In an article for the LA Review of Books, Deborah Smith discusses the politics of literary translation and the backlash she received after winning the Man Booker International Prize as a first-time translator. The prize had recently been ‘revamped to give author and translator equal recognition’, reflecting the growing interest in literary translation.
While much of this new popularity is positive, Smith warns that increased attention on the act of translation threatens readers’ assumptions about literature in other languages, undermining ‘the myth of unmediated access to an original’.
‘To put it plainly,’ explains Smith, ‘people like to believe that they’ve read War and Peace, not “an English translation of War and Peace”’ Responses towards translators can be hostile and suspicious, and Smith, a young translator new to the game, was ‘bombarded with mistake-listing articles and emails’.
Smith makes a good point: at their best, we like to pretend that the translator leaves no trace, that the work is perfectly transformed from one language to another. The translator is like the goalie, at best their hard work should leave no evidence. We need a shift in attitude. We need to accept that translation is a tricky, imperfect business and celebrate the creative decisions that go into these new works of art.
Below are some of our favourite pieces in translation. Our thanks to Meghan McDowell, Deborah Smith, Maureen Freely, May-Brit Akerholt, Jordan Stump and Polly Barton for the creative destruction required to translate these beautiful pieces into English.
Korean: Deborah Smith translated ‘The Fruit of My Woman’ by Hang Kang from the Korean in 2016. The novella that it seeded, ‘The Vegetarian’ went on to win the Man Booker International Prize that year. In the story, a young man observes helplessly as his wife degenerates:
‘I staggered back and stared at her body. More than half of her once-thick armpit hair had fallen out, and the colour had leached from her brown nipples, formerly soft and tender.’
Spanish: Alejandro Zambra’s ‘Reading Comprehension Text No. 2’, was translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. It examines a young Chilean man’s marriage and divorce, concludes by testing readers on their understanding:
‘1. The general tone of this story is: a) Melancholic b) Comic c) Parodic d) Sarcastic e) Nostalgic’.
Turkish: Translated by Maureen Freely, Orhan Pamuk’s ‘A Religious Conversation’ follows two Muslim men have a heated discussion about whether girls with covered heads should be allowed to attend school.
‘And if we succeed in degrading our Women, aren’t we also running the risk of – pardon my language – turning ourselves into pimps?’
‘A restlessness has come over me. I don’t know what it is, but the restlessness aches in my left arm, in my fingers. I don’t go out anymore. I don’t know why, but it is several months since I was last outside the door. It is this restlessness.’
French: Jordan Stump translated Marie NDiaye’s novel Ladivine from the French. In the extract, a young family on holiday struggle and bicker; the mother worried they are being tailed by ominous forces.
‘This was their first time away from Europe as a family, and after three days they couldn’t help feeling that, by an infuriating irony of fate, their troubles were multiplying in direct proportion to the care they’d put into planning their stay, as if in this country earnestness were a thing to be punished, and quiet enthusiasm, simplicity and worthiness generally.’
Japenese: Translated by Polly Barton, In Misumi Kubo’s ‘From the Left Bank of the Flu’, two brothers reunite to bury their estranged father – some Buddhist small print means they have to pay for two funerals for a man they doubt deserves one.
‘On the day of the funeral, Takashi spotted me as I came through the ticket barriers and waved, a pack of cigarettes in his hand. “I thought I’d chuck these in dad’s coffin for him,” he said.’
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