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Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. What makes a Literary Translator and What Does a Literary Translator Do?
Amanda Hopkinson



Paper for Doha Conference on 19th May 2010
“What makes a Literary Translator and What Does a Literary Translator Do?”

It sounds banal, but every truism axiomatically contains a truth. So it is that literary translation depends on quality and on quantity, for implicit in the first clause of this question is a concept of the “good” literary translator, and implicit in the second is that of the “practiced” literary translator. As phrased, there is already a double-entendre in the “what makes”: it implies that we might take a look not just at the component parts of the formal training and regular output of literary translation, but also at the “what makes” in the sense of “what’s special about”, or “what raises this translation above the average”, in a word the particular accomplishment of a literary translator.

So here we are, barely started, and we’re already using value judgements such as “quality”, “good” and “accomplished”. And I want to wind back still further, and preface what follows, in true British style, with a couple of apologies for a few of the ways in which I fear I may fall short of your expectations. You know all about our love of making apologies. It’s a bit like out love of queuing – standing in line to miss the bus – a kind of apology for existence, or for taking up space on the pavement. And if the queue gets crowded, we are famous for apologising to people who stand on our feet. Here, however, I want to apologise for the fact that I come from such a gravely, some would say brazenly, monolingual culture. Coming as many – perhaps most – of you do from cultural crossroads, you may well have had the experience of not only speaking but learning and becoming verbally fluent and culturally literate in several languages. This is far from the norm in the UK. On the contrary, while not necessarily agreeing with the Republican senator in the United States who considered that “if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me”, many of us do genuinely believe that English is not only a global language, but the global language par excellence. As my paternal grandmother would have said, of their holidays in continental Europe: “If at first they don’t understand you, shout louder and slower”. “They”, in this context, are the benighted natives who had the temerity to speak in their own national language (or languages).

Underlying this instruction is the simple conviction that: “The British aren’t any good at languages”. As if to corroborate this longstanding belief, we have an educational system which makes it as hard as possible to learn them. Two generations ago, Classics were taken out of the State school curriculum, in which over 90% of English pupils are enrolled. First Ancient Greek and then the once pan-European/North African lingua franca, Latin – the subject that gave our once great Grammar School system its name - were dropped through successive revisions. Today, while 40% of private pupils have access to these two subjects, only 4% of State school pupils do.

Another generation has passed, and with it the automatic teaching of Modern Languages. This is partly due to a popular perception that –like Maths and most sciences - languages are “difficult” subjects, since they involve a substantial element of learning. Subsequent to this, schools now obliged to be ranked in league tables according to their exam success rates, prefer to opt for the “easy” subjects – such as drama, art, and media studies – that will grant instant access to higher ratings. The change has been colossal and rapid and carries over into tertiary education: when I went to university in the 1970s, Ordinary-level passes (exams taken at around the age of 16) in a classical and a modern language (as well as a Maths and a science) were basic entrance requirements. About 6% of the eligible population obtained university places, and of that 6%, less than a third were women. Today, O-levels have been replaced with the more basic (or “dumbed-down”) GCSEs, and none of the above topics are required other than as passports to further study in the same field. In 2009, 40% of the eligible population obtain university places and over half the admissions are women. While there is still a “glass ceiling” in certain subjects, such as engineering and specialised sciences, it – the ceiling - has been shattered to allow access to other courses (including medicine, law, politics and religion), also until recently male domains.

So it is that in the Under-25s (“youth”) category of the Stephen Spender Prize, the unfailing winners of the translation of a classical poem have attended a Public School, and the likely winners of the translation of a modern poem have at least availed themselves of a useful “mother tongue”. Put conversely, one is tempted to advise young people wishing to become literary translators, to start by ensuring that they do not have solely Anglophone parents. Secondly, that they avoid the local State school.

Happily the former, at least, is an increasing likelihood. Britain’s cities are now centres of cultural diversity: Leicester is the first to boast a majority Asian population, although Bradford and Birmingham cannot be far behind. And more languages are spoken at London’s primary schools than any other capital city in the world. In the Greater London area, some 342 languages are spoken by primary pupils, over 90 in the Borough of Kensington alone. This can present challenges to some schools in terms of a fast-changing intake and the spread of linguistic abilities – in the East End, first port of call for generations of London immigrants, some primaries struggle to assimilate 30 new languages, others successfully fast-track the new arrivals through ESL (English-as-a-second-language) courses, and celebrate engaging with such a generally able and highly-motivated class intake.

Things are a lot tougher for those who rely entirely on school teaching to get them the required grades for university entrance. They can study for O-levels and now even A-levels without ever reading a book in a foreign language. Whereas a tiny country such as Nicaragua could mount a mass literacy campaign by teaching old and young alike to read and write poetry, we teach our 18-year-olds about a foreign culture without reference to a single work of literature of any kind. And yet, in the words of Emma Cleave, who came from a humble background and a State education to take a First Class Honours at Leeds University and become a literary translator: “I became fascinated by certain elements of French culture – namely literature, film and the visual arts. I took a year out from [studying French at Leeds] University to become a part of that culture. Another year abroad as a postgraduate – now in Spain – without any support network in place, was also incredibly rewarding in coming to understand a culture from the inside out. I learnt to read while I learnt how to speak it.”

Unfortunately, the lecturers’ views of their students may be less positive. A German tutor at Oxford University points out: “The first time I did admissions, I was very shocked by the standard of spoken German. Considering that these were (presumably) the best students from each school – both Independent and State – that surprised and worried me a lot… There is the sense that it is possible to get top grades at A-level without a good grasp of the basics of the language – adjectival endings, genders, and so on”. A lecturer in Spanish at my own University of East Anglia goes further: “At times I get so frustrated with my students’ lack of basic grammar. Unlike the overseas students, ours have almost no idea of the parts of speech – and my despair overcame my initial amusement in observing that they nearly all wrote “syntax” as “sintax” – as in “sin tax” - clearly never having come across the term before”.

So, now we have it: half-way through this talk, we have discovered exactly what does not go into the makings of a literary translator. I am sorry if I have laboured the point (another apology!), but it is important that we all realise how very little formal education or cultural familiarity our new generation of prospective translators may have with their source language(s) of choice. Since a primary requirement of a literary translator is that s/he be the original author’s “first” or “closest” reader, then a literary translator who doesn’t read books, or who had at best patchy instruction in another language, is already at a multiple handicap.

This obviously affects the quality of a translation but will also affect the quantity. And it is my contention that someone who reads little will also be someone who translates little: familiarity, not only with a particular author’s works but with literature in general, makes translation vastly easier as well as vastly more interesting. And the idea is that literary translation is born of a love affair, if not literally between author and translator then principally between the source and target literatures. For the text itself needs to live, respond and be flexible, moving imperceptibly between the two cultures. And for that, knowledge and practice are essential – hence the importance of both reading and writing.

Which brings us to the second half of the source/target language divide. Anyone who is not a “good” writer in their target language will not be a good translator. Yet what makes a good writer or a good translator is not necessarily the same set of qualities. In the same way as a musician requires a score or an actor a play – or both, at the very least, require a composition to interpret - so the literary translator’s work is entirely contingent upon the text. Yet “fidelity” to the text emphatically does not mean providing a literal, as opposed to a literary, translation. Such a version, commonly known as a “crib”, does no favour to the author by doing no favours to the audience.

In my experience too little attention is paid to the readership that the original author so desperately desires, particularly in an English version. Literary Translation is only taught at postgraduate level in British universities, and at far too few - around a dozen - of them. On our own Masters programme, whole semesters are devoted to Stylistics and Linguistics, but little discussion to the readers of these stylistically and linguistically polished outcomes. The fact that literary translations in the UK amount to no more than 3% of the 150,000 books published annually has been blamed, at least in part (and even by some of the publishers) on the poor quality of much translating. Again, this is with reference mainly to the target language. If teaching treats the subject as of purely academic interest, the emphasis is unlikely to be on the non-academic reader, still less on reaching – or creating – new audiences.

Once again, quantity goes hand-in-hand with quality. The more practice you have, the better you can become; the more successfully you select an author you want to live with for the rest of your working life, the more chance you have of making your name and reputation in the way, say, our colleague Professor Freely has, in her translations of Orhan Pamuk, or Margaret Jull Costa with Javier Marias and Eça de Quieroz.

Coming from a School of Literature and Creative Writing tends to give rise to the concern that far more students appear to want to write than to read. Yet reading is surely key, whatever it is we do read. At last month’s London Book Fair, the first at which a Translation Centre has successfully been organised, a question was asked: “What about non-fiction?” Of course, if what fascinated you most in the world were trans-Siberian Railway timetables; or the life cycle of the migrating Japanese moth; or Icelandic seismology, then these could afford excellent translation material. In my own case, I read for an undergraduate degree in History, and found myself adopted by a couple of Professors – one a specialist in the Spanish Inquisition; the other in the French Revolution – to translate primary sources they were unable to read for themselves. This clearly proved so fascinating that I researched my PhD in the then- new field of cultural history, on the role of the theatre during the French Revolution.

More seriously, perhaps, the study of contemporary Latin American history led directly to my involvement in the human rights movement: to working in the region for Amnesty International during the period of military dictatorship in the 1970s and ‘80s; to editing, and so translating the human right magazine, Central America Report, for eight years; then to making the translation of my first book that of Nunca Más (“Never Again”, on the “disappeared” dissenters of Argentina) written by one of the country’s greatest novelists, Ernesto Sábato. I say this not to boast but to indicate that my “making” as a literary translator sprang from possibly unexpected roots, and that most of us are more than one kind of writer. Just as Sábato himself writes some of the most original fiction, but also a consciousness-raising and campaigning book such as Nunca Más, so I too enjoy writing monographs and biography, and more widely on popular culture in the Americas, particularly on photography, while maintaining a steady output of reviews and literary profiles for press and radio. I cannot judge how it feels to Sábato, with his range of fantastical and factual writing, but to me, lacking the necessary skills and imagination for either fiction or poetry, I do not feel I am engaging a separate part of my brain in order to translate. Whatever I write, I research original material, and then re-express it in my own words, according to the chosen genre. Obviously, an existing text is more exigent in terms of what one can do with it than a set of photographs awaiting captions or a catalogue, but either way, the writer’s role is, to a greater or lesser extent, serve as the conduit for a fellow person’s work.

So it seems strange to encounter a query such as this, posed by Eyvor Fogarty in the Linguist magazine recently. “Do some emotions exist in some languages and not in others, for example, a longing for the homeland, or a religious centre?” If they do, then I fear that a fair amount of our work as literary translators may be doomed. For the past decade or more, there has been the issue of whether to “domesticate” or to “foreignise” when translating. Unable to offer a better opinion than “it depends on what the original requires you to do…” I decided to try an experiment. I provided opening paragraphs of lusaphone texts which I had translated into English. One was by the Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho; another by the Angolan, Pedro Rosa Mendes; and a third by the Portuguese Nobel Prize-winner, Jose Saramago but they were presented anonymously. The result was that roughly equal numbers of students thought that each of our three writers had written each of our three texts, with – obviously – just around a third being the correct match. This suggested to me that, if not necessarily a spurious argument, that concerning domestication/foreignisation might have somewhat less importance that we have credited it with.

Increasingly, what seems to matter is that most elusive of all strands, that of the narrative voice. Or voices. Or the narrator, who may – or not – be the protagonist. Or the unreliable narrator, or false protagonist. That is why a dedicated literary translator in the making cannot do better than to keep reading and writing, in the determined endeavour to discover what it is that makes a particular book unique and then defy logic by repeating the process. A bit like Ginger Rogers defending her skill by declaring she did “everything Fred [Astaire] did, only on high heels and backwards”, a literary translator needs the capacity to get under the skin of the original work, and inhabit it until it is filled and fitted anew yet still corresponds to the original.

The rewards for all this reading and writing may not be magnificent. Every translator, like any other worker, would do well to join a professional association or trade union. In Britain, this is the Translators’ Association, integral to the Society of Authors [SoA]. And, together with the relevant embassies and cultural institutes, the SoA organises the main single language translation prizes. Until recently the prerogative of West European languages, they have recently added Arabic and Hebrew and Polish and Rumanian to the roll-call. And though the prizes may not amount to more than £2000 apiece, that’s a welcome addition to what’s often a less-than-basic rate. (The TA does, of course, campaign that all publishers honour their model contract and pay translators a minimum £95 per 1000 words).

So what does go into the making of a literary translator? If one rules out components translators can least control, such as their parentage of their schools, there is further education to develop one’s abilities; the solidarity and support of fellow translators through fraternal associations; and the sometimes modest reward of a decent contract bolstered by occasional literary prizes.

Ask almost any literary translator how they found their medium and the answer is almost invariably “by mistake”, or along the lines of “I just happened on it” or “I fell into it”. Yet there has to be something that keeps us all hanging on in there, and I suspect that something has to do with the love of books, narrowed to the love of a particular book and a particular author. Allied, of course, to comprehensive familiarity with another language, and a considerable talent to write compellingly in a mother tongue. Not to mention the compulsion to keep whittling away at a demanding poem or prose passage, and the intense satisfaction when it all somehow comes right at last.