A couple of months ago, my talented colleague, No Peanuts! mastermind, and blogging star Wendell Ricketts wrote a very interesting article, Please stop talking about art, complaining about a disturbing trend: literary translators talking about their job as some sort of aural, mystical and shamanic ritual that can only be accomplished by some sort of special souls. Obviously, this conception does not often help us in presenting ourselves as skilled professionals who studied hard, keep studying hard, and deserve a certain level of recognition. Personally, I concede that literary translation often requires slightly different skills than purely technical translation. Language, in a novel or poem, is not just used to communicate information, but is rather a device used to affect the reader intellectually and emotionally. So, of course one needs to have a slightly different kind of sensitivity and flexibility, but the basic process is pretty much the same. It’s the complementary skills that are important if you want to translate a great writer’s work rather than a badly written manual. Still, as Ricketts points out:
editorial (aka literary) translation constitutes no more than 10% of the entire translation market. (Luigi Muzii, longtime member of the Italian Association of Translators and Interpreters, offers an estimate of from 3% to 10%, based on figures provided by the European Union and Common Sense Advisory.)
Now, let’s talk about the skills one needs to translate that 10% as much as the other 90%. Rickett’s describes them very accurately:
I mean, really. Can we please stop talking about art?
Instead, let’s talk about skills. Skills such as the ability to write clearly and expertly in your native language; the patience required to understand what you read; the possession of a vast, highly flexible vocabulary; sensitivity to a wide range of linguistic registers; extensive knowledge of your particular sector, if you are a specialist; a broad cultural knowledge, whether you are or not; familiarity not solely with what a text “means” but with how it means; proficiency at editing; an excellent grasp of your source language.
These are not the inchoate arts of the priestesses of the Muses. They are professional skills honed through practice, experience, and hard work.
And they can all be taught.
That’s exactly right. But here we encounter a fascinating phenomenon. A semantic shift that occurred in the last century, or maybe in the last sixty-something years. That obscure and metaphysical conception of art. The artsy-fartsy art. But art is and has always been an eminently practical thing. Then, at some point, scores of drunk bohemian folks, freaky hippies and punkish addicts, all with way too much spare time started pushing this idea that it was all about inspiration, while skills and technique were reactionary ideas for bourgeois losers. I still don’t get why we’re taking this idea seriously. Even some art schools are discontinuing figure drawing classes, showing a scary tendency towards a denial of the importance of skill. So, what does art mean? The eternal and pretentious debate to define it is not my cup of tea, so I simply went to the trouble of checking the etymology of the word:
early 13c., “skill as a result of learning or practice,” from O.Fr. art, from L. artem (nom. ars) “art, skill, craft,” from PIE *ar-ti- (cf. Skt. rtih “manner, mode;” Gk. arti “just,” artios “complete;” Armenian arnam “make;” Ger. art “manner, mode”), from base *ar- “fit together, join” (see arm (1)). In M.E. usually with sense of “skill in scholarship and learning” (c.1300), […] Meaning “human workmanship” (as opposed to nature) is from late 14c. […] Meaning “skill in creative arts” is first recorded 1620; esp. of painting, sculpture, etc., from 1660s. […]
“Skill”, “workmanship”, “manner”, “craft”. Even in the bits I skipped, there is nothing suggesting any meaning like “random stuff produced by unskilled, lazy and self-important bums who can’t be bothered with learning anything and, terrorised by the idea of working, try to convince enough people that they are geniuses.”
Obviously, Wendell Ricketts pragmatically acknowledges this semantic shift and accepts that, if that is the image popping up in most people’s minds when they hear the word “art”, it might be safer to stop talking about art and use the word “skills” instead. And it makes so much sense. Still, I can’t help but feel a need to reclaim the proper meaning of the word “art”. It should be about manners and modes of making, joining and fitting together, it should be about skilled workmanship in one’s hard-learned craft. Maybe in the end it’s just a petty aesthetic concern, but, let’s face it, “the craft of translation” or “the set of skills of translation” don’t sound nearly as catchy.
IMAGE: St.Jerome – Ink Drawing, by Philip Bitnar