Archive for the ‘English’ Category

In 2012 a working group of distinguished colleagues updated the AUSIT Code of Ethics, which regulates the professional conduct of AUSIT members, both translators and interpreters, and on which all NAATI candidates are tested. The code, written in the early 1990s, and officially endorsed at the 1995 General Meeting, has been an essential tool for professionals, but so much has changed in the space of less than twenty years, that an update was maybe even overdue.

A few months ago I attended a panel discussion about the new code at the latest AUSIT Biennial Conference in Sydney, presented by Uldis Ozolins, where we had the chance to examine and discuss the changes to the code. Christian Schmidt was also enlightening in talking about this precious contribution to the process during the National AGM at the end of the conference.

Let’s have a quick look at the new code. In terms of structure, the major change is that to Section 6 of the old code, formerly titled “Employment,” and now basically split into two sections, called “6. Clarity of Role Boundaries” and “7. Maintaining Professional Relationships.” The two sections, which, put together, are longer than the old one they replaced, offer a much clearer understanding of the themes they deal with, which will help practitioners and clients alike. Furthermore, this is the only instance where the code got more verbose in the re-writing process. Overall, each section has been greatly simplified and shortened: Section 1 (Professional Conduct) went from 15 points subdivided into five sub-sections to just six points. Section 5, (Accuracy) went from 4 sub-sections, and a total of 11 points, to 4 simple points. All the other sections are considerably shorter and will appear much clearer and to the point to people who are not part of the industry. This is a great achievement: the much more concise format of the new code, and the clearer language used make it much easier for clients to get an idea of what they can and should expect by a T&I service provider.

This is of pivotal importance to ensure a smooth and mutually beneficial relationship between the client and the T&I service provider. For example, I was asked several times to change or explain some section of an official document. Sometimes a client might even ask me to add information which is nowhere to be found, or to change a date on a document on the basis that they are going to apply for a new copy which they expect to be issued on that date.

I have also encountered a few clients who sounded quite concerned about what I might do with their personal details and any information acquired while carrying out a job. Clearly, a Code of Ethics with a detailed section about Confidentiality, is an excellent way to show clients what they can and should expect from us as professionals.

Of course, explaining what the boundaries of my role are is easy and has always proven effective. Furthermore, it positively affects the client’s perception of the translator as a highly ethical professional, satisfying their need to know that they are dealing with a professional who is required to maintain an extremely high level of integrity. Still, I have noticed that some clients had minor troubles with the wording of the Code, and I was very happy to see that the new version will be an even more effective tool to educate clients and allow them to save valuable time and resources.

Finally, as an Italian, I can’t help but comparing the Australian case with that of my home country – AUSIT and its Code of Ethics, as well as body like NAATI, might still be far from perfect, but they are at the forefront, globally, in terms of protecting, advancing and regulating our profession. Italy still lacks – and desperately needs – an accreditation body comparable to NAATI and a professional body comparable to AUSIT. How my former university colleagues manage to navigate a market that does without these two pillars is beyond me. A simple, superficial analysis actually suggest that the consequences are disastrous, and directly linked with some of the major woes of translation in Italy. Unskilled translators market themselves well above their true level of competence, at amazingly low prices, and clients, big and small, assign them projects which often result in major embarrassments (like the official website of the Italian Ministry of Tourism). Setting a bar, like NAATI accreditation, and having a professional body that requires its members to abide to a code of conduct would doubtlessly sweep away unskilled and untrained people claiming to be translators, leaving the market to professionals. Without unskilled people driving prices down, translators could finally be able to compete on quality of service, rather than sacrificing it to compete on prices with unskilled competitors. This shift, by itself, is a major ethical imperative, and figures like the ones we read in the latest AUSIT report, with an average fee of $25 per 100 words, show that a high emphasis on ethics and conduct is not just fluff. On the contrary, it even affects, in a not-so-indirect way, the livelihood of professionals and therefore the quality of the services we provide.

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The Orator - O Le TulafaleA few months ago I received a call from New Zealand. Philip Saffery from Toitereo Linguists was looking for an Italian translator for a subtitling job. I was thrilled. I had been chasing subtitling work for a while, without any luck. Tell me more, I said. It got more and more interesting. The film was called The Orator – O Le Tulafale, the first ever Samoan feature film, entirely shot in Samoa, with a Samoan cast, by a Samoan director, and in the Samoan language. Nothing short of an historical film. I confess that I did not know much about Samoa, despite the fact that Australia is home to a pretty big community of Samoan expats. Of course Philip, who lived in Polynesia for ages and is fluent in te reo Maori and other Polynesian languages, had already done the English subtitles, so it was essentially an English to Italian job.

Still, you can probably guess that a film about Samoan traditions does present certain challenges for someone who is not very knowledgeable about that culture. Lucky for us, Wikipedia and Google gave me access to a wealth of information, and within a couple of days I had temporarily become some kind of expert on the history, politics and customs. I still remember the essentials, but unfortunately, like many other translators, I do tend to clean up my cache every now and then, to make room for what I need to have handy for my next project.
Working on subtitles was a new experience for me, and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s quite different from translating literature, as the format rules out not only all notes and explanations, but sometimes can also require a compression of the target text to make it readable to the audience in the limited time for which the text appears on the screen. David Bellos points it out in Chapter 12 of his brilliant and entertaining Is That a Fish in Your Ear? where he also tells us that

It has become a convention to regard average filmgoers as capable of reading only about 15 characters per second; and […] no more than 32 alphabetic characters can be displayed in a line. In addition, no more than two lines can be displayed at a time without obscuring significant parts of the image. […] the subtitler has around 64 characters including spaces that must be displayed for a few seconds at most to express the key meanings of a shot or sequence in which characters may speak many more words than that. […] It’s really amazing that it can be done at all.

It really is, but it’s also true that most of the times you work it out pretty naturally if you are a good translator. Luckily, this film does not include fast-paced conversation. It is quite formal in its use of dialogue, which is often very poetic and symbolic, therefore making it a bit easier to subtitle. Counting the syllables of the original Samoan speech and of the English subtitles I was translating from was one way to check that my subtitles weren’t too long. The problem was rather the impossibility of using explanatory notes for Samoan terms and customs that I was not familiar with.

Luckily, the producers had prepared a very insightful press kit to explain some of the cultural elements and traditional Samoan customs to Western journalists and critics. The press kit had a unique role in the process, as it was part of my job to translate that, as well, with all the issues I just pointed out, but on the other hand the explanations it contained helped me navigate the cultural elements of the film. Moreover, knowing that viewers at the Venice Film Festival would have the press kit handy somewhat eased the panic of a translator who can’t use explanatory notes and has no room for paraphrase, either.

Let’s take the complex social structures underlying the Samoan word “matai”:

Matai are titleholders.  They are divided into 2 categories, chiefs  (alii);  orators (tulafale).  Women are divided into two categories, faletua and tausi, faletua i.e. wives of chiefs, tausi i.e. wives of orators. Untitled men (taulele’a )as a group are called ‘aumaga, (singular: taule’ale’a);  untitled women, including women not married to men who hold  matai titles, are honorifically addressed as  le nuu o tama’ita’i (literally the village of the ladies) and are known collectively as aualuma.  Each grouping i.e. Alii & Faipule which are the matai;  faletua and tausi which are the wives of the matai;  the ‘aumaga i.e. the collective of untitled men, the aualuma i.e the collective of untitled women; has a specific role to play in the village governance.

Not particularly hard, I know, but still so radically different from Australian society and even from the most traditional elements of my father’s Southern Italian family, which I though was very complex and honor-based! It is simply not possible to explain any of that in the subtitles. Another Samoan tradition depicted in the movie is the ifoga:

A ritual where the offending party pleads for pardon from the offended party. Three elements sustain ifoga:  a sense of remorse and shame by the perpetrator, accountability by the family and village, and forgiveness by the victim’s family.  Traditionally the culprit(s) kneel covered in fine mats.  Ritual acceptance by the offended party occurs when they approach the ifoga party and pull away the mats. 

The ifoga in this film lasts for days, the culprits kneel under the mats and under pouring rain, fighting back sleep until the victim of their bullying comes out to forgive them. Without the press kit, and because of the space and time constraints in subtitling, a Western viewer would have been completely lost in front of this scene. (“Hey, what’s he doing under that mat? He’s the bigger guy, he already kicked the little guy’s butt once, now he’s prostrating himself for days waiting to be excused?! It makes no sense at all!”) I was struck and amazed by the humanity and beauty of this ritual, by the strength that honor and family can exert even on the big bad village bully, by the obvious sincerity that it fosters. I’d love to discuss this ritual at length, but I am not a sociologist and this is not the place. Let me just say that things like that made translating the subtitles of the movie a very enriching experience from a cultural point of view.

Another interesting aspect was that this was, with the exception of a few legal document, my first re-translation. I was not translating from Samoan – which sounds sweet as honey  but, alas, I can’t understand a word of it – but, as I said, from Philip’s translation from Samoan to English . There is an underlying issue of trust in such an undertaking. I did trust Philip, as his resumé is very impressive and the NZFC wouldn’t have picked a random translator for a movie that eventually became New Zealand’s entry in the Academy Awards. Still, here and there, where the English text was a bit obscure, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was because of a cultural gap between Western mindset and Samoan tradition, or if there was a mistake in the translation. Almost invariably, it was the first case, but I still had to take particular care anytime something sounded strange, as I could not go back to the original and work it out myself. Philip was a precious ally, though, and would always have an answer for me.

There were a few linguistic issues, as well, like the use of a word like “banished  in English which, as I understand, was a pretty direct translation of the Samoan. The word, though, translates into Italian differently in different context: “esiliato” in the case of “banished from a village” but “ripudiato” in “banished by one’s family.” Clearly, I had to check that the word did not carry too much symbolic meaning, which would have been lost by “splitting” it into two words in the Italian.

As far Samoan words are concerned, there was the issue of “lavalava” which is basically what most Europeans would call a  “pareo,”  a word that comes from Tahitian. The last thing I wanted to do was to diminish the distinctively Samoan flavour by using a word borrowed from a “close enough” culture. It seemed to be something that careless peddlers of the “exotic” would do and indeed used to do, selling simplistic concepts like “oriental,” “african,” and “aboriginal” to romantic bourgeois Westerners  as if they were monolithic categories. I did go for “lavalava” in the end, and when a guy wearing just that piece of cloth is told to “take off your lavalava” it becomes pretty obvious what a lavalava is.

Also, it all got unexpectedly glamorous when I got offered two tickets for the film’s premiere at the 68th Venice Film Festival. I happened to be in Italy at the time, and I said, why not? Having all those people reading my subtitles was extremely gratifying and quite scary, to tell you the truth. I watched it all with unforgiving attention and I only found five or six things I would have changed, which is really not a lot, for a picky translator. When the audience laughed at jokes that crossed half a world and two languages, I started to relax.

The film earned a standing ovation and a special mention in Venice, and I don’t think my subtitles played much of a  role in this – Tusi Tamasese is a brilliant and poetic storyteller, who managed to pull off a courageous film which is emotional, visually rich and yet understated. It was a privilege and an honour to be involved, even if peripherally, in its success, and I hope viewers in Italy will be able to enjoy it without cringing at my subtitles.

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A couple of weeks ago I was given the Versatile Blogger Award by Rebekka Wellmanns, of In Other Words. What can I say? It’s always nice to get a nice response from people, especially when they work in the same field and can provide an informed feedback. This blog has been through some ups and downs as I tried to maintain it despite a very busy year at work and the birth of my wonderful Eila in March, which sort of rearranged priorities, as I’m sure you’ll understand. So it was deeply satisfying that Rebekka though of me.

Anyway, for the lucky ones who are about to get nominated by me, here are the award rules:

1. Thank the award-giver and link back to them in your post.

2. Share 7 things about yourself.

3. Pass this award along to 15 recently discovered blogs you enjoy reading.

4. Contact your chosen bloggers to let them know about the award.

Let’s move on to the 7 things about me. I know, not that interesting, but, hey, that’s the rule.

1.  I grew up in Savona, Italy, and lived in Bochum (Germany), Lyon (France) and I now live in sunny Brisbane, in the Land Down Under.

2. At age 15 I decided I was going to be a rock star. At age 17 I decided I was going to be a novelist. After some ill-advised experimenting, I realised there were a lot of already written novels that I could re-write,  and I decided to be a translator, in order to avoid accusation of plagiarism. I still play and make music, when I get the chance, and occasionally produce secret and disappointing writing experiments.

3. I love cooking and I’m pretty darn good at it.

4. One of the things that make me think I’m cut out to be a translator is that I constantly feel like I exist somewhere in between languages and cultures, but also in between social groups, political ideology, music genres, etc.

5. The ooh-is-that-a-kindle-no-way-I-love-how-paper-feels-and-the-smell-of-a-new-book crowd is really starting to get on my nerves (not to mention that despite the chopping of trees, the printing process, and the emissions needed to ship “real” books, they probably think I am the degenerate yuppy).

6. I have a wonderful daughter called Eila who gives me more joy than all other things combined.

7. I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.

Now, I need to list 15 of my favourite, recently discovered blogs. And the winners are:

No Peanuts! for Translators

There’s Something About Translation



Terminologia etc.

A Walk in the Words

La stanza del traduttore


Language Hat

DC Blog

Una Vita Vagabonda

In Other Words

Three Percent

Translate This!

All right, then. Time to tell these people I like them. Stay tuned.

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Google Street View CarIn the last fifteen years technology has radically transformed the way in which translators work. Translators used to spend most of their time browsing through heavy paper dictionaries and glossaries, lose their eyesight in the small lines of a definition to look for an idiomatic phrase, and planned regular trips to the local library to research the most puzzling references.

In the 1990s dictionaries started to be published on CD. You wrote the word, it popped up. You wrote the key word of the idiom you were looking for, and there it was, highlighted in a split second. It sounds normal, today, but it must have seemed like magic, at first. This relatively recent development truly boosted translators’ productivity, while reducing anxiety, depression and frustration – not a mean feat. And that was just the beginning. When the Internet became affordable for the average translator working from home, it opened up spaces where one could research huge directories, at speeds never imagined before. Yahoo!’s directories where huge and searchable. Could it get any better than that? Of course it could. Enter Google. Fast-forward to thirteen years later, and Google is the main tool I use in my work as a translator.

If most translators would probably confirm that they use Google more than any other tool, and if the average person can easily understand why that is, fewer people would guess that Street View is a precious tool in our trade.

Google Street View is nothing short of awesome. Many people use it to show their friends where they have been on holiday, or the street where they grew up. Others like to get a feel of an area before booking a hotel or venturing out to a late-night concert. Those with a lot of spare time simply get virtually lost through the streets of an unknown foreign city. It’s a precious tool for everyday life and a bonanza for the chronically curious.

As I said, not many people would assume that Street View is an amazing tool for literary translators. When I encounter a reference to some place in a text, I immediately Google it, check out if it exists, check the Wikipedia entry for it, find a few pictures, maybe a tourism website. Tourist websites and photo galleries, though, are pretty much limited to the main attractions – not to mention that you’ll find countless pictures of Paris, but a small town in rural Texas, well… that’s another story. With this kind of tool, the translator can easily get a very precise idea of the most obscure place where a story is set.

Stewart Beach Park, Galveston, TXWhile translating Galveston, the amazing debut by Nic Pizzolatto, I truly got lost through the dingy streets of that Texan island, I “walked” along the seaside to see what the characters where seeing. Ok, the businesses and addresses he wrote about were not really there (although countless others, of the same kind, were) but I got the feeling, the atmosphere of Galveston island. Needless to say, one can of course translate without having the vaguest idea of what a place looks like, and writers used to set their stories in exotic places without having been there, and without having seen a single picture of them. And that’s probably one of the greatest skill an author needs, the ability to imagine how a place looks, smells, sounds, feels like.

Still, being able to get at least a visual impression can make all the difference when we have to establish which one of two quasi-synonyms we need to use, and allows us to visualise the events a lot better, which certainly helps to dissipate any doubts about the setting, and therefore to produce and accurate and meaningful translation.

O Toole's Pub, Chicago, ILIn his brilliant novel Everything Matters! Ron Currie, Jr. mentions heaps of bars, restaurants and shops. Much to my surprise, that time I discovered that they all exist in the real world. Whether you are a translator or just a reader, being able to stand in front of the Chicago pub where your main character is getting drunk with his drug-addled amputee friend certainly adds to the experience, and – quite simply – an enhanced reading experience will result in a better performance by the translator.

Anyone else out there using Street View to check out the locations of the story they are translating?

P.S. interestingly, I have found Google Street View much more useful in my job than the surprising but still dreadful Google Translate.

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Dear all,

once again, sorry about the long absence. With a 6-month-old baby girl and a 6-week trip to Italy so that Nonno, Nonna and Zia could finally meet her I did not manage to find the discipline to update at all. After all, work/life balance is a hot concept right now, is it not? In any case, I assume most of you survived. In case you’re still hanging around here, I finally give you a .pdf of  my presentation at the recent AAL Conference about Literature and Translation. It’s called Translation as Re-creation and you can read it here. Enjoy, and stay tuned.


ancora una volta mi devo scusare per la lunga assenza. Tra una bimba di sei mesi e un viaggio in Italia di sei settimane di modo che il nonno, la nonna e la zia potessero finalmente conoscerla, non sono riuscito a trovare la disciplina di aggiornare il blog. Ma dopotutto il concetto di equilibro fra vita e lavoro è parecchio in voga, ultimamente, no? In ogni caso immagino che siate sopravvissuti quasi tutti. Nel caso in cui siate ancora in giro per questo blog, finalmente vi presento il testo che ho presentato alla recente conferenza dell’AAL alla Monash University di Melbourne. Si è parlato di letteratura e traduzione, e il titolo della mia relazione era Translation as Re-creation. Potete leggerla qui. Buona lettura, e restate sintonizzati.

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I just came back from the conference organised by the Australasian Association for Literature at Monash University, Caulfield, and I thought some people might like a quick report. This year the theme was Literature and Translation, and I decided to submit an abstract, to see whether my slightly academic foray at the Sydney Symposium was just a fluke or not. Surprisingly (as I am just a humble practitioner, and not a university-based scholar), my abstract was accepted and I presented a paper titled Translation as Re-creation, which I will probably publish on this blog in the coming weeks.

The conference was impeccably organised, the hosts were lovely, and there was an abundance of interesting ideas going around the H building of the Caulfield campus. First of all, we had the privilege of listening to a fantastic keynote speech by comparative literature star David Damrosch, author of What is World Literature? and a major player shaping the future of his field of studies. His unassuming, modest attitude is really refreshing, if we consider that he studied at Yale and is Chair of Comparative Literature at Harvard. He is able to illustrate the complexities of world literature with surprising zest, brilliantly conveying his evident passion and love for literature. He can talk about The Epic of Gilgamesh, throw in a reference to Aztec texts, and then proceed to put on a playful but impeccable Russian accent when reading out the fictional author Vladimir Brusiloff’s lines from “The Clicking of Cuthbert”, a short story by P. G. Wodehouse.  Hard to follow that, let me tell you.

Unfortunately, for the rest of the conference we had five or six parallel sessions running at any given time, so I missed out on a number of promising papers.

The first session I attended was titled The Translation Process. I very much enjoyed Marc Orlando‘s reflections on his French translation of Mau Moko, an English/Maori book about the art of face tattooing in Polynesian history, imbued with a political activism which proved challenging in the translation process (yes, intents have to be translated too). His use of music (four different arrangements of La valse d’Amelie) to show how the same work can be arranged differently depending on intents, context, and audience also echoes one of the points I made in my own paper, namely “if anyone performing a cover or a rendition of a classical piece is considered a musician, why should the translator not be considered a writer?” Moreover, I appreciated his very pragmatic and contemporary approach to the problem of foreignisation (i.e. “leaving the author alone and moving the reader towards the author”) and domestication (“leaving the reader alone and moving the author towards the reader”) that leads to the identification of the translator’s space, a no-man land in between the two poles, where the author and the reader should meet. Again, I made a similar point in my paper in Sydney when warning about the excessive adherence to theoretical poles. After him the flamboyant Royall Tyler delivered an illuminating lecture on translating medieval Japanese epics, complete with a popular rendition of traditional japanese music and poetry.

On the Censorship and Ideology panel, Belinda Calderone illustrated how translations of 16th and 17th century Italian and French fables in Victorian England sanitized and censored the text to the point of incoherence and inconsistency, eliminating themes like violence, abuse, rape, and murder while trying to turn what were essentially folk tales into children stories. Feng Cui, in absentia, contributed an interesting paper about the role of state-sponsored translations shaped the literary discourse in communist China to serve the shifting political agenda from the late 1940s until the Cultural Revolution and beyond.

In Translating Style and VoiceLeah Gerber faced the complex issue of aging translations with a detailed study of Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive in its various English translation, opening up room for debate. Why do translations age? Should we re-translate a work from the 1920s to make it sound more contemporary and ensure the work will still be read? And has the original aged with the translation? If not, can we find a translation strategy that will enable the text to stand the test of time without making Emil sound like a modern boy? After her, Suzie Gibson delivered a nice reading of the countless adaptations of James’s The Turn of the Screw, followed by Andrew Read‘s excellent presentation which looked at Pullman’s Northern Lights and its French and German translations as well as stage and film adaptation, in order to analyse the consequences of the translator’s choices on the work. In the original, Lyra, the main character, speaks a distinctive working class sociolect that is rendered very effectively with non-standard spelling and grammar. All translations (and, to a certain extent, the film adaptation) flatten this out, assigning Lyra much more correct speech patterns that not only change the perception of the character, but actually influence the perception of  the relationships between characters. Once again, that’s another point I made elsewhere, and it’s hard to overstate how crucial this can be for the outcome of a translation.

On Tuesday, the panel Cross-fertilisation and transmission sounded very promising, and was quite interesting, too. Emily Finley’s paper focused on the issue of translating the Hegelian term Aufheben (a word connoting simultaneous destruction and preservation). How to translate it: suppress? Abolish? Remove? The odd sublate? Or maybe, as someone from the audience suggested, with take care ofChris Danta‘s paper was very insightful but very much removed from translation issues. When he used the word translation he did not mean what we commonly understand it to mean. I am pretty sure that anyone who is active in literary scholarship would have found the paper very well-written, and I could definitely see its originality. It’s just that it was quite out of my domain as a translator. The panel also included Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover, who analysed Bakhtin’s model of parody as a means of transmission (and translation) of cultural forms, underlining how translation itself can lead to the establishment of new literary genres in national spaces where they previously absent.

Then, tension beginning to rise in anticipation of my presentation, it was time for Creation and creativity (I). Curiously enough, as I was on Creation and creativity (II) just after lunch, I was quite disappointed by two of the speakers on this panel. It actually started very well, with Joel Scott and his very compelling arguments about “difference” in writing and translating. Joel had some interesting ideas on the role of difference, including language difference, in literature. I would have loved to hear more about the possible translation process he envisions for Susana Chàvez Silverman’s bilingual writing, and less about the socio-political, post-colonial implications of difference, but all in all it was a very enjoyable paper and I found myself nodding in approval at several of Joel’s statements. The next presenter, Luke Johnson, focused instead on how authors recognise themselves in their work and in the translating text, with and very thought-provoking psychological parallels with infants learning to recognise themselves in a mirror. It was mostly very theoretical, though, and not really concerned with translation. Plus, he totally lost me when he likened the translator to someone taking a picture. Anyone who has ever translated a paragraph should know it takes a bit longer than a click. Maybe if he replaced that with a hyper-realist painter. That’s more like it, I’d say. After him, H.J. van Leeuwen circled around the issue of translation with fairly textbook quotes and a lot of philosophical reflection. I could see he was certainly competent in his field, and despite his initial disclaimer “I’m not a translator” I couldn’t help but thinking it was mostly a lot of philosophical fluff. Please note, I’m not slamming anyone, here. Even the two last speakers clearly knew what they were doing. It’s just that neither of the papers was dealing with the translation process in an engaging way. I am extremely interested in translation theories and studies  but only as long as the theory is there to inform the practice, shed light on it. When translation as a whole, instead, becomes one of many examples to use in a discourse that is not concerned with translation, my interest starts to waver, unless I am listening to a David Damrosch.

The last panel, which included yours truly – yeah, no chance to relax until the very end – was, fortunately for me, a quite different story. Emiko Okayama, translator and scholar, used her very attentive research to show how different translations and subsequent adaptations of the Chinese vernacular novel Suikoden into Japanese not only ended up generating an original Japanese work (Nansō Satomi Hakkenden) but, again, gave rise to a new genre in Japanese literature. The other speaker, Nataša Karanfilović, conducted a thorough research to expose what I called “the dark side of re-creation”, showing how a score of gross mistakes in the translation of Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story not only obliterated countless cultural references, but made for an incoherent text whose poor reception basically sabotaged White’s appeal on the Serbian market, where no other novels of his have been translated after this fiasco. As for yours truly, waiting for a polished version of the paper (and especially waiting for its not-yet-existent Italian translation) I will share my abstract in the hope of enticing readers:

Translation as Re-creation

Is the translator a writer? Technically speaking, it would seem obvious. Yet, the perception is often very different. If performing a cover, or a rendition of a classical piece, makes one a musician, why should not the translator be considered a writer? One might say that translators are not creative writers but, of course, even that is not true, as any translation constantly requires linguistically and culturally creative solutions. Too many people, even in the publishing industry, have the perception that texts exist as unchanging entities, and that the language they are written in is but a patina that can be almost mechanically scrubbed away and replaced. What are the dangers of this misconception? Translators are writers who creatively manipulate the linguistic and cultural elements of a text to produce a new, original text, of which they are legally recognised as the authors. What’s more, the very act of translating into a different language inevitably influences the tone and style of the narration, even the voices of the characters. This paper will move from these issues to explore the idea of translation as re-creation, in both its senses of “creating anew” and “refreshment of strength and spirits” or “diversion,” focusing on the regenerative powers of translation on texts and languages, as well as on translators and readers.

Then we had the privilege to go back to the main lecture theatre to listen to Rita Wilson, Brian Nelson and David Damrosch discussing translation and world literature, another fantastic set of speakers for a great finale.

Unfortunately, there were many papers I missed which I would have loved to listen to. Laura Olcelli’s paper about “geographical and linguistic disorientation”, Felix Siddel’s presentation about Buzzati and “translation as a catalyst in a literary career”, Maria Cristina Seccia’s paper Translating Caterina Edwards: the overlap of two cultures, Luigi Gussago’s presentation about Cesare De Marchi and many more.

The good thing, though, it’s that this conference had the precise aim of “educating” the academy about the importance of translation, and judging by the amount of academics present (I was probably the only one who was not and never had been affiliated to a university) it looks like it certainly did it what it wanted to do. Translation seems to be oddly fashionable in academic circles at the moment, and I urge all translators to strike the hammer while the iron is hot and contribute whatever they can contribute so we can finally give literary translation its rightful place in literary and cultural studies.

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Just a quick one to explain the long silence on this blog: my first daughter was born in March, work has been crazier than ever and we moved house. Oh, and I had to prepare for the 2011 AAL Conference: Literature and Translation which will be held at Monash University next week. Things are starting to go back to normal, now, and so should the blog. Thanks to all the people who kept coming back even during this hiatus. GMB

Una breve per spiegare il lungo silenzio di questo blog: a marzo è nata mia figlia, il lavoro è stato più matto che mai, e in più abbiamo traslocato. Oh, e mi sono dovuto preparare per la conferenza dell’AAL su letteratura e traduzione che si terrà a Melbourne la settimana prossima. Ora le cose stanno tornando alla normalità, e lo stesso dovrebbe succedere al blog. Grazie a tutti quelli che hanno continuato a farmi visita durante questa pausa. GMB


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Back to last year’s Sydney Symposium  for Panel Three, Ideas of the Literary. A panel about creative possibilities in literary translation.

We start with Eric Abrahamsen (3:07 – 24:00), founder of Paper Republic, a fellow translator who guided us through the translation of contemporary Chinese literature – generally not very popular with most sinologists and translators, especially those who can afford to translate older and more refined texts. Eric’s presentation was one of the most entertaining of the whole symposium, very interesting yet unassuming, just how I like it. I loved his blend of irony and literary as well as political commentary, and I particularly enjoyed his explanation of how Chinese writers, overwhelmed by too much history and by a society where everything takes on a political connotation, are fighting for the right to interpret society straying from the supposedly “correct interpretation.” I also really enjoyed how he focused on the practice of translation itself, analysing texts and translation options, and investigating the role of personal taste and the balance between language and story in producing great literature. If you are interested to know something about where Chinese literature is heading, do not miss his paper, and visit Paper Republic.

Then we had Simon West (25:15 – 47:05), poet and translator, who translated  the poetry of Guido Cavalcanti (in case you don’t know who he is, we are talking about a thirteenth century poet whom Dante Alighieri called “his mentor”) into English, no mean feat at all. He focused on the role of translation and translated poetry and analysed the notion of “national literature” versus “fluid, open international literary spaces,” exploring the ideas of “cultural traffic” and “literary negotiation”. World literature is certainly inextricably linked to the practice of translation, and Simon also explains how translating poetry and writing poetry are very interconnected activities. Simon certainly has a more academic point of view, compared to Eric’s, and therefore it might be a bit hard for outsiders to enjoy, but every translator who likes thinking about translation will absolutely love it.

Brian Nelson, Professor Emeritus of French and Translation Studies at Monash University and president of AALITRA (Australian Association for Literary Translation) delivered the final presentation (48:30 – 1:11:00), focusing on the failure of academics to fully recognise the value of literary translation. Brian’s excellent presentation was an exhaustive reminder of the vital importance of translation in the development of literature. Brian Nelson advocates a move away from the old paradigm of national literature, even past the post-national and towards the trans-national. The imagery he uses will show you why he is a Professor Emeritus, and you are going to love the idea of translation, the poor cousin of literature, being denied citizenship within the national paradigm. Not to mention the notion that translation is literature’s circulatory system. From Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur to Kundera’s cosmopolitanism, Brian Nelson very clearly explains why the academy should start taking literary translation more seriously. Enjoy.

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Most of you will be familiar with the excellent blog called Three Percent, maintained by the University of Rochester since 2007. You will probably also know that the name comes from the estimate that translations constitute less than 3% of literary works published in English. Many people know that in European and non-English-speaking countries in general, that figure can be as high as 35%.  It’s a huge difference, of course, especially when we think of the important role that translations have always played in the development and constant regeneration of national literatures (think of Goethe’s statement that without outside influences national literatures rapidly stagnate). One could just assume, based on these numbers, that surely there must be much more attention towards translation, and towards the “Other”, in non-English-speaking countries. But, as usual, it’s not that simple.

There is another side to the issue. Translations into Italian (and most languages other than English) are commissioned by publishers with a purely commercial agenda, so that not only the vast majority of these books are summer holiday reads, but even the translation of higher quality literature is subject to a “production line” approach that  imposes deadlines which are often three or four months away, or, in some cases, just a few weeks. Translations into English, on the other hand, are often undertaken as scholarly works or commissioned by very serious and attentive publishers. Attentive not only towards the kind of text they want to get translated or the quality of the translations, but also towards translators and their importance, with noticeable consequences on the fees and visibility of translators themselves. This radical difference in the role and position of translated literature in different markets is not just a philosophical one, but it creates massive differences in the way translators work.

In the last few months, for example, I translated two books that needed to be done extremely urgently, due to a number of  marketing reasons. They were a 350-page memoir that I did in just under two months and an academic book that I had twenty-seven days to complete. I did my very best, working 60 to 70-hour weeks in order to do at least four drafts of each work. Not as many as I generally like to do, and, what’s more, I basically had no time to put the translation aside for a week, do something else, and then go back to it with a fresher mind – something I always like to do, as it allows me to take a step back and spot a lot of issues that escape the eye a lot more when I have no pause at all. Talking to Meredith McKinney over dinner at the recent Sydney Symposium, we were mutually shocked, yours truly by the fact that she had on average one year to translate each book, and she that I was about to translate a 350-page book in seven weeks. Then, John Minford said that he was four years over the deadline for his I-Ching translation for Penguin Classics, further highlighting this fascinating difference in the way we work. This brought about a reflection on the different ways translation and translators are treated, an issue that kept coming up in conversations with my colleagues during the symposium, especially since I was one of the few translators translating from English, instead of into English.

It appears that the question is: is it better to have a disparate range of foreign influences through somewhat rushed translations or to count on a small niche of works translated by people who are first and foremost authors and scholars? It’s not easy to give a clear-cut answer, of course. And, thinking about it, does this necessarily reflect on the quality of the translations themselves? In an interview with Anna Maria Biavasco, she made an interesting point, saying that

Translations used to be undertaken by intellectuals and scholars, who were very good at finding interesting works, but often not as good at translating them. Now there are editors who read book after book after book, looking for the one they want to publish, and translators who translate book after book, and, in my opinion, these are better translators because they know their craft better.

And this adds yet another layer to the problem. The demands of non-English-speaking markets might lead to better training and to such a pressure that those translators training and developing within those systems acquire a more pragmatic and efficient approach, which might sometimes allow to compensate for shorter timeframes and less attentive publishers, as opposed to the more academic and sometimes amateurish (in the good sense of the word amateur, which, let’s remember, means “lover”) approach to translation in the Anglosphere.

It’s a very interesting topic for a translator like me, who translates literature into Italian and is starting to discuss translation in an English-speaking setting, and I hope we’ll be able to develop the discussion further with the help of readers’ comments. The ultimate question, though, seems to be simple: why choose between one model and the other? Is it so hard to realise that we need more translations, that translators need time and support to produce quality work, and that they can’t rely on their literary passion but should be highly trained in their craft?

Photo: Books, by Ryan Hide (Flickr), detail.

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After presenting you some absolutely captivating presentations given at the Sydney Symposium on Literary Translation, it’s time for me to show off a little bit as we get to Panel Two, which included yours truly.

The panel’s title was “Styles of Translation,” vague enough to allow three very distinctive presentations.

The highlight of the panel, and possibly of the whole symposium, was the amazing presentation given by Chris Andrews (25:10 – 45:30), the mastermind behind the Symposium, whom I thank once again for giving me the opportunity to be a part of such a unique event. An extremely talented translator, poet and academic, Chris talked about coherence and cohesion, sense and nonsense addressed a very interesting challenge translators face. Elaborating on Shoshana Blum-Kulka’s assertion that translations tend to be more explicit than their originals, Chris analysed the tendency to make sense of nonsense, as well as the possibility of doing the opposite. Furthermore, he explored the relationship of these shifts to the process of composition. To illustrate his captivating point, he used material by César Aira’s book on Edward Lear.

Thon-That Quynh-Du (46:00 – 1:09:11) shared his views on how the translator’s personal taste influences almost every choice. Du does not only refer to stylistic choice in a translation, but to the very choice of the texts and the authors we translate, a practice that it is a lot more common in the anglophone world. He also shared his experience of translating Pham Thi Hoai, whose novel Crystal Messenger, translated by Du himself, won the 2000 Victorian Premier’s Award for best literary translation.

As for yours truly, a humble craftsman among scholars, I tried to stick to what I do, and I think I do well. So, I focused on practice rather than delving into theories, and particularly on the issue of dialects, idiolects and sociolects in translation. I was inspired to do so by the many meanings of the tricky word “style” to see how different styles of a language – as in personal, regional and social varieties – require us to find our style as translators. Translating dialects and sociolects shows how the same style – meaning variety – might require different translation styles in different contexts. You can read the paper I used as a guide to my presentation here: Encounters with dialects, idiolects and sociolects in translation.

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