Language focus | 06.05.2010

Why Translation Matters

In her new book ‘Why Translation Matters’ critically acclaimed Spanish to English translator Edith Grossman attempts to explain exactly that and having translated some of the most famous literature written in the Spanish language, including Cervantes’ epic Don Quijote and many of Gabriel García Marquez’s best known works, she is certainly well placed to offer up this discussion on the art of literary translation and its significance in the world today. Her argument is a strong one. She calls our attention to the huge number of languages in the world, roughly six thousand, of which some one thousand are written. Even the most talented linguists among us could not come close to mastering even the majority of these. This is where the literary translator comes in. It is he/she who is tasked with bringing foreign language texts to life for new audiences across the globe, granting us access to previously unfamiliar worlds and peoples.

Imagine a world in which Shakespeare was only accessible to fluent English speakers and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were only available in Russian. It is almost inconceivable for these and the numerous other influential writers to be unreachable. And it is not just the individual works themselves but different styles of writing and new literary techniques and movements which are spread through translated literature.

In her book Grossman delves into the complexities of literary translation and discusses the colossal task of bringing a great work of literature to a new foreign audience. Translation is not, in Grossman’s own words, ‘the application of tracing paper to a text’. There is a lot more involved than many of us who have never been involved in such an endeavour could imagine. Think of all the things which make your favourite novels great. Perhaps it’s the plot, the style of writing, the characterisation, the language, or perhaps it’s the setting or the subject. A good literary translator must attempt to capture all of these characteristics of the original text while at the same time finding a way to convey them to the target audience so that they too can experience the work as the author intended.

To give an extreme example, consider Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, the well known novel set in Leith in Edinburgh in the mid to late 1980’s whose main focus is on a group of heroin users. Some of the chapters are narrated by the characters themselves and are written in Scots dialogue with terms spelled phonetically. The translator is faced not only with the challenge of understanding this complex dialect, a difficult enough task for many mother tongue English speakers, but also with how to bring it alive in a completely different language. Does Scottish slang have an equivalent in the romance languages? How characters speak confers a lot about where they are from, their social class, regional area, education etc and this in turn helps the reader to understand their actions and their belief systems.

Aside from the dialogue, matters such as style, tone, mood, the emotional impact of words used, cultural inferences, connotations and perceptions must all be carefully considered before a target sentence can be committed to paper. Added to this are irony, satire, sarcasm and humour. The term ‘lost in translation’ was never more fitting than when what may be considered a hilarious joke in one language falls flat for a different culture.

We could spend pages discussing the many decisions to be made when translating a literary text and all of the implications involved in each decision. On some occasions the translator will opt for an equivalent in the target language, on others it may be more appropriate to reproduce the style of the original as closely as possible. No doubt translators and translation theorists will continue to disagree for many years to come on the best approach but one thing remains certain, translation is and always will be a fascinating area of work, vital to world literature.


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