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Posts Tagged ‘Art of translating’

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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St. Jerome

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:

art (n.)
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

Un debutto esaltante, con una storia viscerale ambientata lungo le terre squallide e desolate di Galveston, proposta da un giovane scrittore con già ben definiti i caratteri di una personalità letteraria fuori dal comune.

Con uno stile penetrante, Pizzolatto passa senza problemi tra passato e presente, catturando le caratteristiche significative di Galveston e offrendone un ritratto disperatamente vulnerabile, ma quanto più possibile realistico.

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Tower of Babel

I don’t think it takes a linguist to notice that the language we speak seems to shape the way we think, and how our brain works. Since the 1960s, though, we have pretty much accepted Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar, or, to put it briefly, that the human brain is born language-ready, with an in-built program that is able to decipher the common rules underpinning any mother tongue.

Thanks to The virtual linguist, I found this very interesting article on the New Scientist about the ideas being put forward by linguists Nicholas Evans of the Australian National University in Canberra and Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. They argue that

the brain of a child does not arrive pre-programmed with abstract linguistic rules. Instead, its initial setting is much simpler: the first job of the brain is to build a more complicated brain. This it does using any input that it gets, including language. This could mean that speakers of very different languages have quite different brains, says Levinson.

This could mean that what Chomsky and others see as “innate” is actually the product of a much simpler and less rigid form of hard-wiring. Evans and Levinson argue that there are no absolute language universals, but rather

a mix of strong and weak tendencies that characterises the “bio-cultural” hybrid we call language.

This means that there is more room for variation than we might expect. A very interesting passage points out how

humans are more diverse than we thought, with our brains having differences depending on the language environment in which we grew up.

I have to admit that Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics are two of the most fascinating  fields of research for a language freak like me. But besides the curiosity, I think this kind of research often addresses many interesting points that can be very useful for translators to explain to the general public what translation is and to advance the understanding and recognition of our work. For example, we read that

Work in the past two decades has shown that several languages lack an open adverb class, which means the number of adverbs available is limited. […] More controversially, some linguists argue that a few languages, such as Straits Salish, spoken by indigenous people from north-western regions of North America, do not even have distinct nouns or verbs. Instead they have a single class of words to encompass events, entities and qualities.

This last point, however controversial, allows us to speculate on the implications it would have in terms of translation. How massively would we need to rework a text originally written in such a language, if we were to translate it into English? It’s one of those cases where an extreme example allows us to better understand the translation process and the skills needed in order to carry it out. And there is more. Apparently,

The Kiowa people of North America use a plural marker that means “of unexpected number”. Attached to “leg”, the marker means “one or more than two”. Attached to “stone”, it means “just two”.

Obviously, if we were to translate between Kiowa and English, we would need to enquire further in order to obtain extra information – does that man have one leg or more than two? Information that a Kiowa speaker won’t include in the expression but that is felt as necessary by the English-speaking mind, which won’t be content to know that someone has an “unexpected number” of legs.

The most fascinating example from the New Scientist article, though, is that of

“rawa-dawa”, from the Mundari language of the Indian subcontinent, meaning “the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible, and no one is there to witness it”

It is worth pointing out that bridging such fundamental differences between languages is a translator’s daily task, and a perfect example to make people think about the skills needed to overcome the challenges we face in our often underpaid decoding and re-encoding efforts.

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Everyone of us has read a book in which a given character’s accent is rendered graphically, by altering the spelling of what he says. It’s a simple and very effective technique, much more so than describing the way a character talks. Of course, it’s important not to abuse it, ma it’s probably the best method of conveying a foreign accent. What happens, though, when a translator is faced with such a character?

In The Pilo Family Circus (published in Italy as La città dei clown), a book that I mentioned a while back, there is a character named Mugabo, an African magician. The way in which Will Elliott renders his accent graphically made me think of a francophone African accent: Mugabo says ‘treek’, ‘peeg’, ‘geev’ and ‘sometheeng’ (instead of ‘trick’ ‘pig’, ‘give’ and ‘something’), or ‘ze’ and ‘zis’ (‘the’ and ‘this’). Basically he stretches the ‘i’s turning them into ‘ee’s and can’t pronounce the ‘th’ phoneme properly.

In Chelsea Handler’s deadly funny Are you there, Vodka? It’s me Chelsea (Vodka, ci sei? Sono io, Chelsea, Strade Blu Mondadori), there was a chinese massage therapist (or maybe not) saying ‘wicense’, ‘cwothes’ and ‘wesbian’ (‘license’, ‘clothes’ and ‘lesbian’) or ‘fuhst’ and ‘dollah’ (‘first’ and ‘dollars’). As stereotypical as they might be, the usual, well-know problems with ‘l’s and ‘r’s.

In Ron Currie Jr.’s stunning Everything Matters! (soon to be published as Ogni cosa è importante! by Strade Blu Mondadori in Italy) there is a flight attendant, whose South American accent is rendered with words like ‘ree-fill’ (‘refill’), ‘ello’ (‘hello’), ‘choo’ (‘you’). He makes the ‘i’s longer, too, skips more than one ‘h’ and pronounces his ‘y’s as if they were ‘j’s as I think is commonplace in the Spanish of some Latin American countries.

My approach to these little translation problems is as simple as it is fun. First of all I translate the character’s lines correctly, given that any accent, twisting single phonemes, will obviously affect different words in English and Italian. Then, in order to determine which ones, I simply start sounding off that character’s lines with the relevant accent, and change the spelling accordingly. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had quite a knack for impressions, and for accents in particular, but it seems to work.

So, Mugabo the magician in Italian says ‘gonillio’ ‘gazzo’ and ‘guesto’ (‘coniglio’, ‘cazzo’ and ‘questo’) ‘palliaccio’ (‘pagliaccio’) o ‘piasce’ (‘piace’). Basically, his hard ‘c’s are too hard, his soft ‘c’s too soft, and he has problem (as most non-Italian speakers) with the sound ‘gli’.

The chinese massage therapist, says ‘pagale plima’ (‘pagare prima’) and so on,although I also tried to turn her ‘s’ into a ‘z’ as in ‘Met-ta quezto zu zuo zedele’ (‘Metta questo sul suo sedere’) and ‘lezbi-kah’ (‘lesbica’).

Alfredo, on the other hand, says ‘Me serve altro café’ (‘mi serve altro caffè’), ‘Tuto bene’ (‘tutto bene’) and ‘Hai tirrato l’agua tipo venti vuolte’ (‘hai tirato l’acqua tipo venti volte’), underlining the Spanish speaker’s trouble with the Italian double consonants, and on the other hand the long rolling that makes ‘r’s longer in Spanish than they are in Italian. For lack of an appropriate grapheme, I had to give up my idea of merging his ‘b’s and ‘v’s in that intermediate sound that is one of the distinctive traits of most Spanish accents.

So, basically, what I do is determining what kind of accent a character has, simulate that accent on their lines in Italian, and it’s done. Anyone out there using a different method? Or wanting to share an example of some other accents which were interesting to translate?

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Thanks to Daniela Ilieva on Biblit, I found another point of view – and quite a knowledgeable one, at that – on literary translation. In this case what Dacia Maraini wrote on Il Corriere della Sera a few years ago. I’ll offer a quick translation of my two favourite passages:

[…] the translator deals with the history of different countries and cultural developments. Great writers usually criticise the moral conventions of the countries they live in. Does the translator have to know and be a part of these critical operations? These questions are hard to answer. During my speech, I talked extensively about the definition of style. I like the one Roland Barthes gave: “a carnal verticality”. And thinking back to my efforts while translating the crystal-clear perfection of Emily Dickinson’s verses and the long musical waves of Joseph Conrad’s prose, I wanted to share the pain, but also the sensual pleasure of translating. There is something akin to caring for someone, in the practice of translation. Not coincidentally, it’s mostly women who lean on the language-child like on a precious crib where a newborn lies, a newborn so strong in his voracity and will to grow, and the same time so weak in his exposed fragility. It can be argued that translation, especially when we consider the great responsibility involved, really is under-acknowledged and underpaid. I think that translators should definitely have their names on the cover, together with the authors’, and should get a percentage of the royalties.

Towards the end of the article, Maraini, starting with a quote from Paolo Leoncini e Michael Caesar, concludes with an interesting simile:

Literature needs to be “sounded”, the two scholars say, “by observing and accepting its cavities and its potential, without trapping it in aesthetical judgement.” Which means underlining the importance of what we call intentio operis, the author’s intention, which has to meet and interweave with the interpreter’s. Just like good instrumentalists dealing with a musical work, translators have a wide range of choices on how to approach a text, and it’s their intelligence, passion and inventiveness that give them the chance of bringing the original work’s spell back to life.

Call me narcissistic, but when I read this sort of things, I like my job even more.

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Thanks to Laura Prandino, on Biblit, I found this article from The Observer, in which  Tim Parks says “it’s time to acknowledge translators”, because “we don’t deserve to be lost in translation.”

He starts with a few questions, and the short answers he gives to them are extremely effective in driving home the main point of the article:

“Who wrote the Milan Kundera you love? Answer: Michael Henry Heim. And what about the Orhan Pamuk you think is so smart? Maureen Freely. Or the imaginatively erudite Roberto Calasso? Well, that was me.”

This is an issue that we, as translators, are very aware of, but even we might overlook it when thinking back to what we read before becoming translators. It seems quite natural, really, to give credit for the beauty we find in a story to the guy whose name is on the cover. After all, translators shouldn’t add or omit or change anything significant, right? Nevertheless, when the reader gets to the point of forgetting that he is even reading a translation, and is not aware of the process involved, it irks most of us, and above all it prevents literary translation from being fully recognised and valued. Parks points out a couple of very simple, emotional reasons for this:

“The great, charismatic, creative writer wants to be all over the globe. And the last thing he wants to accept is that the majority of his readers are not really reading him. His readers feel the same. They want intimate contact with true greatness. They don’t want to know that this prose was written on survival wages in a maisonette in Bremen, or a high-rise flat in the suburbs of Osaka. Which kid wants to hear that her JK Rowling is actually a chain-smoking pensioner?”

The images he paints are all too familiar, unfortunately, and the whole concept calls into question the mythology of literature. Whatever is glamourous about the publishing industry, though, translators are very seldom a part of it, no matter how many people are reading their works. We get our flat fee per word or per page, and then that’s it. Not that we expect to be interviewed and idolised, after all we don’t come up with any content. Still, it’s easy to see that the money we get is in no way proportional to the money we allow publishers to make.

Later on in the article, Parks writes:

You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then he sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to his experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness. Imagine shifting the Tower of Pisa into downtown Manhattan and convincing everyone it’s in the right place; that’s the scale of the task.”

I loved this one, as in my intentions one of the purposes of this blog is to explain and popularise the work of the literary translator, without many of the technicalities of academic writing, and I think this is another great way to describe the process in a few words.

You can read the full article here. As for myself, I need to get back to my own current Tower of Pisa.

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Cavalieri ErrantiSeven years ago on Biblit – an Italian online community for literary translators started in 1999 by Marina Rullo – a group of colleagues published an open letter to the Italian press, which was covered by several newspapers, websites, and even a TV news report. Hundreds of literary translators signed on, until July 2006 when the petition ended. The aim was to help literary translators get the visibility they deserve. I was still studying to become a translator when the letter was published, and by the time the petition ended I had just completed my first translation. I had high hopes that these heroic colleagues would spur a big change in the industry. Several years later, very little has changed. Literary translators, especially in Italy, are still rarely mentioned in the reviews of their own work. Therefore, I feel the need to republish that letter and hopefully making it the starting point for a new discussion about the future, since the battle of the knights-errant  is far from over…

«The problem of translating is actually the very same as that of writing, and the translator is at the heart of it perhaps even more so than the author. He is asked […] to master not just a language, but everything that lies behind it, that is to say, an entire culture, an entire world, an entire way of viewing the world. […] He is asked to pull off this arduous yet impassioned effort without calling attention to himself. […] He is asked to consider the fact that the reader isn’t even aware of him his greatest triumph […] an ascetic, an essentially selfless hero, ready to give his all in exchange for very little and to disappear into the twilight, anonymous and sublime, when the epic deed is accomplished. The translator is literature’s last, true knight-errant».
(Fruttero&Lucentini,
I ferri del mestiere (Tools of the Trade), Einaudi, Torino 2003)

We are knights-errant: sublime, we can’t say, but we know anonymity all too well. We do not claim heroism, and twilight is the backdrop for all our days, but we are tired of letting it swallow us up at every endeavor.
We have first and last names, behind which lie a passion for a work that is nurtured in silence, as well as a bitter dose of frustration because the world we feel we have every right to occupy, the world of words, of literature, fiction and non-fiction, all too rarely notices and remembers us.
Our publishers, it’s true, print our name on the title page, and some of the more daring ones even put it on the cover: they are bound to mention it by a law that protects creative derivatives of a work, «such as translations in another language», thereby rendering the artistic dignity of the translator equal to that of the author under the law. But only a few, honorable reviewers’ voices concede full dignity to the figure of the translator, and the editors of cultural pages of newspapers and magazines who bother to indicate the translator’s name along with other information are scarcely more numerous.
The same law affirms that summaries, citations or reproductions of an intellectual work must be «accompanied always by mention of the title of the work, and the names of the author, publisher and, in the case of a translation, the translator», yet the established practice is to replicate passages from a translated work within other texts or read them in the context of a program without ever citing the person who made that work available in our language.
In the light of this debasing, routine fact, we consider it only just to turn to the broader public in an attempt to break out of that eternal twilight that, while it may regard the nature of what we do, does not reflect the full truth about our work. Though it is important that we remain discreet, we do not want to be invisible.
The fact that someone must certainly have dedicated several months of his/her life to translating the pages of a book not originally conceived in the reader’s language may escape the general reader of that book…  But we do not feel equally as indulgent toward those who are «insiders»: the critics, reviewers, editors of cultural pages, journalists, and hosts of radio and television programs in which books are spoken of.
We too exist; we too are part of the process that generates those very important items: books.  Books that make you cry and make you laugh, books of love and sorrow, books that bring knowledge and allow escape, books that in some way touch people’s hearts and minds, are due to us as well.  We want our name to be there to confirm it and we do not want our work to pass unnoticed in silence.
A reviewer who lavishes praise on an author’s style, lexical choices and linguistic acrobatics should feel it his duty to comment on its translated version if he has read the book in the original; and if he has read it in translation, he should remember that what he has read are the words, sentences, and rhythms chosen by the translator.
We demand just recognition at the same time that we are prepared to accept any qualified, well-founded criticism.
We are knights-errant, and we are not afraid.

(English version by Anna Milano Appel)

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