Last week the Observer published a very interesting article by Maureen Freely, who successfully translated Orhan Pamuk’s works into English. I recommend the article to everyone interested in discovering the relationship between author and translator, but it is so good that there will be something for everyone. I was particularly taken by two very good points Maureen Freely makes. Firstly, she reminds the readers about the importance of literary translation and, therefore, literary translators:
An up-and-coming Colombian novelist might be inspired not just by Borges, Conrad and Faulkner, but by contemporary novelists from Asia, Africa and Europe; his literary response to their work will go on to influence what his contemporaries on the other side of the world write next. These complex patterns of cross-fertilisation would end overnight if it were not for literary translators and the publishers who support them.
I couldn’t agree more. This notion of cross-fertilisation (I used the verb cross-pollination in one of my first posts) has always been one of my main arguments whenever translation comes up as a topic of discussion. That translations only make up less than 3% of published titles in the English-speaking world should be a cause for concern. And I am not referring to the trite rants about “cultural imperialism”, but simply to the fact that publishing and reading such a limited amount of translated literature is bad for the national literatures of English-speaking countries. Goethe believed that without outside influences national literatures rapidly stagnate. Moreover, in countries where translations constitute as much as a third of what is published, it is common for
novelists and poets to work at some point in their lives as translators. Though most will say that they did so mainly to subsidise their own writing, it is often clear, when you look at that writing, that it has been enriched by the imaginary conversations they’ve had with the poets and novelists whose words they have translated.
On a completely different note, Freely’s article also shows how machine translation is perfectly useless for literary texts. A few months ago, I compared the most used free automatic translators, in an effort to show their users how easily things can go wrong. I was quite surprised to find myself linked by Luigi Muzii who called me naïve (although he also states that Edith Grossman, Sylvia Notini and Lawrence Venuti are damaging to the profession, so, yeah, I guess a couple of pinches of salt are in order) and went on to rant about the silly literary translators’ need to feel “irreplaceable”. I never even responded to that, as my original post was pretty much enough to prove my point, and it wasn’t meant to be an in-depth technical analysis of machine translation or the work that makes it even possible, as I am anything but an expert in the field. I just analysed the results. Maureen Freely, though, gives us an even better example of how literary translator do not need to feel irreplaceable, because, apparently, they are. Here is the first sentence of Istanbul: Memories of a City as rendered by Google Translate:
A place in the streets of Istanbul, similar to ours in a different house, with everything I like, twin, or even exactly the same, starting from childhood lived another Orhan a corner of my mind I believed for many years.
Translated by Maureen Freely as:
From a very young age, I suspected there was more to my world than I could see: somewhere in the streets of Istanbul, in a house resembling ours, there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my twin, even my double.
Not the quite the same, feel, there, or am I wrong? Even more mind-blowing is Google’s translation of the first sentence of The Black Book:
Bed-of top-from tip-to as-far-as stretched-out blue checked quilt-of rugged terrain-its, shadowy valleys-its and blue soft hills-its-with covered sweet and warm darkness-in Rüya face-down stretched-out sleeping-was.
Hmm. Let’s see what Freely did:
Rüya was lying face down on the bed, lost to the sweet, warm darkness beneath the billowing folds of the blue-checked quilt.
I don’t think I need to add much more. Nonetheless, it’s a free world, and Luigi Muzii (especially considering his experience and competence) can freely call me or anyone else “naïve” for defending the vital role of literary translation and the impossibility for a machine to replace a human being when translating literature. As for the rest of us, let’s keep smuggling words, ideas, metaphors and visions. It’s the best cure against linguistic barbarism.
Image: You are Useless, by 2493/Gavin Bobo (Flickr).