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Posts Tagged ‘Three Percent’

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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Una settimana fa cominciava il Sydney Symposium on Literary Translation.

In attesa che le registrazioni siano disponibili sul sito del Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney, vorrei condividere qualche link per integrare la mia estatica reazione a caldo.

Sono apparsi alcuni articoli riguardo l’evento, compreso un dettagliato rapporto di Joel Scott su Three Percent, alcune riflessioni di Eric Abrahamsen su Paper Republic,  e un breve post dell’autrice Susanne Gervay (con tanto di foto nel quale potete vedere il vostro affezionatissimo alle spalle di Olivia E. Sears, quindi, sì, è successo davvero!)

Eric Abrahamsen scrive:

Ammetto di essere stato una figura minore in quel che fondamentalmente era un convegno di figure letterarie e accademica decisamente impressionanti – ero all’incirca quindici anni e due lauree indietro rispetto al convenuto medio.

Non solo mi sono sentito come lui – eravamo due dei relatori più “pragmatici”, e ci siamo concentrati su specifiche questioni di traduzione senza tuffarci nelle dissertazioni accademiche – ma probabilmente io ero fra i venti e i venticinque anni indietro. Chiedete a chiunque, il giovedì sera ero piuttosto nervoso. Dopo le reazioni alla mia presentazione, tuttavia, sentivo di voler passare ogni weekend in compagnia di quelle persone.

In ogni caso, volevo soltanto condividere i link qui sopra. A breve apparirà un post nel quale condenserò l’argomento della mia presentazione, ma al momento sono in preda alla febbre, quindi vi toccherà aspettare ancora un po’!

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It’s been a week, already, since The Sydney Symposium on Literary Translation started.

Waiting for the recordings of the proceedings to appear on the website of the Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney, I would like to share some links about the event to complement my ecstatic, immediate reaction.

A few articles about the symposium have appeared, including a very detailed report by Joel Scott for Three Percent, some highlights by Eric Abrahamsen on Paper Republic,  and a short post by author Susanne Gervay (including a picture where you can see your truly behind Olivia E. Sears, so yes, it definitely happened!).

Eric Abrahamsen writes:

I’ll admit I was junior member at what was largely a gathering of really pretty intimidating literary and academic figures—I was approximately fifteen years and two university degrees behind the median.

Obviously, not only I feel the same way – we were two of the most “pragmatic” speakers, talking about specific translation issues without delving into academic matters – but I was probably twenty to twenty-five years behind the median. Ask anyone, on Thursday night I was quite nervous. After the reaction to my paper, though, I simply felt like I wanted to be with those people every weekend.

Anyway, I just wanted to share the links about the symposium for now. I am working on a post which will condense the argument I made in my presentation, but I am feverish at the moment, so that will have to wait.

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