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Spotlight | The A to Z of Literary Translation, Georgia de Chamberet | Words without Borders 2008

The A to Z of Literary Translation by Georgia de Chamberet was posted on the Words without Borders blog in instalments from February to  May 2008. It was circulated at the Masters Class in Translation Studies which Alane Mason (W.W. Norton) and Dedi Felman (Simon & Schuster) team taught in at Columbia University in the City of New York in 2008. Founded in 2003, Words without Borders is a superb site which promotes cultural understanding through the translation, publication, and promotion of the finest contemporary international literature.
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I contributed to the @wwborders blog from 2005-2009. Whilst writing about English PEN’s Writers in Translation committee of which I was a founder member—tapping into my experiences as an editor, agent and publicist—the idea of doing a fun, but far from definitive listing, The A to Z of Literary Translation came to mind.

Artistry and adaptation are essential to the process of literary translation, since translation is an act of writing. Also accuracy and avoiding short cuts based on the when in doubt, cut it out approach. Writers make good translators—obvious examples being Baudelaire (translator of Edgar Allen Poe) and Robert Graves (translator of classical Latin and Greek authors and George Sand).

Beyond words into the mystery of language, and its cultural hinterland, is where a good translator will carry the reader on a journey of discovery. Good literature is primarily concerned with human beings, and is cosmopolitan, traveling beyond national identity and a book’s original social and cultural context—the same goes for a good translation.

Cultural institutes act like portals. Conferences, festivals, magazines and websites are ways in which foreign publishers and writers can cultivate interest in their work, with the aim of seducing British and American commissioning editors to buy translation rights.

Published Feb 14, 2008

Dialogue and debate on issues surrounding literary translation at talks, workshops, summer schools and residence programs—along with translation studies courses covering linguistic concepts, theories and practice—are crucial for professionals in the field to connect and keep up to date.

Ego is necessary for self-preservation, however it is important that a translator temper theirs with detachment, humility and objectivity whilst working on a text. Respecting the original writer’s voice (ergo, ego!) is a must. Being open to constructive criticism containing suggestions for improvement given by trusted individuals is an important part of the process. There is a high price to pay for ego satisfaction. When a review fails to mention the translator in the heading, or the text, it is wounding to a translator’s ego.

Fees as recommended by the Translators Association (TA), 84 Drayton Gardens, London SW10 are £80 per 1,000 words for prose and £0.85 per line for poetry. [Since time of writing this has gone up to £88.50 per 1000 words. Ed.] A translator’s contract should also be clear on royalties and rights—the TA’s guidelines are essential reading. Publishers intent on budget-cutting will invariably try to pay less. Back in the day, a translator’s name only very rarely featured in or on a translated book, like a ghost-writer from foreign climes. Traditionally overworked, poorly paid and little recognized, the translator’s lot has improved somewhat in recent years.

Published Feb 23, 2008

Grants, awards and prizes such as the Nobel Prize in literature, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, help put writers and their translators under the spotlight and boost sales. The TA’s Translation Prizes for published translations from Arabic, Dutch, French, Italian, German, Greek (modern), Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish flag up writing of merit, and generate recognition and income for the translator. In Other Words, the journal for literary translators, is published twice a year by the TA.

Humor, slang and puns can cause a translator an attack of linguistic hiccups. The general rule of thumb is to find a natural and appropriate equivalent. To translate, or not to translate, foreign words and expressions, so that the text either retains its local color, or becomes homogenized, remains a moot point; as does the issue of Americanisms [sic].

Inquiry and intellect along with vision and passion are crucial motivators. Conveying the spirit of the original, and the spirit in which the translator enters the process, are what makes a translation sparkle.

Published Mar 5, 2008

Jerome of Stridonium is the patron saint of theological learning in the Roman Catholic Church and is also recognized as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Remembered in particular for his version of the Old Testament based on the Hebrew texts, he is credited for the principle of translating sense for sense as opposed to word for word. The prestigious St. Jerome Lecture on Literary Translation hosted by the Times Literary Supplement has become the Sebald Lecture on literary translation promoted by the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT). The lecture usually follows on from the TA’s annual Translation Prize-giving ceremony.

Knowledge of the culture, ideas and mother tongue of the writer to be translated, is imperative. Along with a whole host of linguistic and other criteria. For Orhan Pamuk’s translator, Maureen Freely, the starting point was: A strong emotional attachment to Turkish from childhood. I loved the music of it and longed to find a way of bringing that music to English… Resources like Mona Baker’s Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies are useful for attaining greater knowledge of translation theory and practice.

Love of learning and language sustained by a logical mindset are de rigeur. Whatever the approach, a translation should make sense, convey the spirit and style of the original, feel natural, and flow. Application of good grammar, consistent word use, keeping phrases and sentences intact, translating nouns by nouns and verbs by verbs; respecting punctuation marks, paragraph breaks, poetic indentation, are further necessities.

Published Mar 18, 2008

Market share of world literature is dominated by U.S. publishing conglomerates and literary agents who, together with their British counterparts, are increasingly promoting celebrities rather than professional writers in order to maximize revenue and profits. Because of the former British Empire and the pre-eminence of the U.S. today, English has become THE  international language. An author can win the Nobel Prize in literature and be translated into 25 languages, but until their work is piled high in Barnes & Noble or Waterstone’s, s/he has not really made it on a global scale. To quote Pierre Lepape in Le Monde Diplomatique: Literary stardom reflects only the ability of a writer or a book to make an impression on the most profitable areas of the world market. The trend of giantism is offset by the growth of niche publishing, catering for a small and precisely targeted market—there are those who shun the red carpet.

Norwich is the home of the University of East Anglia where W. G. Sebald founded the BCLT in 1989. Haunted by the Jewish ghosts of Germany, his first book to be published for an English audience, The Emigrants (translated by Michael Hulse) is the story of four Jewish refugees. It is a rumination about  grief and exile, loss and longing: Once you are under the spell, you have to carry on to the finish, till your heart breaks, with whatever work you have begun—in this case, the remembering, writing and reading.

Organisations like the British Council, the Arts Council network, English PEN’s Writers in Translation committee, and UNESCO’s Clearing House for Literary Translation provide vital support financially and/or towards the promotion of literary translation, for example bringing over authors to help their publishers promote their books. Good and effective publicity and marketing are essential to success.

Published Mar 26, 2008

Publishers in the independent sector are fundamental to ensure variety in the marketplace; they are surviving despite stiff competition and the discount war, (ref. Society of Authors, The Future of Independent Publishing). Tired preconceptions continue to hamper the progress of translations in the UK where a shockingly low percentage of the overall number of books published annually are translations. Arcadia, Bitter Lemon Press, Canongate, Faber, Gallic Books, Maclehose Press, Marion Boyars, Oneworld Classics (incorporating Calder Publications), Portobello Books, Pushkin Press, Serpent’s Tail, and Telegram have led the way for others to follow in showcasing new voices from abroad. Foreign authors who break through often start out being showcased in an anthology and/or with an indy (as did Michel Houellebecq, originally translated by Paul Hammond).

Quality is paramount. The argument goes that, the test of a real translation is that it should not read like translation at all (Lawrence Venuti, The Translation Studies Reader). A bad translation, like bad writing, is soulless, lacks style and rings with periodic clangers; worst of all, it can destroy an author’s chances of being enjoyed by a new readership. For author and translator to go through a translation together, if necessary sentence by sentence, and decide how to solve problems, is a process which generally guarantees quality.

Reading broadens horizons and expands the mind, so when you take a trip down the translation highway you have gone one better: new worlds are at your fingertips. Don’t forget to travel with a Babel Guide or two, or else Martin Seymour-Smith’s Guide to Modern World Literature.

Published Apr 12, 2008

Schools of thought about the rights and wrongs of translation are summarized by Susan Sontag as follows: I suppose that the two opposed schools of translators are those who feel, like Nabokov, that a good translation has to be a literal transcription of the original, no matter how flat or awkward, or those who believe that a translation has to be a complete imaginative recreation, like Robert Lowell’s translations of Rimbaud in Imitations. Each one has its virtues. To be flippant, I might say that I believe one theory on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and the opposite on the other days of the week.

Translators carry an author to a new audience; conveying their vision, storytelling skills, originality and much more besides. Where would the giants of world literature be without their translators? Appelfeld, Balzac, Bassani, Bernhard, Borges, Borowski, Breton, Bulgakov, Cao Xueqin, Cervantes, Cioran, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Fournier, García Márquez, Hesse, Ibsen, Kafka, Kierkegaard, La Fontaine, Lampedusa, Levi, Mahfouz, Mann, Musil, Narayan, Nietzsche, Proust, Pasternak, Rousseau, Sacher-Masoch, Sartre, Sivadasa, Solzhenitsyn, Stendhal, Sun-Tzu, Svevo, Tagore, Tolstoy, Tzu, Vargas Llosa, Voltaire, Zhongshu, Zola, Zweig, and countless others, could not have made their mark globally without them.

Uniqueness in storytelling and style are hallmarks of foreign fiction. Diversity and intercultural understanding are the name of the game. Witness the enduring popularity of foreign heavyweights published by Penguin Classics, Everyman’s Library and others.

Voice and its variants — that of the author and the translator like an echo — and adapting a sound or rhythmic pattern foreign to local readers. A novel should be informed by some idea of the language of musical form. Al Alvarez recommends in The Writer’s Voice: It is the business of writers to create as true a voice as they can … To write well you must first learn to listen … which is something writers have in common with readers … reading well means opening ears to the presence behind words and knowing which notes are true and which are false.

Published Apr 24, 2008

Worldwide web development and the long-tail phenomenon offer new opportunities for the visibility of literary translation. Electronic translation software is to be avoided. Postcolonial and new immigrant writing benefit from cross-frontier digital exchange. And lesser known cultures and languages can become more familiar to wider audiences—Ala Al Aswany’s runaway hotseller The Yacoubian Building (translated by Humphrey Davies), comes to mind.

Xenophobia feeds off ignorance and prejudice. Often fueled by the arrival of new immigrants in local neighborhoods, a positive counterbalance is to make available translated fiction in local libraries; on the school curriculum; and through tours like the Children’s Bookshow. To quote George Orwell: If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

Yob culture is the antithesis of cultural exchange, and a prime example of the fundamentally racist bloody foreigners mindset.

Zeitgeist is moving on from Scandinavian crime writing, so what’s the Next Big Thing?

Published May 2, 2008

An excellent A to Z. It’s great ANTHEA BELL, OBE, (translator from French, German and Danish to English, whose credits include Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald, and the French Asterix comics along with co-translator Derek Hockridge).

Copyright © Georgia de Chamberet 2008, 2016. All rights reserved.

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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