Why Translate?

This is a summary of the hugely entertaining and interesting session on literary translation that I mentioned earlier. Margaret Jull Costa (award-winning translator from Spanish and Portuguese, of José Saramago, Fernando Pessoa, Javier Marías, Bernardo Atxaga and many more) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including Primo Levi, Leopardi, Pasolini and most recently Elena Ferrante) were moderated by Boris Dralyuk (himself a translator of poetry and prose from Russian, including Andrei Kurkov and Tolstoy).

Margaret Jull Costa
Margaret Jull Costa

How did you get started in translation?

MJC: I was always useless at most subjects at school but fell in love with the translations I had to do for my Spanish A Levels and discovered I could do them. I then went on to study Spanish and Portuguese at university and was asked to translate some Garcia Marquez for a Granta magazine project – so I started at the very top.

AG: I fell into it more by accident. I fell in love with the Italian language and wanted to read Dante in the original. So I had Italian classes and at some point in 1992 was asked to read an Italian novel in the original by my boss, purely in order to reject it. But I loved it and translated part of it.

BD: My family was Russian-speaking, from Ukraine, but we came to the UK when I was a child, so I forgot all about Russian until I rediscovered it when I was 14. I then fell in love with the beauty of it, especially the poetry.

anngoldsteinWhich has been your most challenging translation project?

AG: All of them! There’s no such thing as an easy book – even the ones that seem easy are deceptive. Simplicity is sometimes harder to translate, because it can sound pedestrian and banal, while a difficult writer is easier to render into another language.

MJC: Poetry is very challenging. Especially since Spanish and Portuguese are very flowery languages and English isn’t at all, so you have to ‘unflower’ the lines. The syntax and grammar are much more rigid in English, too, while in Romance languages the place of words is more fluid, the pronouns are often dropped and so on.

BD: Dialogue is really hard to get right, to make it sound natural. You have to hear it in your head. I am currently translating stories by Isaac Babel set in my home town of Odessa. And it’s all this jargon and slang (this is where local knowledge really helps), but just so difficult to capture that flavour into English. I’ve gone for a slight American gangster tone.

Do you have a set routine?

MJC: I just sit down at my desk and work. I’m fortunate enough to be doing translations full-time – that’s my day job. I don’t know how you guys manage to do it on top of other jobs, because it can be quite exhausting. My desk is a mess, I surround myself with dictionaries, papers, notes.

AG: It is time-consuming and tiring. I work in the early morning, weekends and during my vacations, sometimes a little bit in the office. I use the internet a lot, not so much for dictionaries, but for extra research, Google images to see what an object might look like, or for further research.

dralyukborisBD: I work on it whenever I’m supposed to be doing something boring in the office. I too use the internet a lot, but I print out and edit on paper, it reads very differently then.

MJC: It is physically exhausting, playing with someone else’s words all day  – which is why interpreters at the UN get paid a lot.

Do you prefer living or dead authors?

We all prefer dead authors, because they are very quiet. But we have developed some lovely relationships with living authors – it is such a privilege and relationship of trust. I suppose they like talking to someone who knows their work so well and many are grateful to be translated into English – as long as they don’t think they know English better than you.

Do you read scholarly/critical works?

MJC: Only if I have to write an intro.

AG: I’m not scholarly at all, I don’t even have a degree in Italian. I know nothing at all about translation theory. But sometimes it can be helpful – for instance, I did ask the experts at the Primo Levi Centre in Turin.

BD: I would only read after doing the translation, so as not to taint my feelings.

What would be your dream project?

MJC: I’ve been lucky enough to have already worked on that – a 19th century Portuguese author Eça de Queiroz. I translated all his ten novels.

AG: I’ve fallen into everything by chance. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to translate Pasolini, but I became fascinated by him. And, although Primo Levi has been translated, I was delighted to become involved in a project to translate all of his oeuvre.

Who do you wish would get more attention?

AG: Leopardi – a few of his poems are well-known, but his quasi journal filled with philosophical observations Zibaldone is a massive work which deserves to be read more widely. Out of the contemporary writers, I’ve most enjoyed Alessandro Baricco. But let’s face it, translated fiction in general doesn’t get much attention.

Do you have a target audience in mind when you translate?

MJC: No, it’s a purely selfish pursuit. I translate what I enjoy reading.

How do you feel about retranslating the classics?

AG: After 50 years even very good translations can seem dated. There is always room for a new translation – the differences between the various versions can be astonishing. You have to approach your translation as if it will be the definitive one.

King's Place
King’s Place

Would you translate something you’re not passionate about?

Yes. [Laughter – implication being that it pays]

BD: I’d try to work up some passion about at least some aspects of the work and its author.

MJC: It can be hard if you don’t like the writer at all, but you don’t have to think he or she is a good writer, you can still do a good job.

AG: And you learn something even in those cases, something which will help you in those projects that you are passionate about.

How does your own style influence your translation?

MJC: That’s my greatest fear – that all the authors I translate will start to sound like me. Ultimately, it’s a little bit like being an actor – the charm of doing all the different voices.


19 thoughts on “Why Translate?”

    1. They were very impressive – and one thing they said really stood out for me: that they feel more connection with the literature of a particular country or culture than with the culture itself. In other words, you don’t have to be ‘an insider’ to do a great translation.

  1. Many thanks for sharing your write-up of this event, Marina. It’s interesting to see the translators responses to the question about their most challenging translation. Each project seems to present its own challenges, even something that appears fairly straightforward on the surface.

    1. They gave examples of working on the same piece of text in a group (a summer school for instance) and just how many different versions and interpretations there were, how enjoyable it was to build on each other’s knowledge. So clearly, even the simplest text can be perceived very differently by each one of us!

  2. Really interesting post; I always have such great respect for translators, because without them I couldn’t read all the books I love! And I loved the line “We all prefer dead authors, because they are very quiet” – fabulous!

    1. Translators are a pretty amazing bunch. I’ve had a stab at small bits of translation (fiction and technical texts) and there’s no doubt about which is harder!

  3. Such an interesting post. I’ve often thought that poetry must be particularly tricky to translate – the sound of language is so often part of it, let alone its nuances. Thanks for sharing this, Marina.

    1. One interesting thing they mentioned (I didn’ have space or time to do a full write-up) was that each poem dictates its own method for translation: in some, it’s all about the rhythm and musicality, in others it’s all about the content or puns etc.

      1. It must be a particular skill. Perhaps translators who are poets specialise in it although I can see that would present its own challenges. Too easy to rewrite the work.

  4. Oh, this is absolutely fascinating, Marina Sofia! So often, we take translation for granted, but it’s complex. And it requires that the translator have real passion for the work. It certainly sounds as though these people have that.

    1. I agree that we so often don’t notice the translation unless it is bad or some word or term jars. I was certainly amazed at the passion these translators have for their work and for doing the best possible job of rendering meaning as accurately and beautifully as possible.

      1. Enjoyed this post. I always wonder how I can determine if a translation is bad since I only read/speak English. I can judge writing as bad English or bad writing if it is English, but what do I do with translated literature? Just how good was the original?

        1. This is tricky, indeed. I always feel like that about Russians or other languages. And yet I have favourite translations of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky… they just ‘sound right’, even though they may not be quite the closest to the original. So of course I worry that my ‘diluted’ version of Dostoevsky is probably nothing like the real thing.

    1. That’s a lovely thing to say – although I have to admit I don’t read nearly as much work in translation as one might expect, given my international nomadic background.

        1. I could do better. And there are plenty of languages with splendid literatures that I seem to shun: Spanish, Russian, Italian, Arabic. Well, not shun exactly, but they are not my first, most obvious choice.

  5. Fascinating post Marina – thank you so much for sharing – it’s extremely important translators receive the recognition & appreciation they so obviously deserve – especially by someone like myself only speaking English.

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