The translator’s job is a lonely one, just as the writer’s. You are alone with the words. Yes, of course, there will be times when the translator will be stuck and will look for help, but usually such help comes from research, a friend or a native speaker that may clarify something that might be unclear for the translator. At least that is what I always thought about translation. I never expected that any substantial help can some from another person, let alone from the writer. That is why my answer to the title question has always been: DEAD.
After all, even if the author is actually alive, you can’t always expect her/him to be open to questions and willing to help. From the beginning of the MA we have been hearing stories about authors refusing to collaborate with translators. One example is J.K. Rowling who gave no instructions to translators even though it was certain that the translations would reach large audiences. Then, there are authors who are willing to help but simply cannot due to language limitations or because a part of the creative process just cannot be explained, so no matter how much they want to help the translator they cannot. Finally, there are the ones who are eager to help but perhaps are too eager and have overestimated themselves thinking that they know best no matter their target language proficiency. So again, all things considered, my answer remained: DEAD. I really saw no reason why a translator would want to complicate her/his life by contacting the author. And then, when I started working on my own translations again the answer was the same because I chose to translate work by Cavafy, Leivaditis, Bishop, Kariotakis and Gogou, all of them indeed dead.
But then, for an essay I decided to include my translations of some poems by a poet who is alive and kicking and though I was not particularly stuck or anything, I had access to his email address and thought I’d use it. So, I sent an email saying who I was and what I was doing. The reply came soon and read ‘Of course, ask me questions’. It was unexpected in a very pleasant way. The answers to my questions took some time to come, but they meant I could fully support my choices and even quote the original author in my essay. The poet had his doubts about the poems I had chosen and was not sure I was going to be able to render them in English but in the end, the feedback I got for my translations from my tutors suggested that contacting the author had helped the quality of my work. So, perhaps, I thought after that, the author is not-always-dead?
And finally, the summer came which, for MALT-students means one thing; dissertation period and again, I decided to translate an author that is alive and kicking. Again, I was able to get the author’s email address and thought there was nothing to lose, I could use it. And I did. Again, the reply came very soon and was very friendly and encouraging. I went on to send a long email with many questions and the author got back to me giving me answers and –perhaps more importantly- giving me freedom and telling me not to worry too much about translating the original names and puns as such, but to be creative instead. What works in one language does not necessarily work in another. He also offered to look at my translations –he is very fluent in English and has been living in the UK since the early 1970’s- but kept stressing to me that I should not worry too much and should be creative, always politely answering any questions I had.
The above experiences have helped me reach one conclusion in the search of an answer to the title question, that is that the translator should try to see whether the author is alive or dead because there is no fixed answer. Sometimes the author is alive and kicking, but, kicking you away and thus, should be considered dead, and others the author is there to make the translator’s job just a little bit easier.
Avgi Daferera is a translator of English and Spanish into Greek, and Greek and Spanish into English. She just finished an MA in Writing at Warwick and is currently doing an MA in literary translation at UEA. She is interested in the translation of poetry and children’s fiction.