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The Loyalties of a Translator: A Rebuttal

in Essays/Musings by

This piece is a response to On Amateurish Translation by Simon Fern.

While Simon Fern definitely has the right of it when he says that a translator must make do with what he has, an approach absolutely most translators will agree with, his ideal of translation seems to be that texts exist without authors. That can certainly be true from an academic and interpretative standpoint, but it is hardly the case in translation.

Arguably, by its very definition translation means to “carry over”, and thus a translator can end up rewriting text that doesn’t make much sense in their context, which is often the case for commercial translators with a certain consumer in mind. When it comes to poetry in Fern’s case, that approach means rewiring the threads of meaning inherent to the poem, effectively attempting to recreate its mood, meaning and connotations in a different setting.

Translating poetry is quite possibly some of the most difficult translation there is, because the text relies so heavily on the nuances of language, meaning and their interplay in ways other texts do to a much lesser degree. Most translators of poetry, or any type of fiction for that matter, would agree that it is impossible to recreate a text in its entirety, to carry it over from one language to another, with all its original meaning intact. However, that doesn’t imply that the translator shouldn’t try.

Yet that is also exactly where the real work begins. Do you rewrite a metaphor, so it makes more sense to an English reader than the original’s Croatian, for instance? What passages do you rewrite, what words do you change to convey meaning? In the end, is it “broadening the arts” if you release a poem under the name of a poet whose text was more like a starting point for what has ultimately become your own writing? Is it still her text if your rendering is a “thousand miles” from it? Or are you misrepresenting it?

The above details is just some of the reasons that a living poet (the dead ones have a harder time arguing) could be reluctant to have their work translated. This then comes down to who owns a text, and not in a readerly-writerly sense. A poet could quite naturally be interested in what kind of text comes out on the other end, because it has their name on it.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say you have an obligation to the text and author as a translator. That is, if your goal is to translate the author’s work. You must be loyal to the work in one way or another. Of course, what that loyalty entails differs from translator to translator, and theory to theory. A good example was given in a journal of translation. Here the translator chose not to literally translate the German word “gelb” to “yellow” in order to keep the musicality of the line “[g]old grey twilight”. However, a colleague they consulted argued for it to be “[y]ellow grey twilight”, because that’s what the text says. As the translator points out, he was willing to “make a small sacrifice in literalness to retain the music, whereas [his colleague] was willing to make a small sacrifice of the music to retain a more exact meaning”1.

Both argued for a particular point of view, but both placed value on loyalty to the text. As David Slavitt says about his work with the translation of Latin and Greek literature, when you translate poetry, you are the author’s partner. So when Fern puts a sledgehammer to his point by saying that some authors might complain if their greatest work was run by Google Translate, he is most likely right.

  1.  Elliot, Okla. ”The Art of Failure: Poetry in Translation”. Accessed 5th of April, 2018.

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