The art of translation – guest post by Rachel Giles

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 8th, 2012 at 11:00 AM

I’m in the process of getting a page of copy translated into around 12 different languages to promote my localisation service to business people who don’t have English as a first language.

I’ve written the copy and have the translators lined up. On the surface it’s a relatively simple task: just a few paragraphs of copy to introduce and explain a service.

But the point of the localisation service is to make sure that copy that’s been translated into English flows and reads well. It needs to get the message across and engage the audience too. So, of course I need to be sure that happens with my copy in each of the languages it’s translated in to.

Going through this process got me thinking about book translations.  We take it a bit for granted when we read classics like Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or more modern books such as Blindness by Jose Saramago.

But how on earth does a translator capture the essence and poetry of the original? How do we know that the translator isn’t more talented than the author? And what about those words and phrases that only exist in the original language and not in English?

I decided to ask writer, editor, and publisher, Rachel Giles.Translation is an art, not a science. True, it may be easy to translate frequently used phrases from one language to another, and sometimes it can appear to be a mechanical process. But what if you’re trying get across concepts, ideas, or be really creative with communication? What if the author is using similes or metaphors, and is, dare I say it, having fun with language – with fiction, for example?

Words, and the ideas behind them (and the people who write them) are, thank goodness, much more subtle and far more complex. In fiction, it’s never as straightforward ‘this word means that’. If that were the case, computers or websites would have put translators out of work by now.

So do translators need to be good writers themselves? I would say its essential. Tim Parks, a writer of both fiction and non-fiction (his novel The Server has just published), is also a highly respected translator. In his book Translating Style, he looks at a range of fiction by English Modernist authors, and asks whether it is actually translatable. Take this paragraph by D.H. Lawrence, in Women in Love, for example:

‘In a few moments the train was running through the disgrace of outspread suburbia. Everybody in the carriage was on the alert, waiting to escape. At last they were under the huge arch of the station, in the tremendous shadow of the town. B shut himself together – he was in now.’

What’s ‘the disgrace of outspread suburbia’? And how do you render ‘B shut himself together’, and ‘he was in now’? Lawrence uses language in idiosyncratic and surprising ways; this is what makes him a great writer.

And this, too, creates the challenge of translation. Parks, describing his book’s main argument, says, While it’s fairly easy to translate content and standard mannerisms, when the meaning of a text lies in the distance between itself and what the reader expected, then it is difficult for the translator to follow.”

To have a chance of succeeding, a translator must also have a fascination with the country, culture and (particularly if it’s a literary piece) the other works of the writer being translated – or at least understand their style and idiom so intimately that they can attempt the daunting task of conveying it in another language.

Recently I worked on a non-fiction book where the author wrote in Italian. His writing was beautiful. All involved were concerned not to lose the elegance of his style. In Italian, he asked rhetorical questions, wrote long, flowing sentences, and, as his passion about the subject emerged, made frequent exclamations.

It was difficult to translate the passages where he waxed lyrical. What reads as lovely and true in Italian can sound clipped and almost comical in English if translated literally. A little toning down was needed. But I did want to ensure that the imagery and sparkle in the language remained. Ultimately it was a compromise: which passages were key, and which images just had to keep their flavour? The result is always something of a compromise.

You can easily spot a bad translation. The ones where you don’t see the joins, especially in fiction, are rare works of real genius. At this level the translator submerges him- or herself in the author’s vision, somehow fashioning a new, slightly different, work of art.

A book that does this for me is Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness. The language in this comic and frightening parable is highly innovative, telling the story of what happens when everyone in an unnamed town is struck blind. Sentences are up to a page long. There’s no punctuation to show who is speaking – dialogue is just one utterance after another, separated by commas. Astonishingly, you can follow it; even more astonishingly, this tide of language is gripping. That’s firstly down to the incredible writing, but that it works in English is thanks to the masterful translation.

Translators can be as talented with language as the author they’re working with. Even if they didn’t create the original work, they need to enter the author’s mind to do it well. More often than not, they’re unsung heroes. But when they translate a work successfully, they unwrap a precious gift for a whole new readership.


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Hello. I'm Elaine, I'm a copywriter and this is my blog.

It's mostly about words and writing - things that inspire me, entertain me, and make me smile. Sometimes it's about things that horrify me so much I want to scream and shout!

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