Literature in translation

When I ordered the summer edition of The Stinging Fly I discovered it was dedicated to literature in translation and included fiction from Belgium, Italy, China, Poland, Rwanda, Ukraine, Morocco, Greece, Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Brazil and Finland.

The translators of these stories were interviewed for the journal. They were asked: Why is literature in translation important? What is your reaction to the term untranslatable? How would you describe your relationship with the author after you get involved with the translation? Responses were fascinating. I hadn’t considered the relationship between the translator and the author, or how the author can lose a little of their own book when it’s been translated into a language they can’t read.

Having studied Applied Languages (French and German), I was oriented towards employment as a translator. After graduation, I managed three months in a tiny translation agency, where the work was mind-numbingly boring and the working environment was less than attractive. (My boss used to kick holes in the walls in childish tantrum when things weren’t going his way. Not a nurturing environment!) I translated German accident reports for insurance companies. Every report started with ‘I was driving on the left when…’

Technical translation and localisation were not for me, however I did and do remain in awe of literary translation. You can learn so much about language by trying to render an expression written in another language into English, or from English into another language. Metaphors, similes, regional dialects–they require the translator to stop, reflect, choose. We mull over the connotations of one word over another. Even simple vocabulary is not straightforward. A castle is a château in French, but the mental images we create when we hear those words are very different.

Haruki Murakami spent many years translating some of the great novels into Japanese. He wrote, about his translation of The Great Gatsby: “Although numerous literary works might properly be called ‘ageless’, no translation belongs in that category. Translation, after all, is a matter of  linguistic technique, which naturally ages as the particulars of a language change. Thus, while there are undying works, on principle there can be no undying translations.”

In Claire Kilroy’s essay, in the translation issue of The Stinging Fly, she tells a great story about one of her pieces that was translated into German. She discovered that the sentence ‘The men were padding around the boardroom’ had been translated as ‘the men were walking about in bare feet like animals’. This is a worrying thought for any author whose books are translated into languages they don’t speak and can’t check.


2 thoughts on “Literature in translation

  1. Great piece. It is a fascinating issue. I'm working my way slowly through it too, enjoying the variety of forms the stories take. Wondering too how much the strangeness of some of them is due to translation – or are we (english language writers) just dead boring, with our straightforward realist stories. (I know there's experimental stuff out there, but it tends not to appear in mainstream lit journals.) I think I can feel a surreal story about a clown coming on…


  2. The stories are certainly varied and strange compared to a certain format that many English-language stories seem to take. Perhaps all the sharing of writing tips is resulting in a sameness? Or am I just not reading widely enough?


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