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How do authors view translators? Literary translation vs. certified translation

Updated: Apr 11, 2019


A certified translation means what appears in the target language is absolutely accurate. It has to be this when official documents are translated for administrative procedures. But translating a novel is quite a different matter, where the imagination is harder at work rendering sometimes highly culturally specific ideas comprehensible to foreign readers.

I did once start translating a novel, and although I had enjoyed reading it immensely, it just didn’t work out for me somehow. I think I’ll stick to certified translation for now.

In an ideal world for certified translators - and certainly a more boring one - each word would have its exact correspondence in all languages and to translate it would simply be a matter of knowing these equivalences in the two languages concerned. This was the strange conviction that did traditionally prevailed in the publishing world, where the name of the literary translator did not appear on the cover of the book. That was the undisputed stage of the all-powerful author, the translator was demoted to a small note on the inside. Translating, of course, is more than just finding the words that express the meaning of what is being said; it also consists of evoking, transferring ambiguities and metaphors, dealing with the conception of the world contained in each language, mediating in short between two interlocutors who cannot establish a direct relationship because of the barrier imposed by the language. And not only that. Each translation is a product of its time, so the understanding of a text varies not only from translator to translator and from culture to culture, but also from time to time.

Certified translations should of course remain consistent throughout different times and cultures, but we can see that in the world of literature, things are altogether more complicated.

Ludwig Lewisohn expressed the ideal to which translation tends, referring specifically to poetry, in which everything is complicated further: "The poem that is translated", he pointed out, "must become that which the original poet would have written if the translator's language were his own". Cicero advised many centuries earlier to translate more "as an orator" than "as an interpreter" and to give the reader not the literal translation of the words, but their meaning.

Lewisohn considered that the art of the translator was more difficult even than that of the actor and that of the musician. "In the translation, the original must be interpreted in a way that has never been conceived by the author," he said, according to Rafael Lozano's translation. Miguel Sáenz, the high-priest of today's Spanish translators, sums it up clearly when he states that "the writer is sold" because the comprehension of her books in languages other than her own depends entirely on third parties, which is why he recommends "openness and comprehension on both sides".

Günter Grass, a good friend of Sáenz, whom he also translated, understood this need for comprehension like no one else, and that is why he organised, together with his German publisher, some famous meetings with the translators of his works into other languages, as well as some more casual affairs where he cooked or shared many a drink with them drink. More difficult to deal with was Thomas Bernhard, who thought that every translated book was "like a corpse destroyed by a car until it became unrecognisable". Perhaps this is one writer who would a prefer a certified translation in order to ensure its accuracy! Despite his comments, he apparently kept many versions of his books in different languages at his home (today a museum).

A translator of German and English, Miguel Sáenz had a special chemistry with Salman Rushdie, whom he saw less than he would have liked after the fatwa of the Iranian regime. For perfect symbiosis, however, there is Joao Guimaraes Rosa and his Italian translator, Edoardo Bizzarri, who, in the former’s opinion, offered an improved version of himself. Similarly, Henry Roth allowed Mario Materassi to read part of the novel sequence that he was only willing to publish in English after his death. Peter Handke said he preferred his own novels written in French by Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt, an assertion that must have filled the translator with pride.

Author-translator relations have seen just about everything imaginable, and the doctoral thesis that Claudia Toda has just presented at the University of Salamanca gathers many of these stories together. It is said that Alfredo Bryce Echenique once reproached an interpreter who had killed off a character of his who did not die in the original text, a flagrant violation of the first commandment of every translator: loyalty to the original text. Borges translated great writers such as Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and he turned out excessive and unusual works, and free of charge.

For Javier Marías, his translation of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is probably the best text he has ever written. Baudelaire translated Poe admirably, as did Cortázar of Yourcenar’s work (Memoirs of Hadrian), Pasternak of Shakespeare, Pedro Salinas of Proust and Musset, Jorge Guillén of Valéry (The Marine Cemetery) and Pavese of Melville’s Moby Dick. The poet Luis Antonio de Villena is the author of an extensive collection of versions of Wilde, Verlaine, Ted Hughes and many other authors.

Milan Kundera is known, along with Grass, for caring for and helping his translators. Other writers behave like sadists with them, and more than one nor two translators have succumbed to a nervous depression due to the continuous and capricious amendments required (from the authors or their spouses).

Ramón Buenaventura did not get to that extreme, but the intransigent character shown by Jonathan Franzen when translating The Corrections into Spanish did cause him a great deal of anger. Enrique de Hériz, who took charge of the recent Purity, published in Spain by Salamandra, apparently found a different Franzen, who was "kind" and even "gentlemanly" in the e-mails they exchanged. He was willing to look for solutions "and even apologized for possible errors of imprecision on his part, for what were clearly inabilities of comprehension" by the translator.

The fundamental challenge with Purity, explains De Hériz, was to maintain the duality of "complex writing/transparent reading" and to ensure "that the entire text was impregnated with the original’s sense of humour, which was subtle and not always in the foreground".

Javier Calvo has dedicated the most recent of his works to investigating the invisible profession of translation. El fantasma en el libro [The Ghost in the Book], published in March 2016, analyses, as he himself advances, a worrying drift that displaces literary translation, until now "the sister of poetry and rhetoric", towards a consideration of a mere "editorial service based on linguistic competence and increasingly valued at a lower level".

The second part of El fantasma en el libro deals with the challenges facing translation today. Calvo is in favour of not maintaining any contact with the writer whose work he is translating. Doing so not only seems to him to be an easy way to resolve doubts, but "distorts the final result and subordinates the translator's criteria to those of the author himself, who are not always necessarily the best".

The Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vázquez, who also practices translation, jokes that, since he began working on dead writers (John Hersey, Victor Hugo and E. M. Forster among others), he became accustomed to having no contact with them. With one exception, the Welshman Richard Gwyn - translator himself of Latin American authors - to whom he revealed a mistake in his novel The Vagabond’s Breakfast.

Spain has produced great translators who, in turn, were themselves authors. José María Valverde, Carlos Pujol, Consuelo Berges, Mariano Antolín Rato and, more recently, the aforementioned Enrique de Hériz and Javier Calvo have written remarkable books, while other colleagues have remained within the margins of their profession. Other prominent names include - among many others - Esther Benítez, Miguel Martínez-Lage, María Teresa Gallego and Jordi Fibla, recently awarded the National Prize for his translation work as a whole.

Fibla is only proud of about 100 of the many texts he has had to turn into Spanish for economic reasons. Indeed, Spain is not a good country to be a translator; before the crisis and now, the industry is full of "writers forced to subsist by means of poorly paid translations in general", as Miguel Sáenz points out.

Of all the hybrid creatures between writer and translator, the most unusual is surely that of the author who translates himself. T. S. Eliot was responsible for a surprisingly blunt French version of The Waste Land, quite the opposite of James Joyce, co-author of a French translation of his Ulysses that swerves from the meticulous to the extreme; real "nonsense" - to quote José María Valverde, distinguished translator of the work into Spanish - that reveals the obsession of the Irishman to demonstrate his knowledge of French slang, and yet also clarifies the meaning of many difficult passages of the original text.

Miguel Sáenz is of the opinion that, in general, authors are not good translators of their own creation, essentially due to the lack of the necessary distance. As he once wrote, "at best - and Samuel Beckett is the best - the result is a new work, different from the original, a translation that no independent translator would have dared to do."

Then there is the strange phenomenon of a work that, "in reality, has not been translated, but has two versions [in English and French in the case of Beckett], without it sometimes even being known which is the original". Enrique de Hériz, author of books such as Lies and The Manual of Darkness, is clear: not even "under torture" would he translate himself. "I have never taken less than five years to write a novel. When he receives the good news that one of his works is going to be translated into one of the languages he knows, the first thing he does is ask the translator to "forget" about him. "So that he doesn't work with the feeling that I'm looking over his shoulder at the result.”

Well, we see his point, but we encourage you to look over our shoulder in our work. We always have our work proofread by a colleague and then send a draft translation to the client to check they are happy with everything, only then do we go on to provide a certified translation, which can be used for official procedures. So, if you need a high-quality certified translation service, at the guaranteed lowest price, just get in touch! We’ll leave the literary stuff to the experts, and perhaps our leisure time. Thanks for reading.

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