Via @kltiopia, a refreshing take on the process of translation in the Guardian by Helen Stevenson, translator of Congolese author Alain Mabanckou’s novel Broken Glass, that reflects on the importance of listening for the rhythm of the text:
The difficulty of translating fiction isn’t finding the correct equivalent for each word. That would be like a pianist reading music and fumbling about for the right note on the keyboard each time: no music would ever be made. It is, as people often say, about finding the voice.
She also obliquely addresses a few other important bits about translation that I think are sometimes downplayed: interaction with the author (when possible), understanding the cultural background of the source text, and how our personal hang-ups or cultural sensitivities about language can hinder our work. All of that can be encapsulated in the final paragraph of the short piece:
Political linguistics – or more exactly anxieties to do with tact – are another matter. At first I worried about how to translate “nègre”, a word Alain’s characters use all the time, often disparagingly. I got so worked up about this word, whose English equivalent was to me so un-useable, that eventually I sent Alain my first email, introducing myself as his English translator and asking him what to do. He must have been surprised to discover his translator had such rudimentary French. “Dear Helen, he wrote, ‘nègre’ means ‘negro’.” That seemed pretty clear, so I stopped worrying about tact.
As a “critic,” I often tell myself and others that I don’t like to ask authors about their work because I think the work speaks for itself, but doing translation reminds me that there are many different levels of interpretation at work while you read. I still think it’s valid as a reader to have your interpretation of the work be at odds with the author’s intention — a work of literature does stand on its own, and a reader’s reaction to a text is something that can’t be controlled by the author and is as much a commentary on the culture that produced it as the text itself. As a translator, though, I think the onus is to convey the author’s intentions as much as possible.
One of the most common responses I get from other grad students when I say I work on contemporary fiction (i.e., with still living authors) is that they much prefer working on authors who can’t respond to their criticism (i.e., dead people). Fair enough. That may be why I put up my front about not wanting to ask authors about their work, but as Stevenson’s story shows, sometimes it’s just a lot easier to go to the source.