Sunday, 25 August 2013

Letting Go

At the end of this one-year course, we have to write a dissertation. I have chosen to write a translation with a commentary. The subject of my dissertation was to translate 10000 words of a book entitled Petit traité de l’abandon written by Alexandre Jollien who is a disabled writer and philosopher. In this book, he shares his thoughts, and reflects on moments of his life influenced by authors he has read, encounters he has had and approaches to life, religion, relationships and love. Because of his disability, Alexandre Jollien cannot physically write anymore but talks through a recording machine, which gives a distinct oral quality to the book. The commentary is, as I have called it, “a little investigation” on ‘untranslatability’. Indeed, as a translator, I have always been attracted by what we can call the paradox of translation. The idea that some texts seem impossible to translate yet translatable, has drawn me to attempt to produce a translation of Petit traité de l’abandon. I have chosen this source text because of the unique connexion between the author’s background, the source text and its style, which in my opinion makes this text appear impossible to translate. The leading idea of this book is the paradox that Jollien explains of ‘l’abandon’. ‘L’abandon’ means ‘abandonment’ in English but also it is also used in the sense of ‘letting go’. Throughout his book, Jollien explains how paradoxically, ‘l’abandon’, which could be seen as negative, because of its first meaning of ‘giving up’, has actually become the goal of his life. In his own words, the purpose of ‘l’abandon’ is to “follow the flow of life.” (personal translation, 2012: 11)

Thanks to this source text and to the process of the translation, I realised that this concept of ‘letting go’ could be applied to translation. Indeed, as I have explained in my commentary, during the process of translation, the translator has not only to translate the words, but he or she also has to become the author of the translation. In order to do so, the translator has to read, research and even talk to the author of the source text. However all this research will never produce a target text able to recreate similar effects on its readers than the source text readers had. The translator has to combine his or her knowledge on the author, the source text and on the cultural differences with his or her creativity. Translating is ‘letting go’. There will be a moment in the translation process where the source text will not be enough anymore to create a good translation and the translator will have to ‘let go’ of the source text and all its constrains in order to allow his or her creativity to come across.

I realised during this translation that at some point in the process I was ‘letting go’ of the source text without being aware of it and that only then I was able to allow myself, the translator, to translate for the target text readers. I wanted to share this realisation in this blog-post because I am convinced that it can be helpful for young translators just like myself.

Charlotte Laruelle translates French and English, currently doing the MA in literary translation at UEA. Can be contacted at

Monday, 19 August 2013

Literary and Non-Literary Translation: Studying Translation and a Little Work Experience

One of the best things about the UEA's MA in Literary Translation course, and there are many good things about it, is actually what's not on the course. What I mean is that the lecturers on the course and the staff at the university work very hard, and are very helpful, when it comes to getting students involved in translation related activities outside of class. Internships at the BCLT, the BCLT Summer School, a publishing internship, translation editing workshops in a coffee shop, public lectures with award winning translators, attending conferences, attending the London Book Fair, an award ceremony, talks on comic-book translation in a pub and going to professional networking events are just some of the activites and schemes that have been on offer. It was at the last one – a networking event encouraging UEA students to think about using their language skills in their futures – that I met representatives of a Norwich based data capture company. I then ended up working for them on an interesting translation project for a supermarket in China. I want to say a few things about it here because it's made me think a bit about what do you do as a 'Literary Translator', and what's the difference between translating Literature, and something like a brand of toothbrushes?

So, first of all, what do you as a 'Literary Translator'? Well, I don't feel that I can answer this with any great authority as I'm not published, but it's still an interesting question for me, as it's something I want to pursue. I get the impression that, from a fascinating talk from the Translators in Residence at the Free Word Centre during the LBF, literary translators do a lot. A surprising amount, actually. They teach, write articles, organise games, take part in 'Translation Slams', edit, travel, translate words and, of course, translate literature. In this past year it's been wonderful to see so many literary translators, including teachers at the UEA and translators in London, being involved in different projects linked to their communities. It seems like a major part of literary translation is actually using language skills, critical thinking and decision making skills to work in other areas and fields of study. My experience of working outside of literary translation has been with this company in Norwich. The job involved translating and writing product descriptions for 'everyday' items. In fact, it was more like everyday items in China; some of the names for such items had never been translated into English, and many of the items are rarely seen in the UK. I was challenged by having to translate such words casually appearing on packaging as 阿胶, 牛皮糖, 蛇胆 and 灌肠,  (a quick google translate will let you know why these words might be problematic, and give you a few giggles too!) Being faced with such oddities made me realise that decision making and arguing your case are important parts of being a translator – arguments of whether 牛皮糖 should be 'Chewy Sweets' or 'Leather Sugar' went on for a while – and I think that literary translators develop such skills and apply them to many parts of their working life. I also feel that studying translation has better equipped me with such skills (although I do have room to improve and will keep trying to do so).

Having looked back at a few of my translation problems outside of literary translation has made me think about the difference between literary and non-literary translation. In terms of translating Chinese to English, and this may be true of many other languages including translating from French and Spanish, I don't think there's much difference in the actual process, but there is a difference in the product. Chinese works so differently to English that translating it involves changing almost everything; adding articles, reorganizing sentences, deleting measure words, deciding on tenses and so on. These processes were pretty much the same between my prose translations and the translations for the supermarket. With the supermarket translations, however, the translations had to fit the company's strict guidelines; limited character numbers, information order, use of particular measure words and so on. I've found that with literary translation there is a stronger emphasis on the feel and the style of a text. A lot of the work of other Chinese to English translators, such as Howard Goldblatt, have a distinctive literary feel, and I would also argue, the style of the translator. For example, some Chinese to English translators like to use pinyin to translate the story's characters' names, whilst others prefer to translate the meanings of the names. Goldblatt's translation of Su Tong's Rice() included characters like Old Six and Five Dragons, and I think that the decision to do this give the text a particular style, which allowed the translator to put themselves into the text. The freedom to make such decisions about influencing the style of a translated text is at least sometimes the difference between literary and non-literary translation. At least it was in my experience, although this might not be the case in other types of non-literary translation, as there are a lot of types of text out there that need translating. The main thing is that the process of making decisions about changing the text is in many ways the same, even if the product of the translation is not.

Now I'm wondering why I'm talking about non-literary translation on a literary translation blog. Well, I want to say literary and non-literary translation are both very close; literary translators often work on non-literary translation, and they do lots of things to engage people with literature outside of their own work. The UEA's Literary Translation course is well integrated with other areas of translation, and it's given me the opportunity to experience professional non-literary translation. The experience has given me an awareness of some of the skills I have gained on the course, and has taught me a bit about the relationship between literary and non-literary translation. I think both areas work well together, and I'm glad to have had the chance to take part in both (even if just a little). I also think that one of the possible benefits of translators doing so much outside of their 'work', is that this might not only raise awareness of translators and what they do, but also an awareness of foreign literature.

I just want to say something (and feel it important as someone interested in Chinese to English translation) about contemporary Chinese literature. Brendan O'Kane, a great translator of Chinese and blogger, said in a recent interview that 'The more we can do to demystify it [China], through journalism or writing or documentaries, or through Pathlight to introduce people to the idea that there are young Chinese writers working through the same issues that they are – to get people used to the idea that China’s just a place like any other, and not that special. I think that’s a very worthwhile thing to work towards' ( 2013:np). I agree with pursuing a 'demystified' view of China and its literature. I think that the brilliant work of translators to intergrate their work with other projects and fields of study can all help with this pursuit. China and Chinese are, for many people I know, still both a far off place and a mysterious language. The problem with such a distance in people's minds is that it can lead to misunderstandings. Working towards clarity can often be, in my opinion, for the best. I hope that brilliant work coming from Chinese to English translators, through routes such as Pathlight, keep up, and that the English language readership will become more and more familiar with great writers such as Qian Zhongshu (钱钟书), Bing Xin (冰心), Bei Dao (北岛), Can Xue, (残雪), Jin Yong (金庸), Yu Hua (余华), Zhang Yueran (张悦然), Liu Cixin (刘慈欣), Ling Chen (凌晨), and many, many, many, more.

Now, unlike Brendan O'Kane who is leaving China, I'm soon going to be off to China to keep reading up on (and perhaps even try my hand at translating) some of the new talent emerging from China.


Thomas Newell translates from Chinese into English, and is currently studying for an MA in Literary Translation at the UEA as well as interning for Arc Publications. Contact him at

Monday, 12 August 2013

Beyond the Mother Tongue; Or Translation to Live with

Your trip lasts until you reach home. This is something I heard when I was little, in Japan. This saying, or something like a saying, means that you need to be aware of your journey until you get home. It appears to me when things are about to reach their end. My MA year is about to finish. Over the course of the year, translation and literature have been stuck in my mind – I was thinking about both of them from morning until midnight, even in my dreams. The thing is, this is what I expected before coming to the UK. Indeed, now is the end of the MA, and I am writing my MA dissertation at the moment (as of 5th Aug.).
For my MA dissertation I am working on exophony, a literary phenomenon, where writers choose to write in a language other than their mother tongue. I have been fascinated by this word ever since I came across Yoko Tawada’s collection of essays, Exofonii: bogono soto ni deru tabi [エクソフォニー:母語の外に出る旅] (Exophony: Traveling Outward from One’s Mother Tongue) (2003), several years ago. Tawada is a Japanese writer, but she writes novels and poems in German as well as Japanese. Although there are many exophonic writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky and Joseph Conrad, I am looking at Hideo Levy, an American writer who uses Japanese in his texts. Needless to say, last September I did not have any clues about analysing exophony or having it linked to translation. I have found them, instead, over the course of the year studying the MA in Literary Translation at UEA. This MA has provided me with solid research skills and knowledge in all aspects of translation studies, giving me a new perspective on translation and removing the old. Indeed, I am writing my dissertation with insight I have acquired from four modules: Translation Theory; Stylistics for Translator; Case Studies and Process and Product in Translation. After starting research for my dissertation, I felt translation studies has never paid much attention to the anthropological and ethnographic dimensions of 'foreignness', even though these might provide new kinds of creative exploration, new cross-overs of style and form and genre. Exophony is at the center of these areas; but though my researching of it, however, I also found that it has not been much dealt with in translation studies. Then, I approached some academics outside of my MA, and they kindly advised me about my dissertation. As Google Scholar says, I felt like standing ‘on the shoulders of giants’. I would like to thank Dr. Chantal Wright, Dr. Christopher D. Scott, and Prof. Clive Scott.
In spite of still writing my dissertation, I have come up with many interesting topics apart from that of my dissertation. I think this is because, as an international student, a non-native English speaker, studying and living here is inevitable when thinking of two languages. Every time I read text written in both English and Japanese, I think how such text is translated into one of two languages, just as a translator would. It seems that even my personality has been changed by the MA. Studying in bilingual condition reminds me of the  concept of ‘pure language’ (Benjamin 1923), provoking my monolingual mind. What I have leant best though the MA is that exploring between languages is one of the most pleasurable things in life. 
Hiromitsu Koiso translates from English into Japanese. His literary interests include world literature, exophony and translation as a creative form of text making. Contact:

Monday, 5 August 2013

My Spanish Summer School and its Challenges

As BCLT intern since January, I’ve had the opportunity to do some really great things that I couldn’t have done otherwise – making posters for the International Literature Reading Group, interviewing Pushkin Press, going to the London Book Fair, and, most exciting of all, attending this year’s Summer School. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect apart from, of course, a bit of translation. And, it turns out, a bit of translation was what we did, along with a bit of editing, a bit of reading aloud, a bit of running around printing (for me anyway) and a lot of laughing. I was in the Spanish group with author Javier Montes and workshop leader, Anne Mclean.

We had two texts to work on, one which we translated in advance and one which we launched into on day one. The text we worked on together, an extract from Javier’s second novel, Segunda Parte, was quite difficult in Spanish and very funny – we wanted to keep the humour and Javier wanted to keep the difficulty. One phrase gave us a big challenge but also a lot of amusement. The Spanish text involves a father reassuring his son that his boyfriend, who has disappeared without a word, is bound to be ok. The father is rather absent-minded but takes time out from this character trait to speak to his son with clarity. The Spanish text has it as ‘aquella tenía aspect de ser una de las sacudidas imprevistas de su despiste’ [that had the aspect of being one of the unexpected jolts from his absent-mindedness]. We didn’t much like ‘absent-mindedness’ and a lot of debate ensued. For a while we had ‘jolted out of his abstraction’ (a bit formal), then ‘jolted out of his daydreams’ (not quite right), ‘jolted out of his own world’ (popular but still not quite right), ‘back from being away with the fairies’ (Javier threatened to walk out). Things went rapidly downhill after this as the debate digressed onto how shrews are related to elephants. In Spanish, ‘pensando en las musarañas’ means to be daydreaming but literally ‘to be thinking of shrews’. Much google image searching ensued on how some shrews have long noses like trunks , followed by much cooing over how cute they were. We ended up with ‘shrugged off his absent-minded façade’ (all happy).

Another challenge was the word ‘cursi’ which, in Spanish, means a lot of different things all at once: tacky, corny, snooty, pretentious, affected, kitch, la-di-da.  To make matters worse the specific word in question wasn’t actually ‘cursi’ but ‘cursilería’, a noun not an adjective. The father says that he hates hearing ‘about the tacky/the tackiness of/some snooty git mention’ the Cinque Terre. We went round and round in circles with many solutions that were too blue to replicate. We wanted a word/phrase that conveyed the pretentiousness of mentioning a holiday destination which marks you as part of a certain set. In the end we went for ‘tacky waffle’ to explain the idea of someone going on and on about something which bores you to death but which they think makes them sound good.

On the Thursday we were joined by editor Ted Hodgkinson which was a very interesting experience, especially seeing as Javier was not used to being edited, and this text had not gone through that process the first time around.  By this point in the week we all knew the text back to front and it was great to have someone else come in to read it to point out the parts where it didn’t really work. A lot of punctuation needed to be changed and, taking advantage of Javier’s absence later in the day, we changed it! A change we tried to make light of in our presentation with ‘live-action’ representations of brackets and dashes which went horribly wrong – one phrase was opened with a bracket and closed with a dash.

That text being finished, we moved on to look at the other excerpt, from Los penúltimos, which we had all translated in advance. You might assume that already having different options written down would make the process quicker but you’d be wrong! It almost made it harder because there were too many options to choose from. For example, in the story a girl is snooping around a boy’s house, she opens a fridge and sees some carrots ‘de poco fiar’, the translations for this were: unsavoury carrots, untrustworthy carrots, dodgy carrots, dubious carrots and questionable carrots. It’s not just that the carrots might be going off but that they might not tell her what she wants to know (she’s examining the fridge to find information on the boy – queue anthropomorphized fruit and veg). In the end the carrots were dodgy. We also had trouble with a pun involving bananas. In Spanish the orange in the fridge was very orange (pun kept as in both languages the word is the fruit and the colour) and the banana was so weary - a banana is a ‘plátano’ and weary is ‘aplatanado’. In English, ‘banana’ is not a word that gives itself easily to punning. First we had a banana which was so bananas (opposite to weariness), then we had a banana that was banana-y (not a pun), then a banana that was banackered or abanandoned (hilarious but no). We had to decide which was more important – the pun or the meaning. If it was the pun then we could choose any fruit and any adjective: melons being melancholy, blueberries being blue, peaches being peachy or cherrys being cheery. If it was the meaning then the banana could be very banana-like to match the orange orange. We went for the banana being so bananaesque.

In the end though, it wasn’t the collaborative translation that mattered the most (though everybody’s texts were amazing – the full texts will go up here). For me it was the process of looking closely at the text, hearing from the author themselves what the text really means and about the nuances that I’d never noticed and seeing other people’s solutions which was so helpful. I would recommend the Summer School to anyone who is looking to be a literary translator, or if you can’t make it/they don’t have your language, I’d also recommend the free plenary sessions, they were extremely enlightening on how to become a translator, how authors feel about being translated, what the editing process involves and what support mechanisms are out there.  It’s amazing to be surrounded by people who share your passion and are perhaps in the same position as you, and above all, it’s really really fun!


Emily Rose translates from French and Spanish into English and is currently writing her dissertation on the translation of gender in a 17th century French text. Contact her