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.


Process and Product in Translation: Translation as Creative Writing

2017 Archive Contributors — AA Paris Visiting School

The extent to which translation is and is inseparable from creative writing is a question which modern translation theorists are currently grappling with. Kate Brigg’s This Little Art is the hottest book in translation right now (sorry, David Bellos), and it deals with this question eloquently and thought-provokingly.

This Little Art: Kate Briggs: 9781910695456: Books

Does translation ‘feel’ different to creative writing? Dan Gunn once asked Lydia Davis, which is referred to in This Little Art (pp.197-199). Yes, it does, was the answer. Is the translator a true ‘artist’ in the same way that authors and poets are often referred to as artists? Or are they merely an ‘artisan’ or ‘craftsperson’, someone who does creative yet ‘derivative’ work. Most translators don’t have a clear answer to this question, but most agree that there is some ‘real artistry’ involved (to quote Davis here).

Lydia Davis on Translation –

Is there somehow less risk involved in translation? Knowing that the work has already been done, published, received, and has achieved enough acclaim to be translated in the first place? I wouldn’t agree. Translators are taking a huge risk themselves in translating. If the book is a flop in the target language, the translator often takes the blame for having translated badly, somehow, or having misunderstood the text. If the book is a success, the source text author takes the credit. Where’s the fun in that? Davis, however, argues that there is less risk in translated an established work- each to their own.

Is translation the same as creative writing then? Well, not exactly, because there is often no ‘source text’ when it comes to creative writing, but a literary translator with no creative writing skills cannot succeed. But look at the amount of writing that comes from extant material, Kate Briggs exclaims, that lays claim to being ‘new art’. Re-writing ancient myths for the 21st century, for example – think Margaret Attwood’s Penelopiad (2005). Is this creative writing? Is it derivative? Is it a translation?

The Penelopiad (Canons): Atwood, Margaret: 9781786892485:  Books

In literature, as well as biology, there is no such thing as immaculate conception. All ideas come from somewhere. All stories are based on what we’ve already read. There is no such thing as a ‘blank page’, per se. I notice turns of phrase or syntax of the writers I have read recently popping up in my own prose, sometimes consciously, and there must also be the subconscious footprint of authors I have read and enjoyed in my own writings.

“All writing is to some greater or lesser extent determined by constraints”

Kate Briggs

The shortness of a short story, the detachment of journalism, the syllable constructions of sonnets and haikus, writing a play in iambic pentameter, writing instructions numbered and in order, the rhetorical and referencing conventions of an academic essay: these are all constraints, just like working from a source text. Writers such as Georges Perec set themselves creative constraints via the experimental Oulipo group (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle), culminating for him in writing La Disparition, a novel entirely without the letter ‘e’. The writing of translations may be ‘especially directed and especially constrained’ (Briggs), but it is creative writing nonetheless. We do not see works such as La Disparition as any less creative for their constrained nature, so why do some persist in seeing translation as a merely grammatical or linguistic exercise, as somehow ‘less’ than the source text? There is an obsession with the concept of translation as inevitable ‘loss’ and the translator as a diligent automaton- words in, words out. Knowing a language and translating are two completely different things, just as speaking your mother tongue well does not make you a novelist.

Avez-vous déjà lu… un roman lipogrammatique ? – TEXTUALITÉS

Literary Translation and Creative Writing: Disciplinary Boundaries

Over the past few decades, translation has been undergoing something dubbed ‘the cultural turn’. This generally refers to the process of translation broadening its scope far outside its traditional realm, into areas such as political ideology, feminism and postcolonial studies. The lines between translation and other forms of writing and literary theory are consistently being blurred, and translation as cultural exchange has only been fully appreciated recently, as well as the idea that translation can facilitate, subvert or perpetuate either pre-existing cultural norms or radical new perspectives. Kate Briggs often deals with issues of being a so-called ‘lady translator’ – translation is often seen as a feminised and therefore subservient form of writing. That it has, at least for the last hundred or so years, been done mainly (and ever more increasingly) by middle and upper-class white women has lent credence to a belief of the translator as a sort of housewife hobbyist, an amateur who doesn’t need to be appreciated particularly much, or even paid enough or promptly. Kate Briggs has challenged the view of the ‘lady translator’, and other theorists such as Susan Bassnett and Peter Bush have argued how translation and writing are inextricably linked, and should therefore enjoy a more ‘horizontal’, rather than ‘vertical’, relationship.

Imagining Helen: The Life of Translator Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter
Helen Lowe-Porter, the original translator of Thomas Mann’s der Zauberberg (Magic Mountain) into English and the archetypal ‘Lady Translator’. Her work has often been belittled by (male) 20th-century literary critics and theorists.

Translation as a Creative Writing Process

“There’s something inherently fascinating about trying to take that sentence and make it again in a different language”

Kate Briggs

Kate Briggs did a fantastic interview with Madeleine LaRue here, about the process of writing This Little Art and her thoughts and feelings about translation in general. Translation is creativity with restraints, yet it is also inquiry. Every translation, hell every paragraph of every translation teaches you something. Translating an author is always a rabbit warren of Google searches, yet another tab, tracing quotes, searching for references (what could they have been referring to here?), thesauruses, idiom dictionaries, image searches (how might that have looked?), checking etymologies and collocations, finding connotations, phoning a long suffering German friend (what do you think of when I say this word to you? Is it dark, is it light? Is it high register, low register?). You have to understand every facet of the source text before you can even feel like you got it ‘right’ in translation. And once you know what it all means, you have to put it back together in a way that target text readers would want to read in the first place. That’s where the creativity comes in. You have to use the strengths of your language to your advantage. German sentences can have infamously dense and rambling syntax which has often been used to great effect – think Kafka or Mann’s hugely complex sentences. I personally, think Kafka was a genius and deeply enjoyed die Verwandlung, but I found Mann’s composition so frustratingly obtuse it brought a tear to my eye. German also plays with word order to increase the tension, as verbs can often be delayed until near the end of a sentence, obfuscating its ultimate meaning until you have read the whole sentence, often throwing out red herrings which lead you down a semantic dead end. English sentences tend to be shorter and contain fewer clauses. They follow a more rigid order due to our lack of cases and it’s often impossible to delay the verb. How to translate a German source text with complex syntax, long sentences, delayed verbs and endless clauses into English? You have to get creative (or should I say re-creative?). It’s never going to be the ‘same’ as the original, or even as good as the original in exactly the same ways, but a creative translator can compensate for the differences between languages.

Skoutz-Classics: Die Verwandlung - surrealistische Horrorerzählung von  Franz Kafka - Skoutz
Translators have struggled with Kafka’s first sentence in ‘die Verwandlung’ which uses the intentionally vague noun ‘Ungeziefer’ – meaning something like ‘bug’ or ‘vermin’. It has been translated as ‘cockroach’, but was this too specific from the get-go?

The translator from German is often faced with a Hobson’s choice: do I split up the sentences to make the work flow better for an Anglophone reader? Or do I preserve the strangeness of the syntax in English and hope that the target text reader can get over it, or even learn to appreciate it? This can often lead to a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If you deconstruct the author’s stylistic devices too much, you can be accused of domesticating the translation for the target audience, or even of misunderstanding the author. If you leave too much of the author for the readers to interpret, you risk being accused of doing a ‘bad’ translation which is too literal for the target culture.

Spending this much time with a text throws up another interesting question. Do we have to love the text we are translating? I don’t always love the text. In fact, just like a fleeting fling, my initial fascination with the text can wane the more I am forced to sustain my concentration and analysis. I start to get a wandering eye for a fresh text and new inspiration. But it would be extremely difficult to translate a text I hate, although hate is a strong word. The closest I came was at undergrad, when I was so tightly constrained by the translation brief that I had to choose a GDR author whose writing was academic enough to be translated and read for a conference, so I chose an extract from Günther de Bruyn’s Vierzig Jahre. Subsequently, I loathed every second by the end of the project, and I got a fairly crappy grade. Suprised? I wasn’t. I’ve also written a lot about Jana Hensel’s Zonenkinder despite not particularly liking the prose. To me, the controversies around the text and what the text represented were far more important to me than enjoying the reading experience of the text itself. It threw up interesting questions about the East/West ‘culture war’ (to use a neologism) since reunification in 1990. Western critics, and Eastern victims of Stasi terror, accused the book of seeing the GDR through rose-tinted glasses. I argue that most people have rosy memories of their childhood, as long as it was a fairly happy one. International geopolitics do not feature heavily in the private sphere of a child, even in the GDR.

Roland Barthes: author, I'm sorry

Kate Briggs has also spoken about her developing relationship to the author she was translating, Roland Barthes. She talks about feeling inadequately informed about Barthes to be able to translate his work, a kind of ‘imposter syndrome’ common in translators. Briggs intentionally blends Barthe’s perspectives with her own in This Little Art, highlighting the deeply intimate nature of translation. If Briggs is quoting Barthes using words that she herself translated, who is speaking then? Is Barthes speaking through Briggs, or is Briggs speaking for Barthes? She likens translation to an aerobics class. The translator copies the moves of the instructor, in their own unique way.

“That’s where the dance and the aerobics come in- the idea that these are your moves that I see you make, Instructor. But now I’m doing them. Now I’m taking them on, and testing what happens when I try them. Only this time with my different sensibility and my different body, my different context and historical moment, my different rhythm even…what happens?”

Kate Briggs