea is almost inconceivable. Smaller publishers tend to be more amenable to including a translator’s note, especially smaller publishers specialising in translated literature. Translator’s notes are more common in poetry anthologies, and far less common in mainstream prose fiction.

I wonder if translator’s notes describing the foreignness of the source culture may become less common as the dominance of the Internet and Google only increases. The translator may be an expert on these things, but wouldn’t we just be more likely to quickly google an unknown, untranslated term or cultural reference than riffle through the translator’s note at the start or end, hoping for enlightenment? It’s true that there has been a decided shift in translation studies towards the ‘foreign’ in recent years, where translators refrain from transposing unknown festivals, places, forms of address and cultural markers into something more familiar in the target language, or even translating these at all. I wonder: were another translation of Alice im Wunderland to be completed today, whether William the Conqueror would be kept as is, and not have been metamorphosed into Napoleon.

Translator’s Notes: Two Examples and Comparisons

More and more frequently, translator’s notes are taking on the forms of blog posts, YouTube videos or online interviews. They may not be contained within the published work itself. A great example of this is Tom Kuhn’s blog post on translating Bertolt Brecht’s “Die Maske des Bösen”, which I found charming and illuminating. I don’t often translate poetry, and I find it an almost insurmountable challenge when I attempt it. I find that, whichever words I choose, my solutions are never quite satisfactory. The original always seems to convey slightly more meaning than I could ever recapture in the target language. Kuhn’s agonising over a single word in Brecht’s poem, ‘böse’, felt very familiar. He calls translation, and translating poetry in particular, “the most wonderful and most punishing form of close reading”, a “rigorous delight”. Translation isn’t just a task you can turn the page on whenever necessary. You can’t just close the book and walk away. When I’m translating a longer piece of work, the work follows me. I’m thinking about it in the back of my mind when I’m in the shower, walking the dog or waiting for my toast to spring up in the morning.

In re-translating a previously translated work from a German literary legend, Kuhn also highlights the difficulty in shaking off the “forms and cadences of a previous established rendition”, something which I would heartily agree with. It’s one of the reasons I prefer to translate previously untranslated works. I like the freshness of it, I like the challenge. I also don’t like the idea of a previous translator looking over my shoulder, living or dead. I am always too tempted to refer back to previous translations, and then can’t clear my head. However, when I feel that a previous translator has ‘hit the nail on the head’, so to speak, I also feel jumpy, pressured to come up with a different solution for the sake of differentiation, of exhausting the thesaurus for synonyms.

Kuhn draws attention to the constraints he faced in translating the word ‘böse’, which is infuriatingly ambiguous in German. Its usual translation is evil, but it can mean cross, upset, angry or aggressive. The word couldn’t have been too long, as it would have been too ponderous in the final line. It also couldn’t have been two different words at different points in the poem (‘böse’ appears a total of three times). A lot of the power in the poem stems from the repetition of this word. It also couldn’t have been a high-register word such as ‘malevolent’, as ‘böse’ in German is either neutral or low-register, depending on its context. A high-register word would have seemed hugely overblown in comparison. Kuhn eventually settled on ‘angry’, and although this word choice doesn’t spark joy in me, I can’t argue with his process. It was altogether a thoroughly enlightening read.

However, to add an interesting dichotomy to this post, I also want to introduce you to a ‘bad’ example of a translator’s note, published shockingly recently in 2020. Lars Fischer’s translation of Ansgar Martin’s Ultima Philosophia: Zur Transformation von Metaphysik got me excited for all the wrong reasons. Granted, I have never read German philosophy, but this Fischer’s translator’s note is a hoot. It makes me wonder why it always seems to be male translators who enjoy trashing other’s work and efforts, and assertively laying out a set of rules for a ‘correct’ translation. Obviously, not ALL men (translators), but the most obnoxious peritexts often seem to come from them. Perhaps they feel emasculated in a predominantly female profession. I can only advise that if you are looking for a career in which you can set up a neat dichotomy between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, don’t choose translation. Fischer wastes no time in his damnatio memorae of all previous translations of Martin’s work, wherein he exclaims they suffered from “firstly, rather embarassingly, all too often, an obvious inability to grasp the more intricate nuances of the German”. However, I would recommend that Fischer first works on his parataxis, as I suspect it’s not being used as a literary device here. He then goes on to deride previous translators’ general ‘incompetence’, where Martin is made to sound “as though he could barely string a sentence together and consistently turned out clumsy and incomprehensible prose”. And not even the author is safe. Fischer proclaims that “the translator is ultimately forced to create clarity where an author may quite unintentionally and unwittingly have failed to express themselves with sufficient precision”. I am honestly at a loss as to how this translator’s note got published in 2020. I don’t think there’s much to add here, and I’ll let these citations speak for themselves.

To me, translator’s notes should be inclusive and seek to start a dialogue with other translators and readers. Translators should stand on each other’s shoulders instead of tearing each other down. I’ve included Fischer’s as an example of how not to write a translator’s note.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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