Lost in Translation?
I was surprised to read the rumor that assumes translators are either lazy, or are writers who don’t wish to be noticed! I have no idea as to where that notion came from. The difference between a well translated text and an appalling one are so vast. Having seen this from both sides, while working for a Russian magazine, I would like to add my own insights to the discussion.
Late one night the deputy editor of the magazine, Status, which I work for, emailed in a state of advanced anxiety and frustration. The magazine had decided to try some new translators (Russian to English), and some of the pieces were so badly done, they were unreadable. The editor had done her best to restore some of the English, but as it was not her first language, she was struggling to make progress and the deadlines were imminent. Normally I would need to adapt the texts only slightly to make them more readable in English, and the Russian journalists were happy for me to do this; but this time they were so badly done they had to be carefully reconstructed as the quality of these excellent writers’ work had been ruined.
I felt really bad for my Russian colleagues, as no writer should have to cope with a situation like that, on a professional, glossy magazine. What I learnt from this experience was the amazing difference a good translator can make. Their work is largely unseen and unappreciated, and yet the better the job is done, the less you realize they have done it.
I also understood form this experience that to respect someone else’s voice in a piece of writing, while translating, means that the translator must put their own ego on the shelf; in order to showcase someone else’s work. I have to ask in all honestly, how many writers’ would actually capable of doing this, without leaving behind traces of themselves and their own style? I doubt any of the writers I know personally, could resist the temptation to try and ‘improve’ the work. I must therefore conclude that translation is a highly specialised job carried out by very special people.
From a writer’s point of view, my concerns about translation are issues of trust and control. Having obsessed about the words, you wonder how, in another language, they will adapt and be perceived. And you will never know. It is impossible to predict reader reaction in your own language, so how much more risky that seems in someone else’s! My deepest concern is that, I write about different types of relationships in my poetry. My worst case scenario would be for a poem which is romantic or mildly erotic in English to seem slightly sleazy in another language – because I don’t the words or understand the cultural connotations that go with them.
My other concern is of rhythm; I have no idea if it gets lost once a piece has been translated. Some of my poems, such as ‘Feeling Like Love’ rely quite heavily on rhythm to give meaning, and I will never know if a poem like that, would give the same reading experience in another language; therefore translation involves an element of mystery and magic!
Feeling Like Love
She remembers the sheets,
That wrapped and entrapped them,
Coiled and curled,
Swathed across wet skin;
Drenched hot and cold,
In love and lust;
In strength and weakness,
In giving and receiving,
Hot, hard and needing,
Like nothing else exists –
Feeling; like, love.
First published in Contemporary Literary Horizon 2014
Literary translation involves deeply understanding every nuance the author (or poet, in this case) intended and trying to capture that same sense in another language. As both a translator and writer, I think it’s the most challenging yet rewarding type of translation–and yes, it requires a lot of trust and communication between the author and translator. The result is beauty in two languages!