Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Defining the Role of the Translator: my year on the MA in Literary Translation

Looking back at my work from the MA in Literary Translation, it has been the role of the reader and of the author that has continued to shape my idea of what it means to translate. To what extent is an author responsible for their work? And how does this influence the process of translation? To what extent is any reading of a text possible? And how does this affect my role as a translator? These are the ideas which have and continue to excite me.
During the first semester I focused on the translation of landscape within Anton Chekhov’s short stories. Through this work I discovered that a text, in itself, creates the potential for profound effects on the reader, something which I argue is similar to standing in a landscape; the topography, colours and situation all create a potential to illicit certain responses from the reader. My main focus therefore remained on the text itself, in considering, as Umberto Eco puts it, its ‘maze-like structure’, and therefore my aim as a translator was to recreate this particular structure in order to retain the same potential for effects.
During the second semester I translated a children’s story that was written in Russia during the Stalinist period. I found the translation of this particular children’s story to be extremely complex, as the role of the reader (a child) and of the author (someone bound by law to write for the purposes of communism) were closely bound by an ideology that differed drastically from the prevailing ideology of the culture into which I was translating the text; my focus was consequently shifted to the reader, making sure that the subversive elements, already present in the text, were visible in the translation. During this semester I also translated a selection of microfiction by the Russian writer Daniil Kharms. I began the project by reading the author’s notebooks alongside his microfiction, but soon discovered that the voices within these texts were indistinguishable; the voice in the notebooks was no closer to Daniil Kharms, as a once real, living person, than the voice in his microfiction. This project transformed the way in which I approach translation, decentring the role of the author, and thereby freeing up my role as a translator; emphasis was on the text, and my reading of it.
Finally, my last project on this course focuses on the translation of three short stories by the Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya, and in particular on the notion of ‘mind style’; a notion which suggests that systematic linguistic choices reflect the workings of an individual mind. Through this research I have come to understand the author within the text is a hazy spectral figure created through concrete elements of the text, something neither completely dead nor completely alive; something which has the ability to shift and change, but which nevertheless has a felt presence, allowing the text to work as an organic whole. I have so far concluded that because a work of literature is both a concrete text which has been organised by an individual mind, and because it requires a reading in order for it to have any meaning, a translation is always inevitably both an individual reading and a recreation of the work as constructed by an author; a translator, in other words, is always to a greater or lesser degree, a collaborator; neither working alone, nor at the mercy of authorial intention.

Hannah Collins studied Russian and French at the University of Nottingham. She works as a freelance translator and is currently studying on the Literary Translation MA at the UEA. Her email address is Hannah.Collins@uea.ac.uk.

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