As a creative writing graduate with an intermediate grasp on a foreign language, I had typically lumped literary translator into my pile of ‘unrealistic dream professions’ and something for which I was hugely under-qualified. My recent internship with independent UK publisher And Other Stories, who mostly publish fiction in translation, exposed me to a dizzying array of international fiction and led me to reevaluate how I saw translation as a profession. I also helped represent them at the London Book Fair. As the first guest writer for Departures, I’d like to lead you through the intricacies of my discoveries and share some tips on how emerging Australian translators can get started.
A truly international event, translation’s silent magic was swirling all over the London Book Fair: from the live, simultaneous translations at the Korean Focus seminars, to the proliferation of promotional material for the sale of foreign rights.
Beyond this invisible glue of Anglophone conformity, literary translation also had a more deliberate, physical presence. Since it was first established in 2010, the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair has proved to be an integral space for the promotion and development of literary translation in the UK and abroad, providing workshops and seminars on a variety of topics.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating exchanges I saw was between two emerging translators, Deborah Smith and Eugene Lee, who discussed their competing translations of the same excerpt of a short story by Korean writer Kim Aeran (김애란). Given a limited amount of time to complete the translation, these two budding translators were put on the spot to explain their choices. I was intrigued to see how different the two texts were. While Lee’s translation took few liberties, and stayed close to the original, Smith took a more playful approach, adapting some of the cultural idiosyncrasies and colloquial dialogue for a British audience. For example, the translations ‘Princess motherfucker’ and ‘princess potty-mouth’ came from the same original phrase. And here we must consider the two approaches to translation, the artistic versus the literal or interpretive. Arguably, the two must be employed in varying measure depending on the context of your translation. In this case, where idioms and nuances differ between UK, US and Australian English, it highlighted the importance of achieving a cultural balance to engage both local and international readers.
If you were bilingual, you’d think translation would be a cakewalk, right? Well, Eugene Lee let us in on some less-obvious pitfalls of fluency in two tongues. These included being unlikely to pick up on details or problems with a text that a non-bilingual would be more attentive to. She emphasised the need to be self-aware in translation, always trying to see the work from the perspective of a non-bilingual.
Lee and Smith also discussed the joyful challenge of confronting words that simply don’t exist in the target language. The title of the excerpt contained the onomatopoeic Korean word dogeundogeun, which essentially mimics the sound of a heartbeat, but also conveys feelings of tremulous emotional excitement and nervous anticipation, but for which there is no single word for in English. Interestingly, both translators decided to use aflutter as an English substitute that is the best approximation of this complex feeling. To me, these instances are confirmations of the richness of intercultural learning that is going on when we study foreign languages. This also illustrates that translation is always an act of compromise and approximation, caught in a swamp of variables. To get out of that swamp of possibility, translators have the professional right to make informed decisions based on their judgments. It’s never about one-way word substitution, or a set formula, and there’s a reason why computers aren’t great at translating novels. There is certainly value in multiple versions of the same text, and as Lydia Davis states in an essay for the Paris Review, 'Even though a superlative translation can achieve timelessness, that doesn’t mean other translators shouldn’t attempt other versions. The more the better, in the end.'
In our Anglophone bubble, we tend to take availability of texts in our language for granted. But what if you’re in Estonia and are interested in a book that’s only available in Japanese? This rare combination will give you very limited options for translators. Languages like English, French and Arabic are often used as ‘bridge’ or ‘pivot’ languages, so texts can more easily reach their international audiences. However, introducing a second level in the process escalates the risk of possible mistakes and ambiguities. If it were a choice between translating the work or not at all, is it better to translate it, whether or not you use a bridge language to get there? This is where the ethics of translation come into play: it's a controversial issue that cannot be entered into lightly. Some, like Sian Dafydd, say that translation should be encouraged wherever possible as a fulfillment of duty towards increasing its readership. Others say that the use of bridge languages should be avoided until absolutely necessary, as the potential for error is too great.
The inherently intercultural translator treads a fine line between loyalty to the source text and author, and loyalty to the target language and culture. I believe, more in literary translation than anything else, that a commitment to the source text and a degree of authenticity is necessary, and I would be very hesitant to use a bridge language. That being said, my position as a native English speaker prohibits the urgency I can imagine is apparent in the case of minority-language readers.
While translation is not a political act in itself, translators often become lifelines for authors who are censored or imprisoned by their governments. Jethro Soutar is the translator for recently persecuted author Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, who has written about the role of translators as literary activists for English PEN and the Guardian Books blog. Soutar talks about becoming a crucial bridge between Ávila Laurel’s remote home of Annóbon (an island in Equatorial Guinea), and the media of the outside world. He set up a Facebook group in support of Ávila Laurel’s 2011 hunger strike, which transformed into a space for sharing news regarding the political situation in Equatorial Guinea. Ávila Laurel was advised to go into hiding earlier this year after making plans for a peaceful protest against police brutality. As his friend and translator, Soutar once again did his best to garner attention in Anglophone and Spanish media. Clearly, the translator’s role extends far beyond matching words in a sentence, and is heavily implicated in the cultural and political situations of the author. Ávila Laurel’s novel, set in Annóbon, By Night the Mountain Burns will be published by And Other Stories in November this year.
There was healthy debate about the relationship between creative writing and translation, with Maureen Freely clearly advocating that translation is in fact creative writing. Sian Dafydd, who self-translated her novel, The Third Thing, from Welsh into English, prefers the words ‘transmission’ or ‘adaptation’ rather than translation, as more accurate conceptions of the process. A surprise to me was discovering that the study of creative writing and the study of translation are not commonly mixed. According to the panelists, this union is in its infancy in universities, at least in the UK, with more translation courses offering creative writing modules in their program. Check out University of East Anglia’s Literary Translation courses here.
The logistics of translation are fascinating. I had imagined having the author involved during translating would complicate and cloud matters, raising too many questions. Sian Dafydd believes that, despite these potential pitfalls, having the author by your side is liberating and actually helps rather than hinders the entire process. She advocated that the author is your best resource when translating, and that when you have the author’s trust, it is easier to take liberties with the text, resulting in a ‘better’ translation.
Even though Australia is linguistically and culturally diverse, only a teeny proportion of literature published in Australia, and the rest of the Anglophone world, is made up of literary translations (in the UK it’s only 4.5%, and 0.7% in the US). Moreover, it seems to me that there are few options for postgraduate study in Australia focussing on literary translation.
There are plenty of combination translation and interpreting degrees (try NAATI’s list of approved translation courses here), with a few containing modules on literary translation (see courses at ANU, Monash and Macquarie), but none is specifically dedicated to literary translation.
The Australian Institute of Translation and Interpretation also offer vocational education and training in translation, but only from English to Chinese.
However, if you’re studying languages or creative writing (or both) at university, and are interested in translation down the track, there is nothing to say that postgraduate study is essential to becoming a translator. Far greater is the need to truly understand the voice of the original text and transmit that voice into another language. Of the translators I spoke with at LBF, including Jethro Soutar and Stefan Tobler (freelance translator and publisher at And Other Stories), both emphasised that as long as you are a strong writer in the target language, with a near fluency in the original language, a translation degree is by no means a necessity for the profession.
So, although my language skills have a long way to go, after the LBF I feel a whirring curiosity and drive towards a professional marriage of two lifelong passions: languages and creative writing.
Ready to put your skills to work? Let’s run through some key links for translators in Australia:
- The Australia Council offers grants of up to $15,000 to help fund the translation and publication of works by Australian authors writing in languages other than English. The deadline for projects commencing next year is 1October 2014, and you can find more information here.
- The Australian Association for Literary Translation (AALITRA) is now accepting entries to its inaugural prize for both prose and poetry until Friday 18 July.
- Sydney, Melbourne & Adelaide PEN, affiliates of PEN International, are huge supporters of literary translation. The biennial New South Wales Premier’s Translation Prize ($30,000) with accompanying PEN Medallion is offered to Australian translators who translate literary works into English from other languages. The prize was awarded in 2013, and will next be awarded in 2015.
- The National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) is the only agency in Australia that issues accreditation for this profession. As accreditation is expensive, this is something to keep in mind and think about when you have built up lots of experience.
- Asymptote is an international online literary journal dedicated to publishing the best in contemporary translated works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama and visual works. The July 2014 issue will focus on translated works from Latin America and the submission deadline is 15 May with details on how to submit here. They accept submissions of all other work on a rolling deadline, and more information is available at the above link. If you’re interested in getting involved with the journal’s inner workings, they are also looking to take on volunteers in a variety of positions, all listed on their website.
- The UK-based print journal, MPT (Modern Poetry in Translation) is now accepting submissions for their Spring 2014 issue. It was established in 1965 by Ted Hughes, and has introduced a number of important poets and iconic translations to the English-speaking world.
- Three Percent is a US-based website that keeps you up-to-date with all of the news about global literary translation happenings.
Lastly, for emerging writers, reading literature in translation is a must. And even if you don’t have the means to become a well-travelled writer, becoming a well-travelled reader is much more attainable.
Thanks for sticking with us throughout this final round-up of the 2014 London Book Fair. Until next time: transmit, translate, capture the stories in your sights, and make sure to pluck your next read from the rich ecosystem of translated literature!