The preface is not something I had spent much time considering in my literary studies until now. In spite of a few notable exceptions (think Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads), prefaces to literary works tend to go relatively unnoticed. The important thing is ‘the words on the page’ – and pages prior to page 1 don’t count. “WE CANNOT KNOW THE AUTHOR’S INTENTIONS,” we shout, drowning out the author’s (timid or otherwise) declaration of “What I meant to say was this…”
It is true that authors do not have exclusive ownership of the meaning of their work, nor are they always best placed to comment on it. A magnificent novel might be preceded by a pretentious or less-than-insightful preface, like a once-aloof film star posting inanities on Twitter. Perhaps for good reason, then, prefaces to literary works are relatively rare today. However, there is a school of thought that says translations should be an exception to this rule.
Why, then, might a translator write a preface? It may be partly to do with the fact that we ask questions of translators that we don’t tend to ask of authors: why did you choose this text? Why doesn’t your translation of this poem rhyme? Translating poetry is impossible, isn’t it? A preface can be a way of pre-empting some of those questions; and it is hardly surprising if they sometimes come across as somewhat defensive.
We could also look at it in a more positive way: prefaces are a way for translators to explain their approach. They allow us a glimpse of the translation process. Most significantly, though, they make the translator visible. They remind the reader that the text is a translation – something which is all too easy to forget, particularly when reading fiction, where all efforts have usually been made to disguise the text’s translated nature.
Translators speak to the reader in the texts they translate, but it is only in a preface that they can speak entirely in their own voice. Prefaces can sometimes be political: for example, they have often been used by feminist translators to explain why a text by a woman writer has been neglected, or why they have adopted a ‘hijacking’ strategy, where a text that was not originally feminist is ‘appropriated’ in translation through alterations such as the introduction of gender-inclusive language.
Opponents of the translator’s preface argue that a translated text should ‘stand alone’, should speak for itself. However, this is not as straightforward as it sounds. No translation stands alone; it always bears the trace of its source. Any text is a palimpsest of influences and allusions, and is completed by a reader in a particular cultural context. It does not exist out of context. A non-translated text, however, is interpreted directly by the reader. In the case of a translation, the source text is interpreted by the translator, who then inevitably brings this interpretation to bear on his or her translation; reading translation is a more intertextual experience than reading a non-translated text.
Why, then, pretend that the need to explain is a weakness? We too often expect reading a translation to be like reading any other text; as a result, we do not want to hear the voice of the translator. Hearing that voice in a preface forces us to acknowledge the translator’s presence in the text itself; it reminds us that what we are reading is not a fixed, finite object, but is slippery, multi-layered, polyphonic.