By Niina Bailey, Lucy Clark and Rob Tomlinson
In this week’s Books in Translation, we’re taking a slightly different approach with our focus shifting from translated publications and original-language authors to recognising the work of translators. Translation is an art in itself; a skill developed over years of practice and study. However, translators can often be diminished to a name inside the cover of a book and an afterthought to the reader, so here we’re giving them to spotlight and appreciation they deserve.
Yilin Wang is a Chinese-English translator. She also writes herself and is a poet and editor. She translates from and into Mandarin Chinese and has translated fiction, children’s literature, poetry and comics. Her translations have been included in several publications including Guernica and in the anthology The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, published by Tor last year. Her writing has also appeared in several publications such as Words Without Borders and she has been awarded and nominated for her poetry.
Recently, Wang has been talking about the importance of crediting translators because the British Museum used her translations of Qiu Jin’s poetry in their China’s Hidden Century exhibition without her permission. Wang called the museum out on Twitter and accused them of copyright infringement. The British Museum removed the translations from the exhibition and offered to pay Wang £150, calling the incident an “unintentional human error”.
Wang has used this as an opportunity to speak out on how often translators are “erased in publishing and academia.” She brings up how translators are not named on book covers and how reviewers do not name the translators in their reviews. She calls translation an art and says that it takes her “just as long to translate a poem as it takes for [her] to write an original one in English.” This just proves the importance of highlighting translators. Wang has a poetry anthology, The Lantern and the Night Moths, coming out next year that she edited and translated.
Polly Barton is a translator of Japanese literature and non-fiction. Her work in translation has tended to focus on contemporary women’s fiction, with her recent translations including Spring Gardens by Tomoka Shibasaki, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, So We Look to the Sky by Misumi Kubo, and Ray Bradbury Prize shortlisted Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda. Her translations have been featured in a number of literary magazines including Granta, Catapult, The White Review and Words Without Borders.
On the subject of her translation process, Barton acknowledges that although she comes up against very challenging points in her translation work, she doesn’t allow these to defeat her. Instead, she believes that “allowing the impossibility to free you, rather than constrain you, is the trick.” This is a great reminder that translation is a creative process where the voice and tone have to be fully explored and that working as a translator means going outside the text and understanding its context to create the best translation.
Barton is also a prize-winning writer. In 2019, she won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for Fifty Sounds, later published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions in April 2021. Fifty Sounds was Barton’s non-fiction debut and is a personal dictionary of the Japanese language which traces her encounters with it, as a learner, translator and speaker, through fifty onomatopoeic Japanese words. This work has been described as “an attempt to exhaust her obsession with the country she moved to at the age of 21, before eventually becoming a literary translator.” Fifty Sounds was also shortlisted for the 2022 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year.
Margaret Jull Costa
British translator Margaret Jull Costa has an impressive portfolio that includes translations of Portuguese literary monoliths Eça de Queirós and Fernando Pessoa, alongside contemporary Spanish authors Angela Vallvey and Bernardo Atxaga. Nevertheless, one aspect of her work makes her especially interesting to consider in this article: Costa is the sole English translator of Nobel Prize winning Portuguese novelist José Saramago.
Saramago’s work is literary and philosophical, examining questions of life and death within a magical realist style. His writing is marked by its complexity, the length of sentences, and the intricacy of images and content. The difficulties in translating this body of work are acknowledged by Costa: “The sheer density of the words on the page can prove exhausting. It’s very easy to get lost not just in the long sentences, but also in the page itself.” Grappling with the inherent syntactic and structural differences between Portuguese and English, compounded by the idiosyncrasies of Saramago, Costa opens the universe of the Portuguese master to an English audience, becoming his mouthpiece in the anglosphere and garnering awards for the quality of her work.
For me, Saramago’s insistence on having Costa as his translator highlights the near symbiosis of the relationship between an author and their translator and the profound importance of finding a sympathetic interpreter of work. Each act of translation is an act of (re)interpretation and Costa and Saramago’s partnership gives the lie to the idea of the translator as a neutral vessel to transport the original text to a new linguistic context.