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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
Translation as a Creative Writing Process
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.
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.
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.