Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cloak of invisibility

Photo by Alan Cleaver
I guess since this blog is mostly about my true passions, music and poetry, it's normal that I rarely write about my main bread-earning activity: translation. But I'll make an exception today after reading a really excellent article about the invisibility of the translator in the New Statesman by the translator Robert Chandler. 

It's a great read, even for non-translators, and much of it touches on issues that we translators face all the time: the intimate knowledge of the original text a translator must develop, the poor remuneration (for literary translators in particular), and the general lack of recognition of our craft (nay, art!). But one paragraph stood out for me and brought to the forefront an issue that I had only heretofore been subconsciously aware of. It has to do with readers' trust in the translator and the fact that translations are often subject to a degree of criticism that the original text rarely undergoes. 

Chandler cites the example of an Amazon review of his translation in which the reviewer singles out the word "pike-perch" and wonders if this is not a mis-translation of "sturgeon" (when, in fact, it is a distinct species of fish, which the reviewer would have discovered if he'd taken the time to look it up). He goes on to say--and this is what really struck me:
The frequency of such criticisms makes many translators nervous about using language that is in the least out of the ordinary. This too is a loss.
Upon reading this, I realized that I have, in fact, fallen victim to this insidious way of thinking, unconsciously weighing certain translations in terms of whether the reader will pause and wonder if they're mis-translations. Granted, it's not nearly so great an issue in commercial translation, where the goal is usually to make the text read as smoothly as possible. And yet every once in a while, I'll hit upon a solution that though perfectly elegant is perhaps somewhat unorthodox, and I'll hesitate and maybe even change it to something more white-bread, simply to head-off any criticism at the pass.

So today I make a vow. No more. If it's the right translation, I'll stick to my guns, criticism be damned. Maybe if we translators rock the boat a little more, we can shrug off this clinging cloak of invisibility.

No comments: