What makes for a good translation? What are the boundaries between translation and authoring? What skills should a translator possess? Beyond the mechanistic replacing of one word with another, a minimalist scaffolding of sentence or paragraph resulting in an article or book, what more is there to it ?
My time as a language undergraduate is well behind me.
Nevertheless as a translated author now, I am intrigued at the growing literature on translation and the link with creativity, increasingly commented on by writers and academics. I am an Italian Scot and a devout francophile and I have maintained and nourished my fluency with these Romance languages throughout my life, and added several other languages although not to the same degree of fluency.
My memories of translating for the purpose of university assignments are still live, as are nights poring over Garzanti or Le Petit Robert. I still remember the exhilaration of breaking the code of the foreign language; hacking into cold unfriendly phrases; excavating words to find their true meaning and breaking their resistance, to then arrive at a kind of nirvana… wonderful freedoms and flow, the satisfaction of rendering the sense of the writing into a known: my own familiar language that is; somehow moving from the constraints of my linguistic limitations, to a language where I had all at my disposal and which permitted the making of a complete piece with its own integrity and heart. To arrive at a place where I could craft and enjoy playful accuracy was both a joy and a relief.
The opposite was also true; the tailoring of a well articulated piece of English to fit the limited frame of my own knowledge of a foreign language reduced the art of it, deadened its spirit, drained it of its energy, leaving only a bleak sequence of words: a lifeless artefact.
Very recently, having avoided any form of serious translation throughout my life, and reserving any linguistic experimentation for the purposes of direct communication only, I was suddenly thrust without any choice, into a position of having not only to translate seriously (and for publication, the time frame very short indeed) but of retranslating chunks of my own book previously published in English into Italian. I had consistently rejected any prior suggestions that I might take up the challenge of translating the whole book myself, preferring to leave that painstaking task to a professional. Leaving aside my doubts about my own linguistic competence, having finally concluded the book some two years before, I had no wish to revisit a house I had fully inhabited for the several long months it took to write it; a house where I had laughed as well as struggled, where I had been both warm and overheated to being lonely and cold; no wish to meet again those loved and not so loved long since gone. I had no wish above all, to meet the bumbling, stumbling, emerging self, the nuances and changes of self..the self that in no way resembles the me of now.
This article records a few of the challenges of that piece of translation work. It suggests too I hope, a sense of what exactly might be involved in the process, what the characteristics of a good piece of translation are; what skills are both essential and useful for an excellent piece of work; and the immense potential of the simple act of translation.
In translating my own book, I confronted a number of challenges. There was generally a need to be more precise; and on reflection, my overall experience of language and of diverse terms of reference is the need for much more precision in say, Italian and certainly French where the language is much more nuanced. So, I found myself surprisingly aware when working in Italian of the power and effect of the use of verb tense. The unexpected use of the passato remoto/ past absolute or past historic can create drama or finality and at certain points of my story, it was just what was required.
The imperfect tense used effectively can be lyrical and evocative; can conjure up a certain ambiance and it served me well when I needed to set a scene. The passato prossimo a go to past tense has a certain philosophical edge, linking our present still with the past. The subjunctive leads us to conjecture and possibility and in Italian I found gave a neat, concise refinement which I had conveyed in other ways in English. This imposed need to “pin down” while at times difficult to determine also presented opportunity; and I found, in translating from the English, it offered scope for additional effect or sharpened my Italian prose. I had to be much clearer too with regard to terminology: Did I mean a bar or café? If I meant an eatery what kind of eatery? A restaurant, pizzerìa, brasserie, trattoria, ostería, to mention a few; not forgetting too that terminology also varies from region to region in Italy: cappuccio, cappucino; caffè con crema, caffelatte?
I also had to think very carefully about humour when describing certain situations since it is rooted differently in different cultures, adapting the appropriacy and tone of my language for a different readership. To what extent too, should I intervene in portraying aspects of lifestyle in a Scottish city… the taking of afternoon tea; the role of the beloved, chilled coffee shop; the central importance of baking, baking tins and consumption of cake; of snacking; breakfast practice and fare? Finally, for me there was the major question of style, tone, rhythm and indeed temperature; the problem of writing in a language that maintained the inherent energy of a book, it’s warmth, intimacy or formality, respected its voice and cadence and conveyed its central themes as directly, with the same immediacy as the original text.
Current writing about translation defines the exercise as a negotiation between two cultures. In her work on communication, dialogue and dialogicality ( the dynamic between self and other voiced or unvoiced, interdependence, leading to identity change) Marková (2003) makes a strong connection between culture, tradition and language. Linguists will readily agree. A language and specifically its idioms, sayings and proverbs, articulates a certain culture, mindset and values of a particular society. Further to this, a language incorporates a history. This poses enormous challenges for the translator. Not to be underestimated.
The translator stands at the intersection of where cultures do not conveniently align, is a pivotal figure in that negotiation, and therefore requires a suite of skills in addition to linguistic expertise. To be capable of embodying one culture in the authentic words of another language requires an understanding and indeed lived experience, combined with an interest in, an instinctive knowledge of and “feel” for the culture and history of the target language. Additionally, if justice is to be done to the original text, some research, some hours with the historical archives is adviseable and a complete psychological shift may even be necessary.
A good example of this might be the social and historical significance of the emblematic fish supper or a poke of chips in Scotland. In a book for a foreign readership this needs some explaining. What does the meal consist of? What is its history? What are the social and cultural practices and attitudes to it? In Scotland it is a go to meal on the move; a snack after hours; an easy take away dinner. These habits indicate very basic differences in attitudes to food since I can think of no equivalent in Italy and a “fritto misto” is an entirely different proposition.
There is too on these islands, the ubiquitous issue of social class and its markers and distinguishing features. The behaviours of different societal groups in relation to that Scottish meal differ widely as do they in many areas of public and personal life in Scotland. It is equally challenging to write for non English speaking readers about schooling, the Governance of large organisations, career structures or about accent. It also difficult to convey the full significance of choosing to take up croquet or play football. “Une soirée dansante” is not the same as a dinner dance or a ball and “una cena” is not a dinner party. There is a kind of aimlessness about “Les randonnées” (walking as a serious pastime) and a comic aspect to “le footing” (jogging or running).
The main task of negotiation as I understand it, is to reconcile difference, through persuasive means; to give ground where appropriate and to be immutable or take unilateral action where not. The overall goal is to communicate effectively and in so doing the act of translating may indeed go far beyond the original text. A translator is then, never objective nor can she adopt a neutral stance. Unlike online translation tools which are less tha helpful and can lead to serious trouble ( I still remember a billboard outside a taverna in Greece announcing “randy fish”) human agency, reflection and making hard decisions together with the ability to write well are essential. The continuous dialogue between translator, text and author, initiated and acted upon by the translator whose task it is to appeal to a new readership is fertile ground for creativity and may lead to a new, vital iteration of the original text authored differently.
To sum up, translation as I experienced it as both a writer and short term translator is a way of communicating with energy, appetite, imagination, openness and flexibility. As a successful negotiator while fully respecting the piece to be translated and in the pursuit of drawing in the uninitiated, the culturally unaware but curious, inviting investment, there must be no coyness about progressing or indeed departing from the original text in order to remould, create new text… its umbilical link to the original generally discernible but also different.
Vygotsky emphasised the importance of words in the growth of consciousness as a whole. While the original work must be honoured, what has developed from it I believe should be of equal importance. And for those fortunate and willing enough to be able to read and understand both narratives, as a pair, they should build a picture with greater impact, more colour, wider appeal and more to say. What I saw initially as a burden I now regard as a privilege. For from that unique perspective, I believe that I gained an insight not available to many. The unlooked for gift of speaking to two distinct audiences whose cultures I value and love equally, allowed me both to challenge and to flatter.
What I learned from the experience was the value of a good translation, of a translator who is both a linguistic and cultural expert; is respectful of the original text and its sentiment; when necessary going beyond the brief; and the high dependency of the author into whose hands it falls.
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