Words Are Not Lost in Translation — Translators Are

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I learned French at a very young age, and while the language still resides in my brain — somewhere! — the muscle has atrophied in the years since high school. When I started researching the subject of literary translation for this story, I spoke with many professional translators about their work. One woman, Rachel Martinez from Montreal, spoke to me entirely in French, and with some relief I discovered I was able to understand (mostly) and respond in English (completely). But when it came time to transcribe — to translate the translator — my confidence evaporated. 

So I did what some professional translators don’t always get the chance to do: I asked the woman herself to check my homework.

"You've done a very good job," Martinez said of my attempt to capture her words, which was a relief (soulagement). When I told her the act of rewriting a few short paragraphs had mentally drained me she says, "imagine a couple hundred pages." 

Martinez has been translating for 20 years, and for 10 of those she has focused on literary translation. She was at Banff Centre as a part of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC), the only program of its kind in North America. She explains that translating is not just about shifting text from one language to another. It's about opening the eyes and minds of people. "We do it for [readers]. We do it to make a culture available more widely around the world," she says. 

But despite such a noble goal, the art of translation is not often talked about, nor even properly recognized. Translators are truly the backup singers of the literary world. They have the talent, they’ve studied and learned their craft, and their understanding of multiple languages is impressive, to say the least. But they’re not the stars. 

In fact, as House of Anansi Press’ then-editor Martha Sharpe said in 2009, “it's hard to get a readership to embrace a book that's translated.” That’s why they decided to drop the names of translators from the covers of their books.

"It’s a funny thing, because the better we do our work, the less visible we are," says Martinez. 

The SoundCloud content at https://soundcloud.com/banff-centre-radio/walking-between-two-languages/s-JSUqz is not available, or it is set to private.

AUDIO: Three translators from the 2015 BILTC program read passages from their projects in both languages, and talk about their histories as translators. Edited by Shannon Waters. 

Two Separate Works of Art

Katherine Silver, the program director for BILTC, has been a translator for over 30 years. Specializing in Latin American literature, she has more than 25 books to her name, though that same name didn’t always appear on the book jackets. But in the latter half of her career, she’s starting to see a major shift. 

“There's been a lot more consciousness about making the translator visible,” she says. Not to mention “the very, very practical and simple thing of having their names on the covers, and being recognized as having a very important part in this piece of work.”

And the work is not trivial. Before handing off her translation to an editor, she reads, and rereads, and rereads… and she translates, and writes, and rewrites, and often ruminates on single words that don’t feel quite right. Sometimes that means three or four drafts, but translation needs as many layers of context as the translator can give it. “I think of it as a process of bringing it over into English,” she says.

“When I go away with my husband, he reads 10 books and I read the same book over 10 times,” she jokes. 

Sometimes the whole translation hinges on one word, and when she finds it the work comes together completely. In the case of one novel, that word was “blunder." But she denies being a walking thesaurus or crossword queen. “I use dictionaries all the time,” she says. “I never trust the meaning of a word.”

And how can you, when dealing with cross-cultural matters? She gives the example of the word “bread” — easy to translate literally: pain in French, pan in Spanish, brot in German — but it’s the image in the reader’s head that counts. What a Canadian pictures when she reads “bread” can be different for, say, a Russian. 

Is it likely, if an Argentinian author writes about his character eating a sandwich, that he pictures slices of meat between spicy, flavourful chimichurri bread? If that’s the case, what is Canada's bread-equivalent? These are all things a translator must consider. 

It seems all-too-possible that, in a sea of potential words and hundreds of choices per chapter, the meaning of a work might get lost. But Silver doesn’t think about translating in such stark dualities. “I think if I get it right I'm being true,” she says. “I don't know if I would say faithful. I'm being true to the deepest reading I can give that text.”

Silver doesn’t think being faithful to the letter is necessarily the best way to reveal an author’s literary voice. 

"I prefer to think of it as...two separate works of art.”

This sentiment was echoed by every translator I spoke with: The translated work is not lesser, and translators are artists in their own right. 

The Banff Centre library's copies of Yann Martel's Life of Pi, and the German version, Schiffbruch mit Tiger, translated by Manfred Allié and Gabriele Kempf-Allié.

Author Meets Translator

When an author’s work is translated, it’s rare he ever has much to do with it. So when Trevor Cole had the opportunity to work in tandem with his translator, he jumped. 

His national bestselling book, Practical Jean, was translated from English into French by Rachel Martinez, the translator whose words I attempted to translate myself during our interview. 

“When you’re an author handing a book over to be translated, it’s a leap of faith,” Cole says. 

“What’s fascinating about working with a translator is you see how much care and effort they’re putting into each word, which is very similar to the writing process.” Cole says he was pleased with the result.

A translated work of literature is a bit like a person living a double life. Essentially, she is the same. She looks the same, and sounds the same, but the difference is in the details, and that’s what sets the two lives apart. Watching author and translator each discuss “their version” of the same work, it’s clear that a collaboration this close is delicate. 

“I don’t always find that word that fits perfectly, or the exact word he wrote, but I try to create the same effect, the same intention with French words,” says Martinez. 

“It’s tricky work, but very pleasant.”

Cole and Martinez took advantage of the fact that BILTC is partially an opportunity for translators to work uninterrupted, and partially a chance to meet other translators from across the globe working in what is often a very isolated job. They were the only author/translator pair in this year’s group. 

Though the partnership was a first for both participants, their dedication to creating a product to be proud of made the encounter a positive one. 

“It was a fascinating experience full of surprises,” says Martinez. "Now he knows how much . . . goes into translating his work."

Since translators attract previously unobtainable audiences with their work, authors have a lot to gain by championing those who treat their words as if they were their own. More relationships like that of Cole and Martinez could bridge the gap between the very similar, but unequally recognized professions. 

The SoundCloud content at https://soundcloud.com/banff-centre-radio/the-art-of-translation/s-kjt6s is not available, or it is set to private.

AUDIO: Three translators from the 2015 BILTC program discuss the idea that translation is a derivative art considered less valuable than the original, even though its creation is a labour of love. Edited by Shannon Waters. 

Sharing the Byline

Kelly Joseph is the managing editor at House of Anansi Press in Toronto. A lot has changed for the publishing house since 2009 — namely, they've begun to embrace works in translation even if they remain less popular among readers. They launched Arachnide in 2012, their imprint for French to English translations from Canadian authors. They also translate other languages through Anansi International, and translate crime fiction with their Spiderline imprint.

"If someone is seeking a translation, hopefully Arachnide will spring to mind," says Joseph. By the end of  2015, they will have published a dozen translated works.

Despite the fact more emphasis has been placed on translated books in the past few years, sales are lower than Anansi's average fare, a common statistic among publishers. While she can't be sure about why that is, Joseph chalks it up to a possible lack of knowledge about the form. "A lot of people don’t have exposure...to literature in translation in their daily lives. [It's] this reading experience that seems very outside of what we usually encounter."

She feels, however, despite the fact translations have an unfair rap for being challenging, pop culture is helping usher in a new acceptance of works from other countries. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest) raced up the English-speaking book charts once translated. Danish television show Rita found a dedicated Western audience when it was added to Netflix. These are just two examples of North America’s recent appetite for other cultures, and Joseph hopes that enthusiasm will continue to "peripherally open people's minds" to literature in the same way.

But while Anansi seeks to be a well-known publisher of translation, and clearly respects the art, it remains another publishing house that keeps translators' names off the front cover (though you’ll find it printed on the back). The fight for front-and-centre placement ranges in reasoning from issues with cover design, to authors' wishes. "The translation absolutely stands on its own, but the author is the author of the work as well, so you have to balance that," says Joseph.

"In an ideal world that would happen," she says, of a shared byline.  

What remains to be seen is when that ideal world will come to those who have dedicated their lives to this craft.

Sharing the Glory

Luckily, a major literary award has recently taken a step in the right direction by giving translators equal recognition when it comes to their winning work.

The Man Booker International Prize, awarded biennially to an author of any nationality based on his or her body of work, and the Independent Fiction Prize, a literary award which honours translation in the U.K., have merged.

Beginning in 2016 the award will be given annually to a book in English translation. The £50,000 prize ($98,500 CAD) is to be split evenly between author and translator.

"We very much hope that this reconfiguration of the prize will encourage a greater interest and investment in translation,” says Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the Booker Prize Foundation.

Now the quiet art of translation has a megaphone. (Which the atrophied French muscle in my brain translates as “mégaphone.”) It could make a world of difference to people like Rachel Martinez, whose name was recently left out of her publisher's catalogue. 

"It's so little for them," she says, "and so much for us."