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Sylvia Thompson

Invisible Art


‘If we didn’t exist, there would be a silence’: readers of novels written in foreign languages are at the mercy of the translator. Sylvia Thompson looks at the work of such literary midwives.

‘The author with his language creates national literature; world literature is produced by translators.” This bold statement by the Portuguese novelist, José Saramago, might provide succour to literary translators, noble labourers whose work often is most highly esteemed when it is least visible. While books by European writers such as the Czech novelist Ivan Klima (whose translators into English, Gerard and Alice Turner – working under the pseudonym A.G. Brain – live in Ireland) and Norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun (translators into English include Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass) are becoming more widely read, reviewed and talked about, the translators of these works go unnoticed to the extent that many readers can’t recall their names.

Speak to the translators themselves and you are instantly told how such work is a “recipe for poverty” or a “labour of love”. Writer and translator Gabriel Rosenstock describes members of the profession as “badly-paid literary midwives”.

The most recent issue of the newsletter Translation Ireland, (published by the Irish Translator’s Association/Cumann Aistritheoirí na hÉireann) reprinted a quote about translators from the internet: “Many critics, no defenders,/Translators have but two regrets:/ When they hit, no one remembers,/ When they miss, no one forgets.”

One reason for the lack of prominence of literary translators in this part of the world is because, in spite of our Gaelic heritage, we remain very Anglo-centric in our view of the world.

Marc Caball, director of Ireland Literature Exchange, which promotes Irish literature abroad and encourages translations of foreign literary works into English a nd Irish – believes that the cultural mindset of the Anglo-Saxon world simply doesn’t value the art of translation.

“If you live in a a country like Denmark, which has about the same population as Ireland, a different intellectual premise exists which is based on an interdependency and mutuality with the outside world,” he says. About 80 per cent of books in a Danish bookshop are translated.

In other European countries, the translators of important works by Shakespeare, Joyce and Beckett are familiar names in literary circles. Here, in contrast, the overall purchase of translated works is small (three per cent of the publishing output in Ireland, according to a EC survey in 1991) and the recognition of translators is minimal.

“We don’t see translation as being particularly necessary because we have access to a huge cultural space. English embraces a vast variety of cultural expressions from India to Australia, Canada, America as well as here and in Britain,” observes Caball.

Hans-Christian Oeser, a Dublin-based literary translator from English to German, and winner in 1997 of the prestigeous Aristeion prize for his translation of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, believes this dominance of English language literary works leaves us less open to diverse cultural expressions from Europe and other parts of the world. This indifference is, in turn, reflected in Irish publishers’ reluctance to include translated works on their lists.

“Even in a country like Ireland where the translation between Irish and English has always been to the fore and where contacts with continental Europe go back to the early Middle Ages, the lack of inward translation (i.e. from other languages to English and Irish) can’t be explained away by the smallness of the country,” Oeser says. “I believe that there is a certain amount of smugness here that everything Irish is hailed as the greatest, biggest and best, while publishers rarely are willing to take the risk of publishing translated works.” (Oeser is, however, quick to praise the level of outward translation from Ireland, due both to the burgeoning writing scene and the grantaid available to foreign publishers from ILE). Dedalus Press, run by John F. Deane, is an exception.

As part of its Poetry Europe initiative, Dedalus publishes bilingual collections (with the poem in the original language printed on the facing page to the translated version) of work by such eminent living poets as Tomas Transtromer from Sweden (translator: Robin Fulton), Ernest Jandl from Austria (translator: Michael Hamburger) and Anise Koltz from Luxembourg (to be published in March, translator, John F. Deane).

In Britain, Harvill Press (who first published the best-selling Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg, translated from Danish to English by F. David) is one of the few publishers who concentrate on translated works of fiction.

When it comes to translations of contemporary Irish writers into other languages, the scene is buoyant. Since the establishment of ILE in 1994, more than 150 books have been translated to languages as diverse as Croatian (a collection of short stories by Irish-language writers including Alan Titley and Micheaĺ Ó Conghaile, translator: Ranko Natasovic), Brazilian Portuguese (Sun- rise With Sea Monster by Neil Jordan, translator: Lidia Cavalcante), Dutch (Songdogs by Colum McCann, translator: Frans van der Wiel), Japanese (The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín, translator: Noriko Ito) and Danish (Mother Of Pearl by Mary Morrissy, translator: Jorgen Nielsen).

And while translators may still berate the length o f time it takes publishers to make a final decision on works to be translated, the interest is nonetheless sustained.

The relationship between translators and writers is a delicate one. While some writers feel the very act of translation is an impossibility in itself, others – particularly poets – believe that linguistic relationships are created through translation.

“Ultimately, you can’t transfer a work of art from one language to another. What happens is that it becomes a new work of art and you can only hope that it will at least reflect the original,” says novelist and Irish Times literary editor John Banville, who has been told some of the Japanese translations of his work have been very poor, while the French translations are superb. “You simply have to trust the translator and hope for the best,” he adds. The Czech writer, Milan Kundera, remains one of translators’ fiercist critics. In his book, Testaments Betrayed, translated by Linda Asher, he wrote “the need to use another word in place of the more obvious, more simple, more neutral one may be called the synonymising reflex – a reflex of nearly all translators … [and while it] seems innocent, its systematic quality inevitably smudges the original idea.”

Translators reply that they sometimes toil for hours over one specific word. “Style comes by osmosis, it can’t be done rationally,” says Gerard Turner. “The first sentence is the greatest problem for me as it will point to the character, setting, atmosphere, style and central theme of the book. To recreate that first sentence entails all the major problems you will encounter in the course of the whole book,” says Hans-Christian Oeser.

Choosing the most appropriate vernacular language, idiolect or linguistic register, and syntax are other issues literary translators face. “We are the point of contact between two literatures, two languages and two cultures, and while in one sense we are on the periphery of each, we are central too. If we didn’t exist, there would be a silence,” says Oeser.

For Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, the translation of her poetry has a number of facets. “While my basic audience is the Irish reading public, there is a secondary audience in Ireland who read the English version and then realise they can understand more of the original Irish poem than they thought.

“On another level when my poems are translated into Russian, Greek, Danish and even Japanese, it places Irish alongside these languages and I get a great personal kick out of this. In so doing, it also removes the conflictual relationship with English and recreates the direct links with foreign languages that were part of our ancient Gaelic history.

“When work has been badly translated – which happens sometimes – I’m inclined to have a very laissez-faire approach and let other translators go on to correct their colleagues’ mistakes.”

Overall, Ní Dhomhnaill has great respect for translators. She concludes: “There is a great humility about being a good translator. It’s an art rather than a craft and I’m aware of how it involves the most intense act of reading.”

Hans-Christian Oeser, a Dublin-based translator from English into German, believes the dominance of English language literary works leaves us less open to diverse cultural expressions from outside.

(The Irish Times, 20. Januar 1998)

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