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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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Let’s continue our journey through the Sydney Symposium on Literary Translation with a link to the presentation offered by the second keynote speaker, Marcelo Cohen. Titled ‘New Battles over the Propriety of the Language,‘ it was a mind-boggling discussion of the idea of propriety of language, meaning both its correctness e it and its ownership, as Chris Andrews points out (2:25).

Cohen is, and has been since the mid 1970s, a translator and writer of fiction, editor and literary critic. His sociological approach to language and translation in this paper opens up spaces for reflection and brings up topics that resonate with any migrant translator and anyone who has ever had to bridge the gap between two languages or two varieties of the same language.

An Argentine Jew who lived in Spain for twenty years, Cohen was accused in use youth to use a “careless Spanish” loaded with Argentine expressions in his translations and original works. He made me think about the few times I was about to use a Ligurian term in a translation, because Italian did not have an equivalent word. I remember wanting to use the Ligurian ‘arbanella’ to translate ‘jar’, instead of the clunky Italian ‘barattolo di vetro,’ and realising, at the age of 25, that ‘arbanella’ was indeed a Ligurian term.

Let’s get back to serious issues, though, since Cohen discusses the relationship between Spanish, its regional variation, and its peripheral variations in the former Spanish colonies. He pretty much embodies the struggle many migrants and diasporic people face when it comes to language and identity. And his paper is a fantastic discussion of this topic.

Personally, Cohen was one of the most inspirational figures at the symposium. Essentially because that’s exactly where I want to be in twenty or thirty years. Marcelo is a professional translator, and has  not always been able to choose what books he wants to translate. He only achieved that some time ago (3:45-4:08). That was comforting for a young translator like myself, who can’t afford to be too picky yet… Moreover, he has been able to write original works on top of his translating work – let’s face it, most literary translators have some more or less concealed aspiration as a writer. And also, his reflections on language, literature, translation, and above all on the relationships between them, are extremely acute and complete the picture perfectly.

Enjoy Marcelo’s presentation here, and stay tuned for the upcoming Panel 2, featuring yours truly.

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After Esther Allen’s captivating keynote lecture, the first panel at the Sydney Symposium focused on the topic of translating classics. Meredith McKinney and John Minford are both so skilled and accomplished that this panel was certainly one of the highlights of the whole symposium. It was very humbling to listen to these two translators, who worked on classic texts for Penguin Classics and were still approaching their job with amazing enthusiasm.

Meredith McKinney, who translated The Pillow Book from 10th century Japanese into English, talked about the issues concerning the re-translation of classics and her paper raised several very interesting questions. Her main question was “how to make classics new” (14:35)? And then, what is expected from a translator who is asked to re-translate a classic? Should a translator try to make the text more intelligible through the use of a modern variety of the target language or are older varieties of the target language “nobler” and more appropriate to the classics? How do translators make those choices, and what is the rationale behind them?

Then there was John Minford‘s presentation. After translating The Art of War and The Story of the Stone into English for Penguin Classics, Minford joked in an interview (46:30-49:00) that maybe he would take on the I Ching. Penguin took him seriously, and Minford is currently working on it. Note when he says that he is now four years over the deadline – lucky him, I am sure I would be getting frantic emails if I went four days over the deadline. Witty, knowledgeable and candid, Minford admitted that the I Ching is maybe a unique case in world literature, as no one knows what it really means (45:20). Without even looking at notes, John Minford delivered a thoroughly enjoyable and informative presentation. From the reflection on the translator’s love (or lack thereof) for the work he is translating (41:20), to the linguistic analysis of the I-Ching, from Jungian psychoanalysis to shamanism, with even some hilarious anecdotes of the hippy era (42:45 – 43:40) and the ransack of poetry – including the I Ching – by late 60’s rock and roll (49:10-50:05), John Minford gripped the room with his paper. If you are interested in Chinese culture and literature, you can’t miss John’s presentation on what he called “the black hole at the centre of Chinese literature.

Here are two translators who are good enough to be able to choose what books they translate, and instead of choosing the latest novel they read, they take on texts like The Pillow Book, The Art of War and the I Ching. It’s a bit like deciding to re-translate the Bible or the Divina Commedia. As a young translator, I was immensely inspired by their example and dedication. Don’t miss out on the opportunity, listen to Panel One here.

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In October, I had the privilege to be invited as a panelist to the Sydney Symposium on Literary Translation, organised by the Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney.

The Group has recently made the recordings available on their website, and in the coming weeks I will be linking to the different sessions and share some thoughts.

First things first, so you can listen to Ivor Indyk’s welcome speech to start.

Most importantly, do not miss the opportunity to listen to the first keynote lecture, delivered by the amazing Esther Allen. She is currently translating some documents from the Dossier Flaubert (0:30 – 3:25 for the background story)  and her paper was absolutely captivating, mixing literary criticism, translation theory and translation practice.

I was particularly intrigued by her reference to “linguistic untranslatable” and “biographical untranslatable” (8:27 – 10:48), brought about by a reference to a dream in one of Flaubert’s letters, namely, “the dream of Pimpenpohè”. Listen to her reflections on this very evocative word to see a great example of the challenges literary translators face on a regular basis.

The lecture lasted more than an hour, but went by in a flash, and I am sure that no one will regret listening to it, if they find the time. From the parallel between realism in sculpture and in literature to the way she mercilessly exposed Nabokov’s trivial and sometimes plain incompetent criticism of Eleanor Marx’s translation of Madame Bovary, Esther showed how translation and translation studies can be not just of great academic significance, but also very entertaining for a more general readership. Enjoy.

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Itanglish

A few days ago the Italian newspaper La Repubblica published an article about the so-called Itanglish, complete with a list of the English words that Italians use most often while speaking Italian. The article is actually quite interesting, but it seems to be the usual article about language written by someone who is not a language expert. Despite quoting the opinions of people who do not seem alarmed by the increasing use of Anglicisms, it all looks hasted and superficial to me. In the meantime, as it often happens with this kind of articles, the tone is a tad sensationalistic and quite over the top:

An unfettered invasion […] English is contaminating us […] Italians betray home-bred words […] the contamination rides the wave of technology […]

I do not intend to give a lecture about the tone journalists should use, but it’s quite obvious that this pop-nationalism is not only at odds with the complex reality of language evolution, but it ends up making the article quite self-contradictory, as the informed people quoted say that

the spread of foreign terms is a phenomenon that needs to be acknowledged, not a negative one, and it is mostly limited to specific sectors

or that

our language is not at stake: it does not die if it welcomes foreign words, because vocabulary is only its superficial structure, and a language is only under threat if its fundamental structures, like morphology and grammar, are altered.

Still, the ‘threat’ is really a phantom menace, given that without the alteration of the fundamental structures of classical Latin (changes in verb tenses, elimination of cases, and so on) we would not be speaking our beloved Italian. It is also quite irritating to find that the article does not avoid the kind of cheap pride that makes many of my compatriots sound very provincial, like when the article claims that

50% of English words are of Romance origin

whereas there is non consensus among linguists on the issue, so it’s obviously a quite random number, and in the end it does not even matter.

The article is still an interesting quick read, that prompts some reflections. On the one hand, as a translator, I am often appalled by the mental laziness of people who borrow perfectly translatable terms, or expressions for which we already have an equivalent, like ‘week-end’ (‘fine settimana’, a new concept for people who used to get only the Sunday off, but which can be quickly and easily translated), ‘coffee break’ (‘pausa caffè’ is too hard, is it?), ‘fashion’ (‘moda’), ‘trend’ (‘tendenza’) and so on. And I just get nasty when I hear ‘wellness’ or ‘brand’ instead of ‘benessere’ and ‘marchio’. On the other hand, I never get tired of reminding purists that ‘contamination’ has always been, is, and will always be the engine of linguistic evolution, not just lexically, but also from a cultural perspective. After all, we are talking about the word smuggling that inspired this blog’s name, and about which (even if someone just doesn’t get itI wrote and I will keep writing the sweetest words.

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