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Posts Tagged ‘Literary Translation’

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.

Carissimi,

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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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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