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Translators respond to our questions on the art of the craft

How do you translate manners and traditions?

It depends on the audience and the purpose of the translation. I think each translator has their own priorities too, especially with literary work. Do you want to get close to how the original audience would have experienced it? Explaining cultural aspects can obstruct that sometimes. But including everything without gloss or explanation risks exoticising very mundane daily things. This is a tangential example, but if I tell you a character violently threw a pack of enoki mushrooms in their lover’s face, there’s a risk you’ll focus on the type of mushroom rather than the emotion of the gesture. — Helen O’Horan

In many Sinophone cultures, people stick out their tongues to indicate embarrassment – but when this crops up in a novel, I often change it to a blush or an awkward gesture, because the shorthand (tongue out = whoops!) isn’t legible outside its own context. Even adding a gloss (“she stuck out her tongue in embarrassment, realising her mistake”) doesn’t help readers who have zero familiarity with this cultural mannerism; they may get it, but they don’t get it. Other times I amplify to give more context, adding a note that Qingming/Ching Ming/Tomb Sweeping Day is when we honour our ancestors by tending to their graves. Or I might omit the explanation if it’s not important for the reader to know, but make sure to use a widely recognised term so anyone curious can Google it. What I won’t do is “translate” to a false equivalence – I don’t think calling Qingming “the Chinese Day of the Dead” is helpful. — Jeremy Tiang

Translating manners and traditions is part of the larger challenge of translating a foreign culture. If you just translate the direct meaning of the words on the page, it may not make sense, and may even obscure the actual meaning. For example, the word wallahi in Arabic means “by God”, and it is used as an abbreviation of the phrase, “I swear by God”. English has an expression with the same literal meaning, “By God!”, but the phrase appears so frequently in Arabic, and without any real reference to God, that a literal translation misses the mark by raising the stakes too high. If we lived in the 19th century, “by Jove” might have worked well, but since we don’t, I often just translate the word as “I swear!” or find some other way to indicate the speaker’s emphasis. Questions of manners and traditions came up on every page of a recent project, Shalash the Iraqi, which is set in Baghdad in the final months of 2005. The book is made up of 70 humorous blog posts that were anonymously posted online to satirise politicians, religious leaders, and the everyday life of common people in the aftermath of the US invasion. Initially, I envisioned that my translation might serve as an encyclopaedia of Arabic culture, with copious footnotes to explain all the cultural information I was delighted to be learning. But in the end, I decided to avoid footnotes and endnotes entirely because they interrupt the reading experience by suggesting, urging or compelling the reader to stop reading for as long as it takes to check the note. That’s not how the original readers experienced this hilarious and fast-paced text, and in the end, I wanted to create something that would be fun and funny in English, not a scholarly text. So I tried a few other solutions. One is to use the spellings of individuals, places and practices that would help readers find more information online if they are curious to learn more. Secondly, I worked with the author (still anonymous to avoid the wrath of those he mocked) on a preface that introduces aspects of Iraqi religion, history, politics and culture that are foundational for understanding the stories that follow. I also made frequent use of “stealth glosses”, referring to the technique of slipping a short explanation into the translation that provides the reader with knowledge that would have been obvious to a reader of the Arabic text. To give just one example, when Zuhayra buys a fancy new house, her former neighbours, Kamil and Badriya, pay her a ziyara tafaqqudiya, or literally, an inspection visit. In order to explain the significance of that customary practice, I expanded those two words to: “the traditional housewarming visit that Kamil and his wife Badriya paid Zuhayra to scope out her new place and keep their noses in her business.” — Luke Leafgren

Should the translator be invisible?

Definitely not. Well, it’s not possible. We can pretend we’re invisible and often audiences are ready to believe it. But the subjectivity of our interpretations comes from our lives lived as full people, and the words our audiences read have been chosen by us, too. I never want a reader to think they’re in direct, unfiltered contact with an author, because they’re not. It’s part of our job to be aware of our subjectivity and fish it out of our translations, but human translators are human. No one can be self-aware enough to completely erase themselves and guarantee a purely objective translation, if that’s even something that exists – and if it does, is that what we really want from literary translation? — Helen O’Horan

It is an illusion to believe you can be invisible as a translator. While seeking to stay as close as possible to what we believe the author’s intention to be, we cannot but translate through the prism of our own subjectivity. A translation of the same text by two different translators will inevitably be different, as has been shown when we hold translation slams or duels – which are increasingly popular events at literary festivals. With the best will in the world, I can only give you my reading of a particular work. When a text is written in an unusual or “weird” style, the translator needs to be careful to preserve its specificity and not “flatten” it to make it seem as if written in standard English – which is tantamount to colonising the text. Translators sometimes feel that they will be blamed if critics and readers find the translation strange, and it is tempting to want to smooth over any bumps so as to make the translation invisible. While respecting the author, we are also aiming to create a pleasant experience for the reader, and we walk a continual tightrope between the two. One reason there are often retranslations of classic writers is that the previous translator has been all too visible (think of the Victorian translations of Aesop, for example, which appropriated the fables to further 19th-century morality). Walter Benjamin beautifully describes the task of the translator as being “to find the intention towards the language into which the work is to be translated, on the basis of which an echo of the original can be awakened in it”. — Ros Schwartz

I think the question is rather, can the translator be invisible? How can the person who chose every last word you’re reading be truly invisible? — Julia Sanches

What are the changes afoot within translation?

Over the past few years I’ve shifted from technical to creative work. I consider automated technical trans- lation a solved problem, so it’s a shift we’ll probably see more and more translators making. I used to be penalised for working in a human way (subjectively); meanwhile, I was expected to and rewarded for working in a mechanical way (pseudo-objectively). Automated approaches are better for doing that pseudo-objective, mechanical work – in this case, producing what passes as a “personless translation”. It’s a relief not to have to pretend otherwise any more. Now we can focus on work that openly acknowledges and appreciates what we bring to a translation as individuals, rather than treating it like an inconvenient problem. I’m sure it’s similar in other creative fields; I feel good about it. Increasingly I feel more like I’m collaborating with authors to create something new, rather than speaking on their behalf with dubious authority. It’s closer to being stage actors giving performances of an author’s script. — Helen O’Horan


Can you translate colour?

Applying words to colour feels impossible even within a single language! I’m always surprised to find my husband thinks something is red when I think it’s purple – and we have no way of knowing if we actually perceive the object differently, or if we’re just dividing up the colour spectrum in different ways. When you bring in other languages, there’s the added complication of concepts not lining up. Working from Chinese, there’s the dilemma of how to render 青, which can mean blue, green, black or just a dark colour. I once translated it as “the colour of a tree at dusk”, which felt right for that particular context. Sometimes you just need to go with the vibes. — Jeremy Tiang

How do you translate insults?

I translate insults much like I translate anything else. As usual, word-for-word translations hardly ever work. In Brazilian Portuguese, for example, filho da mãe is an insult, even though it literally just means “son of a mother”. So I start by figuring out the register – is it a polite-society insult, Shakespearean, street? Is the insult supposed to be humorous? (English has some good ones, one of my favourites being “douche canoe”). Is it racist? Is it common or unusual? Once I’ve triangulated that, I make a mental (and sometimes real-life) list of potential candidates and then decide which best suits the character and circumstances, while also sounding good. Like jokes, it’s important for an insult to land. I also take a lot of inspiration from television. There are some great insults in Tarantino films and sitcoms like Derry Girls, to cite a couple of examples. — Julia Sanches

Insults are an example of when you have to translate the sentiments behind the words rather than the words themselves. For example, insults in Quebecois French are drawn from the religious vocabulary, e.g. tabarnakcâlicebaptême, and it would be quite meaningless to translate them as “tabernacle”, “chalice” and “baptism”. So, depending on the context and the character speaking, it might be more appropriate to draw on English four-letter words. Italian has various insults using porca (pig), which again can’t be translated literally. As always, context will dictate the best way to express the feelings beneath the words, so porca miseria might best be translated as “for God’s sake” or “for goodness’ sake”. — Ros Schwartz

What is the relationship between translation and truth?

Art gets at the true nature of things in unexpected ways, often contradicting one mode of reality in order to illuminate another. With translation, this aspect takes on a dual character, so that a translation reconstructs the source text’s relationship to truth while also being held to the measure of how “true” or “faithful” it is to the original. Especially in the literary arts, truth in language is a moving target, in that the qualities of words are multiple and always morphing, such as meaning, tone, register, and sound. The Brazilian concrete poet Haroldo de Campos coined a wonderful term – transcriação or transcreation – which recognises that translation is always a re-creation, and that the translator’s art lies in choosing which features of language to prioritise in a given moment and how to convey them in another language that doesn’t match up seamlessly. For poetic texts, this often means emphasising material aspects, such as visual and musical elements, over literal meaning. For example, in my recent translation of the Brazilian modernist epic Macunaíma: The Hero With No Character by the poet Mário de Andrade, I translate jacaré as “alligator” or “gator”, though it’s technically a close relative called a caiman, native to Mexico and Central and South America. Yet to capture a greater literary truth – the folksy narrative voice that retells various myths and fables – I transport a very colloquial Brazilian Portuguese into a North American vernacular. And who’s ever heard a tall tale about a caiman? I also scrambled species in the novel’s lists of flora and fauna to convey how they work as lexical poems and comically exaggerated catalogues. In one scene, the hero and his brother hunt an absurd amalgamation of birds and monkeys in a single tree: macucos macacos micos monos mutuns jacus jaós tucanos. A macuco is a quail-like bird called a tinamou, while a macaco is a monkey, but the primary elements here are the humour of these tongue-twisty M-words, a frenetic rhythm propelled by layered rhymes, and a mix of Portuguese with Tupi, Brazil’s major Indigenous language; the average Brazilian wouldn’t know macucomutumjacu or jaó. My version prioritises the overall whoosh of language, adds an extra monkey to keep the five m’s, maintains some unfamiliar Indigenous words, and scoots the tinamous down to form an alliteration with toucans: “The game came crashing down with a ruckus as Macunaíma caught the monkeys marmosets monk-sakis muriquis mutum birds jacus jaós toucans tinamous, all that game.” — Katrina Dodson


What distinguishes translating poetry from prose?

If we’re talking about literary-fiction prose versus poetry translation, then nothing essential changes, really. Poetry might often be more elusive and ambiguous in its meanings, and the sound and rhythm may be more clearly foregrounded, but whatever literary writing you are translating, you have to be attentive to how it sounds and the gestures that don’t spell things out clearly. — Stefan Tobler


How do the tenses of different languages affect the translation of time?

I translate from French, which often uses the historical present to describe past events. This is partly to bring the subject to life, and partly because the simple past is a compound tense with countless auxiliary verbs, which can be stilted and jarring, whereas the historic past can sound overly literary. So, when translating a book or article written in the French present, you have to decide whether to use the past tense in English or keep the present. One author I translate, Dominique Manotti, who writes political thrillers, insists on the present because her novels have an immediate, cinematic quality which she is keen for the translation to preserve. She also points out that retaining the present tense challenges the notion of the omniscient author. The present tense is also used in artists’ and musicians’ biographies. Here, it is important to work within the conventions of English and to use the past tense (X was born / went to school / studied etc.). — Ros Schwartz

How do you translate archaism?

Good question! And as so often in translation, it all depends on the context. What is it most important to convey? Sometimes there is a word that looks too archaic to someone and not to someone else. Generally, I am of the school that it’s actually a lovely thing as a reader to learn a new word in a book, or be reminded of a less commonly used one. In my translation of An Apprenticeship by Clarice Lispector, a novel not set in the present day, I had to dig my heels in during the edit about keeping the word “notions”, meaning the pins, cotton, ribbon and other sundries used when sewing. And the same went for a word or two describing fabrics that are no longer commonly used. (No, it’s not denim!) When I translated many poems by Wulf Kirsten, whose poetry uses words that are sometimes regional, rural or simply less common these days, I found I needed the word for the wooden paddle that bakers use to put bread in wood-fired ovens. I looked along the shelves of a library and discovered Elizabeth David’s superb book on bread. Reading it, I discovered the word was “peel”. I’ll be forever grateful to Kirsten's poem for, indirectly, bringing me to learn about how bread used to be made, and sometimes still is. (There again, one person’s archaism is another’s preference.) — Stefan Tobler

Translation is a lot like acting, in that you have to bring a prior script to life by inhabiting a convincing voice and character. And it’s tough to pull off affected language, such as dialect or speech from past eras. That’s why contemporaneous translations of older works will always hold a unique archaic charm, like C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s Proust or Constance Garnett’s 19th- and early-20th-century Russians. When I translate older works, I avoid words that sound too contemporary and look for ways to temporally date the language without going full costume drama so it doesn’t get too distracting. One exception is a notorious chapter in Macunaíma, “Letter to the Icamiabas”, in which the native Amazonian hero shows off the belletristic written Portuguese he’s learned after arriving in the cosmopolitan city of São Paulo and describes the people and customs of this newly discovered civilisation to the tribe of warrior women back home. Andrade uses a mock-colonial Portuguese, imitating a scribe’s famous 16th-century letter to the King of Portugal recounting the first Portuguese encounter with the natives of what would become Brazil. Here I put on a mock-British accent, copying the style of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Elizabethan-era The Discovery of Guiana, and lifting phrases from the “Oxen of the Sun” episode in Ulysses, in which James Joyce performs a condensed history of the English language. Luckily for me, the language is meant to muddle linguistic time periods and slip into Americanisms (or Brazilianisms), so it was OK for my period British accent to be a bit haphazard. I translated the rest of the 1928 novel in a distinctly US-American voice in parallel to the Brazilian original. Much of the language still sounds modern today but some of the colloquialisms channel the first half of the 20th century. To add a colourful old-timey flavour, I used bits of language from 1930s screwball comedies and gangster films, as well as from American folktales and songs, and looked to Mark Twain and William Faulkner for certain archaic spellings and usages. — Katrina Dodson

How to translate archaism is a question that comes up for me most often when a contemporary Arabic writer quotes an ancient text, such as the Qur’an or a line of classical Arabic poetry. In terms of its grammar, the Arabic language has remained remarkably stable over the past 1,400 years, but many words and idioms have fallen out of everyday use. Coming across a construction that feels unfamiliar or written in a different style than the surrounding text is often a clue that the author might be quoting something. One of my favourite examples of this was when I was translating The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli. I couldn’t figure out the meaning of a phrase he used when describing the “Highway of Death”, where hundreds of Iraqi soldiers were killed by US planes on their retreat from Kuwait in 1991. I asked a native Arabic speaker about the phrase, and he immediately recognised it as part of a verse from the Qur’an (33:23) that described early Muslims being faithful to the point of death. An analogy might be coming across a line like, “It’s just a matter of do unto others, isn’t it?” in a contemporary English novel. Even without quotation marks, many readers will recognise the shift in tone of the words “do unto others”, and many will be familiar with the religious teaching of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, even if they have not read the New Testament Gospels. As far as translating such passages, it will be important, in some cases, to use a footnote to point a reader to the source of the quotation. In other cases, a quotation from a familiar text in Western culture can serve the same intertextual function of enriching the translation by using words that resonate with additional meaning based on their context within another recognisable text. In the case above, I translated the words in a fairly direct manner, but with a slightly elevated register of diction and syntax to capture the awful solemnity of the scene: “There were those who had met their end and those who waited.” (Though even now as I review my choice, I wish I could go back and experiment with other possible solutions!) — Luke Leafgren