Posted by on Mar 16, 2015 | No Comments
The Which-Word-Craft of Literary Translation

Part of the pleasure of crafting a well-conceived translation comes with making a choice. The process of successful translation requires a harmonious combination of instinctive response and the faculty of the intellect. Often there is an immediate feeling for the correct word in the target language, but this is inevitably followed by alternatives and eventually a careful choice must be made. Unlike creative writers, who may feel themselves imbued with an unanticipated creative impulse in moments of inspiration, the translator must always work within limited constraints- constraints both of form and content. The boundaries of an idea must be respected and, what is more, effectively communicated. Then the style of the original piece should be considered. Does the rhetoric that has been employed require imitation? Is there a worthy imitation to be found in the target language? How readily and successfully can one idiom replace another? If these choices are made after careful consideration then gradually a translation will build block by block upon itself, forming its own sense of style and spirit, breathing life breath into a new body of work, all the while communicating and emboldening the original piece.

A translation, then, is crafted piece by piece and the results can be remarkable. In 1969 French writer Georges Perec, a member of the Oulipo group of writer’s working within constraints, wrote a masterpiece entitled La Disparition. In it he refrains from using the most common letter in the French language: “e”.  In 1995 Gilbert Adair published a translation in English that also refrained from using this letter. A mighty task fulfilled, Adair, you might say was working with constraints on top of constraints. His work is certainly no more laudable than Perec’s, but it stands alone as a separate body of art. It is a puzzle that had been completed and consequently it has given some access for none French-reading Anglos into Perec’s delightful world and ideas. Adair’s work A Void transmits Perec’s ideas but simultaneously casts a different spell over the reader, for the ingredients of the English language are different to those in the French language.

Adair was rewarded for his efforts with the Scott Moncrieff Prize. There are numerous other awards in place to recognize the achievements of translators, such as: The PEN Promotes! Prize for literature in Translation, the (US) National Translation Award, The Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in Translation, the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize  and The John Dryden Translation Competition, to name a few.  You can find out about all of these and more here.

“The original is unfaithful to the translation.” Stated Jorge Luis Borges and perhaps he was humbly alluding to the fact that any one translation stands alone as a work of art separate from the original. But ultimately the unbreakable link remains and poets and novelists provide the fuel for the translator’s fire. With all the right ingredients, the magic occurs when you have beautiful words to translate into a beautiful language.

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