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Posts Tagged ‘Craft’

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

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