10 Literary Translators on the Art of Translation

Many translation companies don’t usually take their time to explain to their customers some of the processes that are implied by a literary translation. Naturally, this is mainly because the translator in charge of a certain project knows how to do their job and knows how to do it best.

However, if we are curious enough, we can end up making some discoveries when it comes to the so-called Art of Translation. For example, every proficient translator will likely have their own way to deal with a literary translation.

If you are a book lover or just someone interested in literary translations, then keep on reading, as we’ll take a look at the thoughts of ten literary translators on the Art of Translation.

  1. Saskia Vogel – English translator of Karolina Ramqvist

Vogel says that she doesn’t aim for forensic fidelity when translating. Instead, she wants the reader to feel the book, via her translations. She states that, if she focuses more on the feeling part of a translation, this is how she will compensate for those things that will be inevitably lost.

“A translation is channeled through the translator’s experience of the world and language.”

To this, Vogel adds that a reader only has to think about what the book is saying to them and not about it what say to anyone else.

  • George Szirtes – English translator of Imre Madách

Szirtes claims that his way of dealing with literary translations is far from scholarly. This is because, as he states, he usually reads the first chapter of a book and then starts translating.

While reading the first chapter, he listens for the timbre of the voice and then seeks a comparable voice in English – one that might bring to this language the same experience a native reader might have when reading the original in Hungarian.

“Literary precision includes the idea of effect, pace, register, intensity and much else.”

  • Mark Polizzotti – English translator of Gustave Flaubert

Polizzotti states that, if we were to think of the translator as a servant of the source text, then any change or deviation brought to that very text would be seen as a betrayal by readers and so on.

On the other hand, if we consider translators as artists that partner with their source authors and see translations as a dynamic process, then the representation of a certain literary work in English – or another language – will become something more meaningful.

“(Translation) provides a new way of looking at a text, and through that text, a world.”

  • Elena Marcu – Romanian translator of James Baldwin

Marcu says that, in the case of Baldwin, there are roughly five ways for you to say what he wrote – and then, in most of those five ways, none of them seems right.

She would reach each sentence that she translated out loud in order to hear how it spoke. Then, she asked herself if her voice was anywhere in that translation – if it was, then the translation would have to be changed. She would do this over and over again until there was no her in the text she had translated.

“When the (translated) book speaks, I (the translator) have to remain mute.”

  • Lydia Davis – English Translator of Gustave Flaubert

Davis claims that, when talking about literary translations, there are two pleasures that come with this activity. Namely, the pleasure of writing itself and the pleasure of solving a puzzle.

In terms of writing, the says that you, as a translator, have the pleasure to work with sound, image, rhythm, rhetoric, tone, voice, and the shape of a paragraph. When it comes to the translation itself, the translator will always be solving a puzzle/ problem while working with the things mentioned earlier.

“It is a word problem, an ingenious, complicated word problem that requires not only a good deal or craft but some art or artfulness in its solution.”

  • Idra Novey – English translator of Clarice Lispector

Novey states that she has found the reason why the word translation begins with the trans prefix. She claims that translations require an acceptance of progressing with uncertainty – just like transcendence and transformation.

“In a translation, playing around with style is everything. The author provides us with everything – plot and characters. The translator has to figure the tone, music, and cadence that will recreate what makes the author’s delivery of those scenes worth translating.”

  • Ann Goldstein – English translator of Elena Ferrante

Goldstein says that you are not going to translate the same words, in the same way, all the time. This is why she reads the book and then does the first draft for it in terms of translation.

She says that you should know what happens at the end so that you would be true to the beginning when it comes to language. She even says that, given the art of translation, if she were to read all the novels she translated again, there would probably be a lot of things she would do differently.

  • Vladimir Nabokov – English translator of Pushkin

Nabokov claims that a translator must possess three requirements in order to be able to produce an ideal version of a foreign masterpiece.

He states that a translator must have as much talent as the author he chooses to translate. Then, he or she must also know the two nations, as well as the two languages involved in the translation process. Then, in the end, even with knowledge and genius, a translator must also have the gift of mimicry – the ability to act as the real author’s part via the impersonation of speech and tricks of demeanor.

  • Jhumpa Lahiri – English translator of Domenico Starnone

According to Lahiri, the translation goes beyond reading. It is a visceral act and one opposed to being merely intimate – this teaches you in a different way.

She says that translation is more pleasurable to her than writing fiction, mainly because of the intense relationship she has with a text that she admires. She is ready to absorb whatever the text has to offer, while also questioning her product.

  1. Lara Vergnaud – English Translator of Mohand Fellag

“Translation is a curious craft.”

Vergnaud claims that a translator must be able to capture the voice of the author itself who writer in one language and bear it into the other language.

On top of that, the translator must also leave just a faint trance that this transfer between the languages took place. She says that a translator must be able to act just like a ghostwriter and slip on a second skin that can’t be noticed by the reader.

Concluding Remarks

It goes without saying that translation is an art. Some may say that it is more than writing, as good as writing, or an entirely different thing. However, it is safe to assume that it is everything we’ve mentioned so far.

It is an art that combines knowledge, language, feeling, and the ability of a person to singlehandedly adopt the traits and personality of a writer so that the translated book feels just like the original if a native were to read it.

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