WAAT #04: What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation


Literary translation is about a particular kind of aesthetic pleasure and attentiveness to literature even as it opens us up to worlds we couldn’t explore in any other way.

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When people ask what really draws me to literary translation, I often joke, “Well, it’s definitely not the money.” What we get paid, especially in the non-Western publishing world, is not at all commensurate with the effort, art, and craft involved. So I was happy to read a good essay this week on the latter points by Paul Fond at Columbia Magazine. Plenty to agree with, especially:

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“When you read a translation it doesn’t mean it’s a secondary experience. It doesn’t mean you’re not reading the author. It means you are reading the product of two authors: the original author and the translator, who has to read the text, interpret it, and regenerate it in terms that make linguistic sense.” —Mark Polizzotti

“It’s rewriting a literary work. You write the same book but in a different language, which means it’s not the same book anymore. It’s a sibling. It’s not a twin.” —Katrine Øgaard Jensen

“Translation affords opportunities to think about what English can do and what English can be asked to do. It forces you to solve aesthetic problems that you wouldn’t have to solve writing your own material.” —Susan Bernofsky

“Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.” —Italo Calvino

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I got a couple of responses to last week’s newsletter about the reading-and-journaling approach. Next week, I’ll share an example from when I translated a particular short story. In the meantime, here’s the story at Asymptote Journal. The author did some interesting things with the opening and the narrative voice and, while translating, it helped me appreciate the story in a way that I never would have otherwise. Oh, there’s a bit of audio there of me reading in the original Gujarati too.

I’ll close with something else I say in a (more earnest) response to the question mentioned at the beginning. Translators come to the discipline because of our love for language, culture, or a particular writer’s work; our need to inhabit a literary work in ways that only the act of translation will allow; or simply because we only find ourselves and our kind in books written in our mother tongues. Whatever the reasons drawing us to translation, what keeps us there are the myriad pleasures and challenges of weighing and playing with language to carefully transplant a story and its world. Every translator I know has expressed how seriously they take this responsibility and how hard they work at it. Yet, most translators are not recognized or compensated adequately. This will only change if more readers embrace works in translation.

So my request to you this week: please give a shoutout to a translated work—contemporary or classic—that you’ve recently read and loved.

Literary translations barely get any media attention. Your tweet or post could help that book find some new readers. Consider it a form of public service, if you will. And, if you tag me (social links below), I’ll share it on too.

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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