Starting the MALT (Master of Arts in Literary Translation) course at UEA, we’ve had it drummed into us repeatedly (and I mean that in the most positive way possible) by our capable tutors that we should we keeping a translation diary, and updating it regularly. However, my good intentions for the start of term in September took a rather predictable nose-dive as things got busier. I used the diaries for seminar notes and general scribbles, and less and less for actually keeping tabs on my current thoughts on translation and the projects I was working on. Between reading and note-taking for the seminars, the seminars themselves, my belated attempts at socialising with societies through Zoom, working as a self-employed ESL tutor, starting the Norwegian course on Duolingo, starting my first short story in ten years, working on my assignments and reading as much as possible in my source and target languages, I did have my hands full, and kind of just forgot about the translation journal.
As a workshop, we read Emma Ramadan’s year in the life of a translator (you can read it here). Most of us found it insightful, touching, funny and a little bit sad. A bone of contention of most translators is how underappreciated, invisible and badly-paid our work is in comparison to other highly-skilled professions. Any translator who keeps a diary is likely to cover this. But we were also surprised at how uplifting it was. Translation is often seen as such a lonely job: one person (usually a woman, but sometimes a man), sits on their own at a desk and puzzles through translating an entire work independently. But that really isn’t how it works in practice. Translators are a close-knit community who are always there to help each other, support each other and try to solve each other’s problems, even if that just does mean a WhatsApp group rather than coffee mornings in the Corona Age. That really comes through in Ramadan’s text.
One of Ramadan’s top pieces of advice for translators is to write in the style and genre of the texts you are currently translating. If you’re translating prose poems, write prose poems. If you’re translating drama, write scripts. I’ve definitely *failed* at that point this academic year. I’ve mainly been translating East German writers, and I’ve mainly been writing horror fiction. From the 1st of February, I’ll also be writing historical fiction for an upcoming module on Novel History. It would probably be a good idea to combine historical fiction and translation for my dissertation. I feel I’ve been sitting in a GDR niche for too long, and it’s starting to feel like a rut. I’m currently attempting a second book by Clemens Meyer (die Stillen Trabanten: Erzählungen) , and so far it’s much better than the first book of his I tried. So I’ve promised myself that this will be the last ex-GDR book I read, at least for a while. I need to find a new niche, and I’m inching towards the light of historical fiction.
I recently unearthed my first real attempt at a full entry in my translation journal “in the style of Emma Ramadan”, and, with the rose-tinted glasses of retrospect, found it rather charming. It was written under full time pressure in the middle of a seminar, full of sentence fragments and digressions. So I’ve transcripted (oops, I nearly wrote translated) and edited my entry here, which mainly concerns my existential angst about starting a literary course without even having done English at A-level. Transcribing was such a great opportunity to look back and reflect on what twelve short weeks at MA level and two hefty assignments have taught me.
“The past month has been full of unexpected challenges, opportunities and anxieties. I am now studying at Master’s level, having not opened anything written by an academic for a year and a half. I have to keep up, I have to be dedicated, go over and above, live and breathe translation. I am academically challenged, I have to learn the language again.
I feel like I’m a fresher again, walking under the Edwardian red-brick tallest free-standing clock tower in the UK. Except now it’s brutalist concrete and I feel its weight crowding me as I trot from one building to the other. My coursemates are witty, brilliant. Some are already professionals. I balance being a ‘student’ translator with living through a pandemic. People eyeing each other warily, no-one wanting to make the first social-distancing faux pas. Don’t come too close. Don’t sit there. Rule of six. Hands, Face, Space. Please do your hands as you come in. Do I really have to pick up that bottle and squeeze it? Doesn’t it defeat the point?
I try not to feel inadequate. My only published work is the instructions for a children’s game called “Dodo: Rettet das Ei!” (Dodo: Save the Egg!), and that was three years ago. It took me five hours and I earned 50 euros. Judging by the calculations of an average translator’s wage, 70 cents above minimum wage per hour is nothing to be sniffed at. I mentioned this to my grandfather one summer’s day over fish and chips at a country pub on Suffolk home turf.
“I won’t be earning much once I qualify”, I said.
A self-made man (a polite word for coin-operated), he raised his eyebrows. He didn’t understand the plight of an arts graduate in the middle of a pandemic which was busy squeezing the last few drops of life blood out of the economy. He’s a baby boomer with a nice pension.
“Why are you doing it?”, he asked, folding his bread and butter over his chips to make a butty.
There is no other satisfactory or all-explanatory answer other than “because I love it”. But is that enough? Do I need a more profound reason than that, a higher goal? I suppose it has to be enough.
Translation appeals to my love of literature, my love of foreign cultures, my language-learning obsession (my German teacher at A-Level used to call me ‘sponge’), my ability to eagerly pick a sentence apart into its constituent blocks and then put it all back together again, like a mechanic taking apart a perfectly healthy engine and putting it all back together, just for fun. But maybe in a different car, a newer model. Isn’t that what translation is?
Translators and theorists love metaphors, there are always new ones: translation is alchemy, translating is pouring a liquid out of one container into another, it’s changing clothes, it’s eavesdropping, it’s slavery to the source text. It’s a word puzzle, a problem to solve. It’s like doing a crossword on the train, struggling over a word that’s on the tip of your tongue yet nowhere, caught like a belt-loop on a door handle, then finally the Eureka moment when the solution hits. It’s then an epiphany and a rush of euphoria. But you don’t always get that hit. Sometimes translation is a long, cold slog, picking the lesser of two evils or admitting defeat and sticking with an awkward turn of phrase because it seemed awkward in the source text anyway, and who am I to know better than the author? I’ll still get blamed for it though, the awkwardness. Yet if it were fluent, the source text author would get the praise. So we are invisible at best, conspicuous at worst.