Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Sense and Sensibility... and Sensitivity

As students of Literary Translation, we are encouraged to grapple with both, the questions that are directly related to translation practice as well as those that concern some loftier matters. In laying claim to the title of translator and thinking over the responsibilities this title implies, one comes across the issue of identity, among others. In real-world terms, considering this issue might mean the need to take in the scope of various actuals constituting the field and the industry of translation. However, a year of academics makes for good time to consider more elusive aspects of translation and translator's identity. For example, the general concept of 'meaning' may maintain its ability to perplex, yet this perplexity does not translate into an equal amount of confusion over the meaning's place in the work of the translator. The intuitive consensus is that 'meaning', alternatively 'sense', is the translator's primary concern, and the manner it is handled in depends on his or her identity characteristics. Another couple of aspects that fall under the rubric of tricky or elusive are sensitivity and sensibility. Of the two, sensibility seems to be somewhat more ambiguous, if for no other reason than because it sometimes is used interchangeably with 'sensitivity'. Yet, when it comes to the translator's role, distinguishing between the two may have its benefits. It can be seen as part of what Maria Tymoczko refers to as 'self-reflexivity', whereby one makes an effort to become aware of just what parts of one's identity and personality go into the translation process. Lawrence Venuti brings up the issue of sensibility in 'The Translator's Invisibility'. But, rather than talk about sensibilities shared by the author of the original and translator, he employs the term 'simpatico' to designate the kind of affinity that may exist between the two and may be considered by some as most opportune for translating. In the end, he wants to impress on the reader that the notion of 'simpatico', as appealing as it may appear, is largely a mystification, and does more harm than good. To understand his view and put oneself in a position to agree or disagree with him, one would do well to acquire a clearer sense of 'sensibility' as opposed to 'sensitivity'. 'Sensibility' describes one's personality. In other words, it is made up of qualities inscribed within a personality, and ultimately they dictate just how one expresses oneself in response to his or her surroundings. In the case with the translator, this largely means how he or she expresses oneself in response to the specifics of a translation task at hand. 'Simpatico' implies an expectation that a translator's sensibility can be a copy, or at least a close representation, of that of an author, and these two individuals can parallel each other in terms of their 'how'. It is not difficult to appreciate how unrealistic this sounds. Therefore, while thinking about 'sensibility' is important as part of exercising 'self-reflexivity', the translator should be careful not to make a mistake of trying to compare it with the author's sensibility. By contrast to sensibility, practically speaking, sensitivity is outward-oriented. Another way to put it is to say that it is a quality that allows one to take notice of details. So, if sensibility is a matter of 'how', sensitivity in its turn is a matter of 'what'. For translators, this means a capacity for detecting features of the original text, arguably what makes up the initial stage of any translation. Drawing a line between the two in this manner is helpful because, as a result, the translator is brought to recognize that, to have the one and the other assist rather than impede his or her translation efforts, one can start by knowing one's sensibility but can continue by cultivating one's sensitivity. 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.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Further… and further… and further study

I have always been a real geek (after school Latin club: yes please!), and coming to UEA to study the MA in Literary Translation has been a way for me to indulge in further geekery, as well as to propel myself along the path to becoming a professional translator. Now that the MA is coming to an end, however, with my dissertation due in only two months, I am already starting to think about what I might like to study next.

I am writing a dissertation about the phenomenon of pseudotranslation, which is when a text is claimed to be a translation although no source text can be identified, i.e. it is original writing under the guise of translation. Although earlier examples do exist, this phenomenon can be seen as linked to the rise of the writer as original genius during the eighteenth century, because it plays on ideas of authorship and originality which were cementing at that time (there are many other interesting aspects of, and motivations for, pseudotranslation but you’ll have to read my dissertation to find out about those). To learn about this period I have had to delve into the history of English literature, and this research has been fascinating but equally hard work because although I studied languages for my BA and hence know a lot about Latin American literature in particular, I didn’t study English beyond GCSE level. This has made me feel like there are gaps in my knowledge which I will have to plug if I am to fulfil my potential as a literary translator. I know a lot about the literature of my chosen source culture, but perhaps not enough about that of my target culture. What this boils down to, I think, is that although I have read extensively in English, I have never read critically in English.

The MA has also confirmed my suspicion that to translate literature into English requires me to be a great writer in English. I have particularly enjoyed the workshops which ran during our second semester and were based on the kind of workshops that take place on a creative writing course.  In each of these sessions we discussed a piece of translation by one member of the group and suggested ways in which it could be improved as a text in English; from these sessions I learnt more about translation as a writing practice than from any other part of the MA. In the end, translations are rarely read alongside their source texts, and to be successful they must be able to stand independently from the source text as well as to read brilliantly. I imagine that it is through lots of practice and by engaging in close readings of texts (translations and otherwise) that I will move towards consistently achieving this goal.

The upshot of having become aware of all this is that I feel like I could do with a degree in English and Creative Writing so as to produce my best work as a translator. My plan once I finish the MA is to launch myself head first into the world of freelance translation, but the idea of further study is already tempting me. The thing is, I know that if I did take up another course, I would get to the end and feel the same as I do now, that there is so much more to learn. I think I shall have to accept that this is a lifelong challenge and engage in further, and further, and further study accordingly.

Lucy Greaves translates from Spanish, French and Portuguese into English. She is currently studying the MA in Literary Translation at UEA, and is particularly interested in Latin American literature. Contact: