(This piece first appeared on the Commonwealth Writers Website, December 2013.)
To write about translation is to write in clichés. We all know them: the translation can never be as good as the original, the translator is a traitor, translations can be either beautiful or faithful but not both, and so on and so forth.
They make it seem like an impossible task. But it is not impossible. Like anything worth doing, it is just very difficult to do well.
I think of myself, before anything else, as a writer. I’ve been reading translations forever, but I have been translating – and thinking about translation as a practice – for just five years or so. I think I have learnt some things over these five years.
I have learnt, for instance that a translator must, before anything else, be a writer. But that is not enough. A translator must be at least as good a writer in his or her language, and in the same ways, as the author of the original is in his or hers. A translator translating many authors must then, necessarily, be as good as each of them. Which is to say, better than them all. Which means hours and days and years spent honing one’s craft in the shadows until one’s control over the medium is perfect.
Translation as ascesis.
Further, translation requires the translator to become someone else. Namely, the author of the original. One needs to adopt their personality, know what they know, feel what they feel, think as they think, speak as they speak. It is a transformative experience.
Translation as metamorphosis.
And metamorphoses, as one has so often seen, can be dangerous. Borges’s Pierre Menard (even if he was translating the Don Quixote from Spanish into Spanish) was the ideal translator – the effort may very well have killed him.
I have learnt, also, that when a reader reads something I have translated, the reaction to aim for is, “What a great poem (or story or novel)!” as opposed to, “What a great translation!” This is not as self-evident as it first appears. It is especially hard for a writer of ambition and intelligence. And what is a writer that has no ambition and intelligence? Therefore, it is not as easy as it first appears either.
To trust the original, to resist the urge to “correct” or “better” (or even correct or better). Translation as an exercise in effacing the ego.
Some would argue this is not self-evident at all. Some schools of thought favour deliberate “foreignizing” and “defamiliarizing” of translations.
They lose sight of the basic purpose of translation: to allow readers who do not know the original language access to a text.
They stray away from common sense: a normal sentence in the source language should be a normal sentence in the target language, likewise a sentence that’s strange in the source should be strange in the target, otherwise one fails to convey the tone and character of the original.
It is possible to do so without losing the rhythms of the original. That it is significantly harder to do does not mean one ceases to even try.
A revelatory moment: reading Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud. Rather, reading afterwards an extensive analysis of various translations of Rimbaud, including Ashbery’s.
First a word about the translations – they are, to the best of my knowledge, the only versions that turn Rimbaud’s extraordinary French poetry into extraordinary English poetry.
How unfaithful are they, to be so beautiful?
Surprisingly, as the comparative analysis showed, the least of all.
And so I’ve circled back to the clichés I’d called out in the beginning.
Which leaves us with a few questions: What can be said about translation that’s new? Can anything new be said at all? And, most importantly, when does something that is not new become something that’s no longer worth saying?