In my first post I addressed the need to properly recognise the precious work of translators. Some of you, especially those who don’t speak a second language, might wonder what on Earth might a translator do that is so special, besides the evocative image of smuggling that inspired this blog’s name. I’ll try and explain this briefly, so that whoever doesn’t work in the field will be able to join the discussion, learn something about our job, and help it get the recognition we’re aiming for.
Technically speaking, a literary translator is a full-fledged writer, minus the fame. Of course, I start with a book that’s already been written, but I have to read it more than once (when deadlines allow) and grasp the style, tone, registers, its multiple levels. I have to identify the linguistic features of the narrator’s voice and the characters’ voices in relation to the standard language. I have to store this and other information. I have to digest it, and while doing that I have to be as aware as possible of the myriad of emotional ramifications that the book generates in myself, so that I have an idea of the effect I’ll have to recreate.
Then I start translating. The most obvious and easiest things to transfer in the target language are the events and images, the informative elements of the text, so to speak. But I also need to render the author’s voice, their style and register, their use of punctuation, the formal aspects of their work so that the translation represents the closest thing to the original that can be written in the target language. And here come the first problems, because formal aspects are unique to each language, so it’s a dynamic equivalence that I am after, not a formal one, as Nida would put it, a way to reproduce, in the reader of the translation, the effect that the original had on me.
Moreover, I also want that the voices and the psychology of the characters to maintain their distinctive traits, finding solutions in order for them to be perceived by my readers as they were by the original audience. Here we have to consider cultural, economic, social and political factors, unique not to the language, but to a community of speakers, to the social groups within that community, and to the way they interact. I need the Italian reader to understand how a Texan farmer might perceive a Bostonian white-collar. It’s like trying to make an Australian understand why people in Brescia and Bergamo, 50 kilometres apart, hate each other’s guts. Except that I can’t explain it. I have to convey it through my translation – I hate footnotes. It’ s quite a challenge.
And again, the atmosphere, all the sensations, feelings and ideas need to maintain the power and impact that the author gave them, especially when they don’t really belong to the culture of the target language. This is the smuggling we were talking about a few days ago. The readers find themselves identifying with a mind that works differently from their own. New connections fire up in the brain. The opportunities for human and cultural growth are literally infinite, if you forgive my lack of modesty.
It is also worth noting that once I’ve done all that, and I’m done with the first version, I generally have five more to go. Generally, by the sixth version, after I’ve read the book about eight times in two languages, everything seems to be in its right place. It’s usually been two or three months.
To sum up, if you’re reading a translating book and it’s flowing, in your native tongue, transporting you to some exotic place, and despite the strangeness, you feel that you’re in, that you’re getting it, it means the translator did a good job. And the paradox, our invisibility, as Venuti would put it, is that when we work well, people do not generally notice our work. It would be nice then to get used to considering that fundamental link that is the translator.
Now, having taken care of this very general but necessary introduction, in the next week I’ll try and deal with some of these themes with the help of examples and case studies. Stay tuned.
PS Thanks to all the people who have been following this blog even in these early days. It means a lot.