As an aspiring literary translator I have struggled with the idea of having to study the theory of translation and have found myself many a time thinking ‘What’s the point of all this?’. But as the semester slowly draws to a close I think I am coming closer to answering a few of the questions that my MA requires me to decipher: Should translators know about theory? And does theory describe what translators do, or is it a practical tool that the translator can use?
In a recent workshop MALT graduate Don Bartlett, who has translated quite a few Scandinavian crime writers, spoke to us about the latest novel he translated by Jo Nesbo called ‘Phantom’. Having only being given 7 weeks to translate this book, I doubt that he was thinking about ‘Polysystem Theory’ (although one could argue that he was trying to get inside the Polysystem of literature) or ‘What would Nida do?’ Like most literary translators, Don never mentioned the word ‘Theory’ when he was talking about his translation process, he only mentioned the word ‘Strategy’, and this is because most theories are descriptive rather than prescriptive. This in turn means that we cannot apply a theory directly to our translation process but we can decide what our strategy is going to be before we start translating any kind of text.
At two ends of the scale, we have been studying Translation Theory whilst looking at experimental translation in our Process & Product class. While theory is rarely ever mentioned in P&P, we are expected to bring our knowledge of theory and demonstrate that we have grown as translators during our time on the MA in our essays. However, there seems to be a gap between practising translators and academics that theorise about translation, most of which tell us how we should translate despite ever having done any translation themselves. They remind me of the food critics who appear on popular cooking programmes, where they are brought in to analyse and nit pick at every dish they are served by the contestants, yet most of them probably don’t cook. It is very easy to analyse and criticise other people’s work but I do sometimes wish that theory was a bit easier to understand. On the other hand, there are academics that also translate as well as theorise and because they have seen both sides of the medallion they know what difficulties the translator faces. It is also interesting to see how theories from other fields can be of benefit to translation. For example Relevance Theory came to us from the world of Communication Studies and was picked up by translation theorists. This is not surprising considering that translation can be seen as an act of communication or the need to express something in a different language. This is my favourite theory (not that one should have favourites!) as, in my opinion, it sums up what I want to do as a translator and that is to get the maximum effect from the minimum effort.
So to answer the above questions: Yes! And No! (for the time being anyway).
Selin translates from French and Turkish into English. She is currently studying the MA in Literary Translation at UEA where she did her undergrad in Modern Languages. Her literary interests include magical realism and crime fiction and she occasionally translates Turkish poetry.