American writers are often accused of literary insularity, so I’ve been doing my best lately to engage in more international, multi-lingual dialogue. Among other projects, I’ve been chipping away at a translation of a fantastic story collection by a very talented Chilean writer. Although I’ve done some translation work in the past, literary and otherwise, I haven’t taken on a project of this magnitude in quite a while, and it’s challenging to say the least. Literary translation can be time-consuming, stressful, and labor-intensive. If I translated more often, maybe I’d work more efficiently, but my current process often feels slow and laborious; I tend to obsess about all the minor details in much the same way as I fret about my own writing. Still, despite the many challenges, it’s a gratifying experience to translate terrific writing like the collection I’m working on now, and to serve as a literary ambassador, exposing readers in the English-speaking world to excellent new fiction.
I’m not sure how common it is these days for prose writers to double as translators, but those who do join the ranks of countless notable authors throughout history who felt it their literary duty to bring the best books the world had to offer into their own respective vernaculars, and to do it with style. Contemporary writers from around the world, including the renowned Spanish author, Javier Marias, have carried on this tradition. In fact, there’s an outstanding book called Javier Marías’s Debt to Translation, by Gareth J. Wood, that chronicles Marías’ early career as a writer and illustrates the many ways literary translation helped establish Marías’ career. Marías learned a significant amount about the craft of writing through translating others’ work, and his stylistic development in relation to translation is well-noted in the book. Although translating might not prove as beneficial to everyone’s literary career as it was for Marías, I’d argue that, if nothing else, translation improves editing skills and compels a writer to consider stylistic choices, diction, the rhythm of the language, etc., in new ways. There is more artistry to literary translation than many people realize, even though it’s a rather distinct process from the creation and development of one’s own work. Through the decisions a translator makes, in trying to find the right word or turn of phrase, ingenuity emerges, as the mind of the translator melds with the ideas and nuances of the original text.
For those novelists and story writers out there who translate, or those who have even attempted translation at some point, I’m curious about individual approaches and philosophies. How do the majority of contemporary writers go about translating others’ work? There are plenty of useful essays and books out there about translation as art, but I think that one of the most enlightening, although brief, treatises on the subject is Jorge Luis Borges’ Two Ways to Translate, in which, among other points, he articulates what he sees as the major philosophical approaches:
“Universally, I suppose there are two types of translations: one is the practice of literality, the other, paraphrase. The former corresponds to the Romantic mentality, the second to the classical. I’d like to explain this statement in order to diminish its aura of paradox. The classical way of thinking is interested only in the work of art, never the artist. The classics believe in absolute perfection and seek it out. They despise localisms, oddities, contingencies.”
Although one might adhere to elements of both schools of thought to some degree, I ultimately agree with Borges that one likely favors one approach over the other. I suppose I’m more inclined to follow Borges’ classical mode, and I’ve always assumed that most fiction writers would agree, until I ended-up in a heated argument with a fellow writer/translator several years ago. He felt that the more literal approach was the way to go, and insisted that any translation method other than a primarily literal approach involves too much manipulation of the original text. I countered that a more literal approach might work better for non-literary texts, but a strictly literal translation might sacrifice much of the complexity of a literary work. Whatever one’s particular philosophy is, Borges’ short but insightful essay goes on to discuss more obstacles with translation that must be addressed by the translator. For instance, a successful translation must consider the impediments of connotation and other subtle differences in word meaning. Also, how does one go about translating certain words that are simply “untranslatable” from one language to another? To complicate matters further, culture and generational differences also play a significant role in the transference of language and ideas.
So, all of this has me wondering what others think about these issues. Is the notion of a writer’s responsibility to engage in translation an archaic one? Is it better, generally speaking, for a fiction writer to translate fiction or should we leave the task in the technically-capable hands of a professional translator, a non-author who has honed their skills specifically in the field? Are writers too invasive, overindulgent, and destined to contaminate a translation with their own aesthetic values and worldview? Your guess is as good as mine.
Not too long ago, though, after completing an English version of the first story in the collection I’m working on, I shared the result with the Chilean author, and he said, “It’s better when another writer does the translation.” I suppose that’s motivation enough for me to keep on translating in the meantime.