Should we translate literature?

It may seem strange, but only 3% of all books published in English are translations. I doubt this is because we are all under the impression that good books can only be written in the English language, or that other cultures have nothing to teach us. In an age of increasing globalism and cultural awareness, you might hope that the opposite would be true. But why, then, does the literary establishment still seem to be shutting out translated works?

My theory is that because literature is so connected to the idea of authenticity, translations have broadly been seen as a corruption of what the author intended you to read – a step away from the original that risks losing all the artistry the author slaved over. Translators have to make countless choices that could potentially affect the meaning of what they are translating. For example, they must decide whether it is more important to adhere to the author’s exact word choices or the literary effect created by those words. Translations that try to be unwaveringly faithful to the original text tend to end up with a clunky finish that was not native to the original – then again, measures intended to erase that imported clunkiness can also take us further away from the original text. Which is the lesser evil? As author Julian Barnes has pointed out, ‘often the choices available seem to be between different percentages of loss’, and translators have to make a number of these choices for every sentence they write.

Should they seek to recreate the language of the original period or anachronistically import the language of our own age? It can’t be forgotten that sound is part of how we perceive language: how could anyone even begin to recreate the effect of Russian alliteration in Japanese? Cultural context presents yet another challenge – for example, ‘melancholy’ is no equivalent to the Hungarian ‘bús’ that conjures a whole literary period, so the translator has to create a similar sensation through some alternative. When one considers the act of translation for what it involves, a new respect for the craft is found: translators must deploy a whole host of problem-solving skills, the eye of an author in creating literary effects and a deep, holistic knowledge of both languages. Verse, a form that was once described to me as ‘a collection of decisions’, presents an even more intimidating challenge, to the extent that Robert Frost has even argued that ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation’.

From the previous paragraph, I’m sure you can infer that it is easy to focus on what is ‘lost in translation’ rather than what can be gained. At the end of the day, I think it’s all a matter of perspective: you might interpret reading a translation as a cheat’s shortcut and an alternative to the hard work of learning a language, but we also need to admit that not everyone has the privilege of enough time or resources to gain the level of fluency that reading a book or poem demands. Translations open up whole new experiences and ways of seeing the world to vast quantities of readers who would have been unable to access the text otherwise. If you’re interested in what happens when we read and why we can sometimes take contrasting interpretations away from the same set of words, then the ways translations differ from the original or each other can be reframed as positive, or even fascinating: where else do people record their readings or interpretations of texts with such precise detail? The point I’m trying to get across is that by nature, translations must differ somewhat from the original, but that can work to their advantage. In addition to making texts more accessible, translations might even be said to be an improvement on the original, by refining and revising the content in a similar way to an editor. Seamus Heaney recently translated the renowned Old English poem, ‘Beowulf’, and reviewers said, ‘Heaney has made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece’. This is how I see translation: as an impressive creative act in its own right, which requires a more specific set of skills than Liam Neeson’s in Taken and is deserving of a considerable amount of respect.

How, then, can we reconcile our cultural mistrust of translations with new perceptions of what they might be able to offer us? I think we could start by reappraising the role of translators: we need to stop shying away from their crucial role in getting foreign works into new hands, afraid of the perception that they might be an obstacle between us and the original. If we printed translators’ names alongside the author’s on the cover of books, it might help us to appreciate and celebrate their achievement – we could also compensate them more fairly for their time and effort (most translators in the US who work by the hour get paid the minimum wage), perhaps by giving them a proportion of every book sold. I am convinced that translations are something to get excited about, and that exploring a more diverse range of literature is worth doing – more frequently than 3% of the time.

Charlotte, Senior Prefect

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