Thursday, 8 December 2011

Translation vs. Authoring

As a result of my decision to spend a year studying literary translation, I switched camps. Well, in a way.

With the unprecedented amount of contact between people of different language backgrounds, translation is growing in importance. On the one hand, this circumstance finds reflection in the increasing numbers of translators of all kinds. They can be called practitioners. On the other hand, there is no denying of the abounding courses and programs meant to supplement, if not quite substitute, the existing practice with a distinct profession in its own right. If academic preparation and specialized knowledge define the concept of profession, by signing up for a bit of formal education, I have conceded, at least to myself, that what I mean to be is a professional, a practicing one, mind you. And yet, as much as virtually all professions today imply certain concomitant “soft” skills, I cannot help but think that, in doing their job, translators have no choice but to fall back on much more than any specialized training can provide.

A case in point would be Daniel Hahn and one of his latest literary undertakings, the translation – or is it authoring? - of the text of the children's picture book Happiness Is a Watermelon on Your Head.

As Daniel came to our class to impart some experiential knowledge, I cannot say I felt surprised listening to him reveal one by one the steps that he had taken to arrive at the text in its final form. Rather, one ought to feel impressed with just how many tasks and responsibilities managed to creep into the assignment initially proposed to Daniel as a translation gig.
His sense of judgement and decision-making had to extend well beyond the realm of language and working with it. In several places, feeling the need to make the text complement the images in a more effective way, Daniel changed the layout of the text. These rearrangements demonstrated that his approach was to ensure an illustrative way of reading of the book, so that each textual statement had an immediate pictorial counterpart on the same page. I might have opted for a different strategy where the illustrations would slightly trail behind the text and in this way create the space for children first to imagine what they heard and then look at the actual pictures. The point is, however, that ultimately Daniel had to pay attention to the elements not quite constituting the field of translation, his area of specialization. Whatever his level of familiarity with desktop publishing and graphic design might be, whatever the appreciation for visual culture he might generally have, he had to call on his sensitivity and awareness of these in order to benefit his translation.

And of course translating any piece of children's literature demands that a special kind of sentience guides translators in their navigation through texts. Given that no common notion of children's literature exists, instead of looking outside for pointers and guidelines, translators have to tap into their consciousness. Thus, an ability to trust validity of personal world views is crucial for the translator's profession. So, in translating a children's book not only did Daniel adopt the role of graphic editor but also he acted with the implication that personal views can sometimes serve as specialized knowledge that usually belongs with experts.

Therein lie the beauty and the challenge of being a professional translator. No amount of schooling in translation on its own will ready one for taking on the reality in all its multiplicity, which is one way of seeing the task of translating.

Olessia Makarenia is currently working on her MA in Literary translation at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. Captivated by the magic of English language and the wonder of Russian literature, she is determined to do her bit by introducing some of the latter into the former and pass occasional sensitive judgement on the work that others have done so far.

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