A translator’s introduction or note contextualizes their approach to the book they’ve translated, makes them visible as a co-creator of the work, and is, often, a work of art in itself.
Long before the idea of even becoming a literary translator professionally had occurred to me, my idea of what exactly being a literary translator meant came from reading the notes or introductions to translated novels. Looking back now, I see how much the good ones were like masterclasses in themselves. If you’re a reader of translated works, you will likely have your own favorites. I’ll share a handful of mine below but let’s talk very briefly about why these matter at all.
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I’ll stay away, for now, from the debate about whether a translator should have an introduction (thereby placing themselves even before the author) or an afterword. There are different schools of thought on this matter and both have valid points.
Speaking for myself, I love lengthy introductions to novels even when they’re not translations. For example, I love collecting those Oxford’s World Classics editions, where they have an expert, well-known author re-introduce the work to us with new contexts and interpretations. To me, this kind of paratext deepens my enjoyment of the book itself.
And, with translations, such contextualizing matters all the more. For example, with my translation of the Gujarati short story pioneer, Dhumketu, I wanted to introduce not only him to a non-Gujarati readership but also the Gujarati short story form as it had evolved from oral traditions to his time. I ran out of space to talk about my translation approaches with his deeply colloquial Gujarati because this is the first ever English translation of this work and both my publisher and I felt that a proper introduction was necessary. You can read the entire excerpt at Lit Hub.
Some translators like to use that introductory space to discuss their specific translation approaches. This is what Jennifer Croft did recently with the introduction to her translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob. You can read that introduction at Lit Hub too. I love, also, how Croft gives a shoutout to other translators there like Chantal Wright, Susan Bernofsky, Chamini Abesiriwardhane Kulathunga, Walter Benjamin, Kate Briggs, and others. So this introduction is, in many ways, an ongoing conversation between Croft and these other translators too.
Language can’t be separated from the people who create and connect with one another through it. I don’t share Benjamin’s faith in a pure language to come. But I do think he’s right that it is syntax that ushers the original work into its “afterlife,” as he calls it.
The words of the text are the embodiment of its past. Its sentences, on the other hand, lead the way into its future, and in so doing, they also pass through the vast, dynamic labyrinth of the translator’s imagination.Jennifer Croft, introduction to her translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s introduction to Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a classic in its own right. They talk about translation in general and then their specific approach with this book. Along the way, they give us an entire philosophy on the art and craft of literary translation. This one is a longer excerpt but it’s just their first paragraph. The entire introduction is so good that I often revisit it. In fact, I would love for some publisher to just publish an essay anthology that consists of notes like this one.
It is often said that a good translation is one that “does not feel like a translation,” one that reads “smoothly” in “idiomatic” English. But who determines the standard of the idiomatic, and why should it be applied to something so idiolectic as a great work of literature? Is Melville idiomatic? Is Faulkner? Is Beckett? Those who raise the question of the “idiomatic” in translation do not seem to realize that they are imposing their own, often very narrow, limits on the original. A translator who turns a great original into a patchwork of ready-made “contemporary” phrases, with no regard for its particular tone, rhythm, or character, and claims that that is “how Tolstoy would have written today in English,” betrays both English and Tolstoy. Translation is not the transfer of a detachable “meaning” from one language to another, for the simple reason that in literature there is no meaning detachable from the words that express it. Translation is a dialogue between two languages. It occurs in a space between two languages, and most often between two historical moments. Much of the real value of translation as an art comes from that unique situation. It is not exclusively the language of arrival or the time of the translator and reader that should be privileged. We all know, in the case of War and Peace, that we are reading a nineteenth-century Russian novel. That fact allows the twenty-first century translator a different range of possibilities than may exist for a twenty-first century writer. It allows for the enrichment of the translator’s own language, rather than the imposition of his language on the original.Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s introduction to Tolstoy’s War and Peace
Emily Wilson gave us both an introduction and a translator’s note to her translation of Homer’s Odyssey. The introduction is a historical and sociopolitical contextualization of the work, along with a good bit of insightful literary criticism. The translator’s note is more about her nuanced and painstaking approaches because this text has been translated so many times now that it’s necessary to articulate both why it needs to be translated for a contemporary readership again and how her approach differs from earlier ones. This front matter alone is gold and I’m just giving you a tiny glimmer of it below.
It is traditional in statements like this Translator’s Note to bewail one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original. Like many contemporary translation theorists, I believe that we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation. My translation is, like all translations, an entirely different text from the original poem. Translation always, necessarily, involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original. The gendered metaphor of the “faithful” translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of The Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance. I have taken very seriously the task of understanding the language of the original text as deeply as I can, and working through what Homer may have meant in archaic and classical Greece. I have also taken seriously the task of creating a new and coherent English text, which conveys something of that understanding but operates within an entirely different cultural context. The Homeric text grows inside my translation, like Athena’s olive tree inside the bed made by Odysseus, “with delicate long leaves, full-grown and green, / as sturdy as a pillar.”Emily Wilson’s translator’s note to her translation of Homer’s Odyssey.
One important thing all such introductions and notes do is make the role of the translator more visible. Yet, apparently, only about 15-20% of translations carry such prefaces or notes. An even lesser percentage of those talk about the actual translation approaches or processes. There are various possible reasons for this: publisher’s policy, cultural background, source text complexity, and even the translator’s humility. I hope we’ll get to see more and more because the best ones, like those above, are educational, enlightening, and works of art in themselves. And, if you’re planning to review a translation, the translator’s introduction is always a terrific resource.
Let me know about your favorite translators’ introductions or notes or your thoughts on the above. You can also share on social media and tag me if you like.