A new five-part series on how literary translators select their works and a few other quick literary updates.
To old friends: thank you for your patience with my three-month newsletter break. As I mentioned in my historical fiction newsletter last week, along with my social media break, this hiatus has been fantastic for my reading, writing, translating, and teaching practices. I’ve even been able to focus on a major and long-overdue backyard makeover project. There will definitely be more essay-ish stuff (for publication elsewhere, not in these newsletters) about the latter—including details about our DIY solar rain chain fountain, raised vegetable beds, ornamental grasses, meditation path, and more—in the near future. In the meantime, if this is your kind of thing, you might like my Millions essay on writing and gardening from 2018.
New reader? Browse through the free newsletter archives and subscribe.
To new friends: welcome, and I hope you’ll find this newsletter interesting, fun, thought-provoking, and useful enough to share with other like-minded friends.
One note, though. As I’m starting a Ph.D. program next month, this newsletter will be on a monthly cadence rather than the weekly cadence it was before the break.
Any literary translator who has published a book has encountered this question in interviews and conversations. And each literary translation has its unique origin story. Yes, even those classics that get translated every decade or so.
That said, a few criteria often stand out in such origin stories. I’d like to explore about five such through a series of newsletters because I can’t fit them all into this edition. My hope is that understanding them might deepen our enjoyment and appreciation of translated works and also help us articulate our preferences as readers and/or literary translators with more clarity.
The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve appreciated how there’s no single right reason for why a translator might select their works. I see these various reasons as changing along the broader continuum of a translator’s evolutionary journey. And that is exactly how it should be. The works we undertake should change us as human beings and as artists, even as we select and create them.
#1 Personal Connection
Almost all informal and early literary translation work begins because the translator has some connection with the author or their works. Sometimes, this is a direct familial, institutional, or friendship-based relationship. More often, that deep and near-mystical connection between a reader and a work has moved them profoundly and, possibly, even become a formative life experience.
This is especially true with translators who have worked on multiple books by the same author, so much so that the connection becomes part of the translator’s own origin story.
It is my engagement with his texts that has rendered me, definitively, a translator, and this novel activity in my creative life has revealed the inherent instability not only of language but of life. In undertaking the task of choosing English words to take the place of his Italian ones, I am ever thankful and forever changed.Lahiri, Jhumpa. “The Book That Taught Me What Translation Was.” The New Yorker, November 6, 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-book-that-taught-me-what-translation-was.
Gregory Rabassa had a special relationship with Julio Cortázar (among others), who had similar tastes in jazz music and wordplay.
In the case of Cortázar, Mr. Rabassa developed a relationship with him, and they became good friends, spending days and nights listening to 78’s of Count Basie and Lester Young. Mr. Rabassa translated Luis Rafael Sánchez and lounged with him on the beaches of Puerto Rico. And after translating ”Seven Serpents and Seven Moons” by Demetrio Aguilera-Malta, a former Ecuadorian ambassador to Mexico, he ended up with one of the author’s paintings hanging on his apartment wall.
Yet Mr. Rabassa has also produced brilliant translations without developing any relationship with the author. Jorge Armado and Mr. García Márquez wanted nothing to do with their books in English.Bast, Andrew. “A Translator’s Long Journey, Page by Page.” The New Yorker, May 25, 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/25/books/a-translator-s-long-journey-page-by-page.html.
Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma, whom I once interviewed, has talked about how he came to love and translate the Tamil classic, Tiruvalluvar’s Tirukkural, while studying with his Tamil teacher.
And so when I came to the point where I was able to read The Kural, I read it with my Tamil teacher during a Fulbright year in 2003-2004 as part of a larger project in which I was interested in how people relate to places, the relationship between people and land in literature as well as in daily speech. And so one of the literary works we studied was The Kural. And even then, I was primarily interested in entering the work as fully as I can. For instance, I learned how to compose in the same poetic form, the kural venba that Thiruvalluvar uses in his book. Not because I had any fantasy that I could become a great poet in Tamil, let alone in this particularly rigorous and concise form, but because it just gave me a way to enter into the Tamil and into the language and the poetics as fully as I can. But like I say, I had no intention, I didn’t even have the thought, at the time of translating the book.Pruiksma, Thomas Hitoshi. “#DesiCraftChat: Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma on the Inner Journey of a Literary Translator.” Interview by Jenny Bhatt. Desi Books, January 19, 2022. https://desibooks.co/desicraftchat-thomas-hitoshi-pruiksma/.
My first-ever published translation was a selection of short stories by Dhumketu, a Gujarati short story pioneer whose works I’d grown up hearing about from my mother. When she passed away in 2014, I inherited her entire personal library, including all his fiction. As I’ve mentioned in interviews, during her last years, we had been discussing starting a co-translation project for some of his short stories. But I had other writing projects of my own. So, when I finally began translating Dhumketu after her passing, it was also a way to honor my late mother’s wishes.
The bonus was that I came to appreciate Dhumketu’s careful craft, timeless themes, and how he changed the landscape of the modern Gujarati short story. Yes, he was a male writer of his time and place. So his works did not influence my own writing. But working with him, in a manner of speaking, opened up this entire curiosity zone about Gujarati literature for me because I discovered my own huge knowledge gaps. And when the translation unexpectedly caught an agent’s and then a publisher’s attention, it became, well, life-changing for me.
It could be argued, given how much effort is required for very little return, reward, or recognition, that all literary translations must be labors of love driven by some form of personal connection. But this is not always the case. I know of prolific translators with over fifty titles to their credit who do not connect personally with each of their works in any of the above ways. So it is certainly not any kind of prerequisite for a viable and sustainable career as a literary translator. Nor does this kind of author/book and translator connection predicate the quality or merits of the translation itself.
It is also possible that too close of a personal attachment might hinder a translator, especially one still early in their journey, in their ability to approach a text with the kind of critical thinking it might need.
Personal Connection as Fuel and Inspiration
Nevertheless, this tends to be the most common reason a literary translator commits multiple years of their life to a particular project. All at the high risk of little to no returns, rewards, and recognition because the original authors are either no longer alive (and most of the big book awards require the original author to be around still) or unknown in the target language readership. Sometimes, they’re barely known in the source language readership, as with my translation.
Again, this tends to be more often the case with emerging or new translators because that personal connection with the work fuels them with energy and determination. It serves as an inspiration for their own creativity so that they might go beyond their comfort zone. And it empowers them with the belief that they are doing something of value, no matter how the rest of the world might receive it.
Closing Thoughts (for now)
In the coming editions, I’d like to explore other reasons, such as aesthetic pleasure, literary activism, skill development, and portfolio diversification. Again, I’ll reiterate that there is no single right reason. No hierarchy among these either. And, of course, it’s entirely probable that a work appeals to us for a combination of these reasons too.
If you’re a literary translator, I’d love to know about a work you are considering or have translated because of a personal connection. Or, if you’re a reader of translated works, I’m curious whether the translator’s personal connection to the text alters how you approach its reading. Please let me know in the comments section below.
Some Quick Literary Updates
Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.
In particular, I went down several delightful rabbit holes related to The Arabian Nights (or, for accuracy, One Thousand and One Nights, because the stories originated from regions beyond Arabia.) This is likely one of the most (mis)translated texts after the Bible. A fascinating history that also reveals much about how race, gender, sexual orientation, and other power dynamics influenced every translation. More on this particular text and its many translations in a few weeks.