Literary Translation

Literary Translation -A Little Art by Clara Burghelea.


Each morning, I wake up first to savour my cup of coffee before the world—my world, comes to life. On the terrace, there is this suspended quietness and the soft filtered the end-of-summer light. I keep my work in translation – The Clear Sky by Ștefan Manasia – next to me and read, then take notes, then read again. It is a half an hour of sweet routine before the house begins to shake and rattle and roll. 

I have often wondered why it is that I don’t feel the impulse to write poems at that hour and instead, feel more attuned to translating. I believe it is the intimacy that translation offers, as well as being the best exercise in activating my Broca’s area. 

For me, poetry is born in solitude and cannot be produced under time pressure. Translating, on the other hand, functions like an awakening, the exact impulse I need to start the daily round of teaching, my editorial work, the two kids, running errands, cooking, being moderately social. 

Kate Briggs’ book, This Little Art, (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018) approaches translation from a personal perspective as well, talking about its joys and questioning the individual reasons one holds to engage with this practice. I accidentally stumbled upon her book after reading an exchange of emails in The Believer, between her and another Kate I love to read, Kate Zambreno. The conversation is called Letters to Kate. In their correspondence, they talk about how we retain a certain set of preoccupations over time, making space for certain things to shift, while others remain unchanged: children, literary obsessions, grief, loss, domestic life, engagement, failure, unfinishedness. Such things are part of life, but are reflected in the act of translation, where the personal infiltrates the translated text. 

In her book, Briggs, who translates from French into English, speaks of getting lost in the journey from one language to another and on how a person shifts from reader to writer and then, to becoming a translator. By looking at literary identity, she discusses how readers become engrossed in the fantasy of the “unmediated address”, claiming a book or a writer/poet and identifying with their wishes, needs, state of mind. For some, the next step is to develop this urge to rewrite the original text, to add themselves to the existing form and content. The reader-writers. Her examples range from the lost art of copying texts to Twitter. 

I write because I have read,” says Rolland Barthes, the French literary theorist whose texts she is translating. Such readers become translators, subtly slipping into the original text, only to reemerge in the translated one. This shifting is like shedding skins. When switching from one language to the other, there is a repetition of “what is recognised as the same, and openness to new contexts and hence the change,” says Kate Briggs. A translator changes with every book they translate, much as a reader gets closer to their favourite author, claiming the writing. 

For a translator, this book is a reiteration of all the questions behind translation, from motivations to outcome, asked in a very personal manner that humanises the process. There is childcare, dancing classes, setting the tables—everything that is usually left out of the practice of translation, but is very much part of a translator’s life. 

She takes a closer look at the practice itself that “emerges in the relay between an existing sentence and the translator’s first ventured rephrasing” never overlooking the woman, mother, partner behind the laptop screen. 

There is also the anxiety of getting it right and always asking yourself if the mastery of one language subdues another. The inadequacy of the chosen word. When in doubt, it helps feel closer to others in the same line of uncertainty, yet sharing the same love for words—her cohort of “lady translators in turquoise lady’s trainers.” How important it is to be part of a tribe when engaged with translation, how comforting to know you could find this generous intimacy in the words of another translator. What made us all lady translators choose translation? What pushes us to embark on projects without being certain we would find a publishing house, a paying entity or the right readership? Is “this little art,” as translator Helen Lowe-Porter calls it, simply a labor of love? How do we navigate the rest of the process? Kate Briggs offers a positive, joyful approach to all these questions.

Translation is very much about the gut instinct, the fantasy, the closeness, the responsiveness, and our sentimental impulses that make us pick a text to translate or an author over another. My earliest memories about translation go back to the 1990s when my parents bought a VCR and we watched lots of English movies on pirated tapes. This lady translator, Irina Margareta Nistor, had a nasal voice and was incredibly witty. I grew up thinking translating was an amusing profession. After college, I did commercial translations and interpreting. They helped sharpen the language skills and gave me the easiness to switch from one language to the other. In 2017, I was about to attend the Multilingual Poetry Workshop of the BCLT Summer School and one afternoon, a week before leaving for Norwich, I came across this collection. I was drawn to the vulnerability and honesty of the lines, “tiny incidents of language,” as Kate Briggs would call them. I bought the book, wrote to the poet and started translating the poems with poet Fiona Sampson. For others like Dorothy Busy, it was meeting Andre Gide for whom she had great admiration and even a sort of unrequited love. Helen Lowe-Porter, Thomas Mann’s translator, was drawn to his themes and techniques.

I find Ștefan Manasia’s poems to be ripe and sensual. Witness to the poet’s obsessions, they speak of vulnerability and open up to more rawness. In an explosive mixture of senses, objects, and materials, Manasia paints the world in vivacious colors, holding a mirror to our inquisitive eyes and allowing us to slide in and out. This mirror that is his poems shows our own breath. It pleases me to translate them. Like Briggs, I am fortunate to do translations of my own choice and taste, “combining it with my other jobs, with an eye to my own instruction and desire for writing.” It is also that pleasure no. 4 that Lydia Davis, translator and writer, speaks of—the pleasure of company versus solitude. In the translation process, the writer is there, hovering, reminding you of your alliance and your purpose. It is there as you embark on this journey of solving the mystery of the language, of rewriting the original. The process becomes an opportunity for growth, for conversation, for research, for living, for learning, for sharing. 

If literary translation requires the courage to transcend your own limitations, then the early hours are the best time to slip into anonymity and enjoy the freshness and energy that comes from putting your self aside, gracefully entering the words of another. 

Other articles on literary translation on The Blue Nib. (Translation, an act of seduction)

See some of Clara Burghelea’s work on literary translation on Poethead

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