Posts Tagged ‘Invisibility’


Amazon opened its Italian store yesterday, and a translator can’t help but notice that, from Day One, translated books list the translator’s name next to the author’s (it actually says “By [AUTHOR] and [TRANSLATOR]).

Having campaigned and complained, like many others before me, about the translator’s invisibility (most Italian reviewers still willfully omit the translator’s name, unless there is something terribly wrong with the translation) this is a very small but uplifting sign that maybe more and more people are starting to understand the significance of what we do.



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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».
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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In my first post I addressed the need to properly recognise the precious work of translators. Some of you, especially those who don’t speak a second language, might wonder what on Earth might a translator do that is so special, besides the evocative image of smuggling that inspired this blog’s name. I’ll try and explain this briefly, so that whoever doesn’t work in the field will be able to join the discussion, learn something about our job, and help it get the recognition we’re aiming for.

Technically speaking, a literary translator is a full-fledged writer, minus the fame. Of course, I start with a book that’s already been written, but I have to read it more than once (when deadlines allow) and grasp the style, tone, registers, its multiple levels. I have to identify the linguistic features of the narrator’s voice and the characters’ voices in relation to the standard language. I have to store this and other information. I have to digest it, and while doing that I have to be as aware as possible of the myriad of emotional ramifications that the book generates in myself, so that I have an idea of the effect I’ll have to recreate.

Then I start translating. The most obvious and easiest things to transfer in the target language are the events and images, the informative elements of the text, so to speak. But I also need to render the author’s voice, their style and register, their use of punctuation, the formal aspects of their work so that the translation represents the closest thing to the original that can be written in the target language. And here come the first problems, because formal aspects are unique to each language, so it’s a dynamic equivalence that I am after, not a formal one, as Nida would put it, a way to reproduce, in the reader of the translation, the effect that the original had on me.

Moreover, I also want that the voices and the psychology of the characters to maintain their distinctive traits, finding solutions in order for them to be perceived by my readers as they were by the original audience. Here we have to consider cultural, economic, social and political factors, unique not to the language, but to a community of speakers, to the social groups within that community, and to the way they interact. I need the Italian reader to understand how a Texan farmer might perceive a Bostonian white-collar. It’s like trying to make an Australian understand why people in Brescia and Bergamo, 50 kilometres apart, hate each other’s guts. Except that I can’t explain it. I have to convey it through my translation – I hate footnotes. It’ s quite a challenge.

And again, the atmosphere, all the sensations, feelings and ideas need to maintain the power and impact that the author gave them, especially when they don’t really belong to the culture of the target language. This is the smuggling we were talking about a few days ago. The readers find themselves identifying with a mind that works differently from their own. New connections fire up in the brain. The opportunities for human and cultural growth are literally infinite, if you forgive my lack of modesty.

It is also worth noting that once I’ve done all that, and I’m done with the first version, I generally have five more to go. Generally, by the sixth version, after I’ve read the book about eight times in two languages, everything seems to be in its right place. It’s usually been two or three months.

To sum up, if you’re reading a translating book and it’s flowing, in your native tongue, transporting you to some exotic place, and despite the strangeness, you feel that you’re in, that you’re getting it, it means the translator did a good job. And the paradox, our invisibility, as Venuti would put it, is that when we work well, people do not generally notice our work. It would be nice then to get used to considering that fundamental link that is the translator.

Now, having taken care of this very general but necessary introduction, in the next week I’ll try and deal with some of these themes with the help of examples and case studies. Stay tuned.

PS Thanks to all the people who have been following this blog even in these early days. It means a lot.

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