Book Covers

Regular visitors to the Chawed Rosin are probably aware that literary translation is a grievously misunderstood profession. Many people who have never given the matter much thought think of translating as a sort of mechanical activity, a process of substituting a word from one language with a word from another.

I think of a translator as a very particular kind of performance artist, not unlike a musician or an actor. Like a musician’s score or an actor’s script, a text to be translated is the original creation of one person or group of people that is then interpreted by another when it’s translated. A translator brings a work of literature to life for a new readership just as an actor brings the work of a playwright to life for a new audience.

Once this similarity between translation and other kinds of performing arts is perceived, certain misconceptions about translation seem to clear themselves up. For example, although translation does require technical knowledge of vocabulary, punctuation, etc.,  it is not the sum of its technical parts any more than a piece of music is merely the sum of its notes. Just as the performance of a demanding piece of music will be partially judged on the technical skill and accuracy of the musicians playing it, translation is rightly judged on how accurately it captures the qualities of the original. But we don’t judge a piano recital merely by whether the pianist hit any wrong notes, we judge it for its beauty, for its musicality, for the quality of the interpretation. Translation should be judged the same way.

When you conceive of translation as a form of performance art, you also see the irrelevance of questions of the relative value of translations versus original texts, or dead-end discussions of whether it’s “possible” to translate poetry from one language to another. That’s like asking whether it’s worth the trouble to record a cover version of a song, since it will never be exactly like the original recording, or questioning whether it’s “possible” to play balalaika music on a banjo. Of course it’s possible, and if you haven’t got a balalaika, or your audience can’t read Russian, it’s very worthwhile indeed.

~ by lolarusa on February 24, 2012.

4 Responses to “Book Covers”

  1. The wide variety of ways in which a concerto (for example) can be played and conducted seems similar, too. In each case it’s one or more artists doing their own interpretation of the original art. The conductor and soloist have to find a way of agreeing on what the composer intended, and what liberty they can allow themselves in bringing it to life. I just love thinking about this stuff! (Picked up another Pushkin book today… and I’m constantly daydreaming about the puzzles involved in translating him.)

  2. One of the things that makes it harder to appreciate the art of a translation is that we typically have nothing to compare it to, as we typically only read one translation of a book and can’t read the original. Whereas with concertos for instance we’ve often heard the same piece performed by other people.

  3. Yes, we’re in the unfortunate position of hearing the cover version without ever having heard the original.

  4. Perhaps it would be too banal to even bring up how idiotic unilingual reviewer comments on the “quality” of translations are. I doubt I could ever express how nerve-wracking it is to “faithfully” translate substandard writing, knowing that I will take the blame. I will admit to being rather generous with my own contributions during the editing stage of some projects… I dare say this sort of positive unfaithfulness in translation is quite common.

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