‘Know What I Mean?’ Feature on Translation

[First published in The Big Issue #512, May 2016]

Within the world of Anglophone publishing, two of the most-hyped books at the moment are Min Kamp, Vol 5 by Karl Ove Knausgård and Storia della Bambina Perduta by Elena Ferrante. Of course, Australian readers will be more familiar with their English titles, Some Rain Must Fall and The Story of the Lost Child. Less hyped are the translators responsible for their English-language versions, Donald Bartlett and Ann Goldstein respectively.

Goldstein’s situation is unique. Ferrante refuses to make any public appearances, and as a result readers have become acquainted with her translator instead. Goldstein has appeared at numerous writers’ festivals and will tour Australia in May. It’s wrong to say translators are completely overlooked, but they are often treated as secondary. Their names still appear on the book jacket, but usually in smaller type than the author’s, prompting the question: exactly how much praise should be given to the translator of a successful book?

Talking to early-career translator Australian Elizabeth Bryer, it’s clear a lot of work is put in – much like the invisible labour of editors – when it comes to producing a novel. Bryer is completing her first translation of a novel, La Sangre de la Aurora by Peruvian author Claudia Salazar Jiménez. She says the opportunity arose when she sent a “fangirl” email to Jiménez. And the move paid off – a close working relationship was established with the author and North American publisher Deep Vellum will release Bryer’s translation this year. For Bryer, it was a deep love of literature, language and other cultures that lead her to studying Spanish, and eventually a master’s degree in translation.

For American translator Eric Abrahamsen, his career path came about by accident. As well as running Beijing-based literary collective Paper Republic, he is the translator of 2013 novel 跑步穿过中关村 or Running Through Beijing, by Chinese writer Xu Zechen. He says it took him nearly 10 years of living in Beijing and studying Mandarin – a language that bears zero resemblance to English – to feel proficient. “Around the same time that I was not making it as a journalist, my Chinese was getting to the point where I could read some fiction, so I started reading for fun. I could hear the English in my head, and then I started writing that down. It was kind of a natural reaction.”

The art of translation, of course, is not simply transcribing, word for word, a text from one language to another. In terms of how much artistic licence is allowed, Bryer says this is a constant negotiation: “I usually find that my early drafts stick too closely to the source text’s sentence structure and Latinate vocab, so I do a lot of revising and rewriting of the translation itself, before going back to compare it with the source to ensure I haven’t strayed too far.”

For Abrahamsen, trying to match the rhythm of the original is important. Certain challenges arose when translating the dialogue-heavy Running Through Beijing: “It’s a fun, fast-paced novel with lots of slang, lots of people cussing each other,” he explains. “People are constantly tossing off speech as they turn to go, and you can’t just translate it into some big, clunky passage – a lot of Chinese slang doesn’t work very well in English.” Abrahamsen says he read a lot of the passages aloud when writing, in order to make it flow naturally.

Bryer says many judgement calls have to be made during the translation process, no more so than what to include and exclude. “At times meaning is conveyed more through form rather than content – and also on how that sentence structure is likely to be received in the reading culture of the translation as compared with the reading culture of the source text. “This, of course, is not an exact science!” she is keen to stress. “It’s very much filtered through the translator’s perceptions of all these things, and the weight the translator gives to each of them.”

The notion of subjectivity leads to an interesting question: If we don’t connect with a book in translation, who is to blame, author or translator? “There are a lot of bad translations out there, not necessarily unreadable stuff, but stuff that doesn’t have any voice corresponding to the Chinese at all,” Abrahamsen says. “So people read the book and think: ‘It wasn’t bad but I don’t see what the fuss is about.’ It’s because the voice has been stripped away.” This is why he believes it’s important to translate only authors whose work he has an affinity for, which means choosing a select few.

The two bestselling authors mentioned earlier, a Norwegian and an Italian, suggest, perhaps, a Eurocentric slant within English reading cultures. Even within the world of translation, it’s important to interrogate which languages are privileged. As Bryer points out: “In an ideal world each language would be amply represented… What about indigenous and minority or even just non-white voices? Which authors are garnering the most cultural capital and are being championed through translation?” Important words to keep in mind next time you scan your bookshelf for gaps.