A Guide to Translation
By Niina Bailey, Alice Reynolds and Toby Smollett
This week the translation team are rooting right down to the core of the translated publishing world and are offering a guide to what makes a good translation! Through selected essays, we delve into the different opinions and advice from industry experts and writers themselves from the past and present.
Translation: An Essay by Brian Henry
Published in 2018 by Blackbird
Brian Henry’s essay on translation is partly a reflection on translation as an act and discipline, partly a collection of excerpts from other texts about translation and partly an exploration into Henry’s own process of translation. He mainly focuses on the process of him translating poems by two Slovenian poets, Tomaž Šalamun and Aleš Šteger, into English. A key point Henry makes is the idea of translation as an act of friendship, which is central to his process as a translator. He feels like he cannot translate a work to full satisfaction if he cannot communicate with the author of the work and ask them questions, for example. This is why he struggles to translate works by dead authors. For Henry, the best way to translate is to treat translation as “a living act” and confer with the original author to “overcome the impossibility of translation.” This refers to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s conclusion that “poems cannot be translated, they can only be transposed.” Henry also reflects on this in the essay. However, Henry makes it clear that his approach to translation varies depending on the author he is working with because he sees the act as a shared activity even though he does most of it on his own.
If you are interested in the act of translation, I would highly recommend reading this fascinating essay.
The Written World and the Unwritten World by Italo Calvino and translated by Ann Goldstein
Published in 2023 by Penguin Books
Italo Calvino’s collection of essays first published in 1983, The Written World and the Unwritten World, has been recently translated by Ann Goldstein for Penguin Books. An Italian writer and journalist mostly famous for his short stories, this newest collection marks Calvino’s seventh collection translated for English readers.
In this he offers his reflections and a guide to the translator whose problems, for Calvino, “to resolve are unending.” For him to be precise with style and tone of language while translating is imperative. He argues that in order to sustain the reader’s attention, the translator must “speak to them” in a “certain tone, a certain timbre, a certain liveliness.” He attaches a particular difficulty in translating Italian as spoken Italian differs greatly from its written form. In conversation, Italians have the tendency to not finish their sentences. Yet, in writing, this cannot be the case thus Calvino argues that Italian writers, in their “state of linguistic neurosis,” must “invent the language in which they write, before inventing what they write.” This for a translator creates the challenge of putting vitality back into the language and appealing it towards a readership in a different culture and viewpoint.
“The transfer of a literary text, whatever its value, into another language always requires some type of miracle.” Italo Calvino eulogises literary translators for their difficult task. For advice, he strongly promotes collaboration between the author and the translator where the translator can pose questions and he raises the role of the publisher and the importance of a good editor who tracks through the translation sentence by sentence alongside the original text. For this artistry, he praises the rewards it reaps. According to Calvino, “translation is the true way of reading a text,” yet like wine you have to ensure it travels well.
What Is A ‘Relevant’ Translation? by Jacques Derrida and translated by Lawrence Venuti
From The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Veruti. Published by Routledge in 2021
Jacques Derrida’s essay on translation is unlike the others in this list, in the sense that its author recognises immediately his inexperience in the subject matter (the essay is adapted from a presentation delivered by Derrida to a room of translators). And yet, it is considered a significant work on translation, and is one of the most interesting essays on the subject I’ve read.
As the title suggests, this essay centres on the idea of what a relevant translation is. It should be no surprise that Derrida addresses the issue of his “untranslatable” title as soon as it is mentioned in the text. The essay is far too long to try to summarise here, but this interplay between two separate concepts is a constant – translation being both necessary and impossible, the problem with speaking in one language whilst simultaneously speaking a number of different “metalanguages.”
As well as being extremely fascinating and an important work, this essay is valuable to translators for the acknowledgement of the necessity of translation, and for providing genuinely practical advice for translators. Expressing translation as addition and reduction is exceptionally good practice for a translator – it allows “one language [to lick] another.”
The essay is available to read here.