THE ALCHEMICAL PROCESS OF TRANSLATING
Anyone who has translated a work of writing has something indignant to say about the expectation that her translation will somehow be rewritten in a new language and still constitute a perfect replica of the original piece. The pitfalls of treating literary translation like a straightforwardly technical skill quickly becomes apparent to any student of a second language. For instance, holding a translation of the Spanish expression mucha mierda to the standard of word-for-word “accuracy” would render a colloquialism that means something like, “break a leg,” to its literal translation of “lots of shit.”
Putting aside the comically bad writing that would result from such a failure to understand the nuances of translation, we know that a translated work has a complicated relationship to its original. A reliable formula for good translation is an elusive, if not fictive, object. This is true of any writing, and translators are writers. Their work is not original in the strict sense, but, like all writers, their pursuit of the right wording requires the full exertion of their creative faculties — not just a dictionary.
The burden of accuracy is what distinguishes translators from other writers. Not the shallow accuracy implied by a formulaic exchange of each word for its English “equivalent,” but accuracy that minimizes loss of meaning in the alchemical process of conversion from language to language.
A reliable formula for good translation is an elusive, if not fictive, object. This is true of any writing, and translators are writers.
Of course some original meaning is inevitably lost and some foreign meaning added, and it is difficult to judge where and how these errors occur. Beneath the many entertaining translators’ squabbles over whether Anna Karenina’s Darya Aleksandrovna sees her reflection as “pretty” or “nice” is a serious anxiety: do readers of Tolstoy in translation actually read Tolstoy? Does the translation, in other words, mean the same thing as the original? The translator, out of love (or masochism), makes it her responsibility to discern the meaning of the original work and to reproduce it, and then publicly commits herself to the audacious claim that her translation conveys the original work faithfully to an English-speaking audience.
What does it mean to make this claim when translating the work of writers marginalized by the forces of western imperialism and global capitalism? There is, arguably, something more at stake in the accuracy of a translation of work comprising a perspective widely ignored by the powers-that-be. I have heard this kind of translation celebrated as a way to rescue literature from oblivion: “If it isn’t translated into English, nobody will be able read it!” While I echo the enthusiasm for the wide dissemination of good writing, I am struck by the eerie propriety of the word “nobody” in a world where languages do sometimes die out, a process often accompanied by systematic acts of violence against their speakers.
Given this, how can translators work to amplify the voices of those they translate, and not simply transpose them into the language of those who profit from their dispossession? And at what point does the misrepresentation of a writer’s meaning — due to the limits of the English language or the limits of the translator’s knowledge of the circumstances of the work’s production — constitute a kind of violence in itself? I asked two translators of poetry and fiction to describe how they approach this work, and where they run into difficulties doing justice to original writers.
While I certainly consider the ethical and political dimensions of translation before I commit myself to a new project, once I’ve decided to translate something, my focus shifts — not wholly, but mostly — to the aesthetic dimension. I home in on the autonomous, self-regulating world of the work itself. Whether this snow-globe world is that of an eight-line poem or a 300-page novel, it is a universe unto itself, with its own laws. At times these laws correspond to the ones I recognize in the world outside the snow globe, at times they don’t — but they become my laws as long as I’m in the work.
I translate from Russian, and have spent time with authors of all political stripes and ethical shades. In preparing my anthology of writings from the period of the Russian Revolution, I rocketed back and forth between the worlds of extreme reaction and unbridled radicalism. Taken together, the works in the anthology capture the human drama and moral complexity of that crucial historical moment; I feel it was morally right to present that drama, that complexity in full, and to do so I had to translate authors whose worldview I personally reject.
I’ve also waded into the muck with at least one poet whose character is repellent, but whose verse is sublime — and it’s likely that, had he been a less odious human being, he would never have written it. But I never wade in blindly. I ask myself whether the journey will be worth it. Will I come back with a useful human document? I deliberate, come to a decision, and, in the end, have to trust that I’ve made the right call. Once I’m in, I’m in.
There is, arguably, something more at stake in the accuracy of a translation of work comprising a perspective widely ignored by the powers-that-be.
In 2008, clearly unsure of how first-year graduate students should spend their summers, a friend and I found ourselves translating Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo’s Calcomanías (1925) into English. Armed with a Spanish-to-English dictionary and fired up by the ignominious fact that Girondo was not a household name, we had our ambitions nearly dashed on the shoals of a lowly pun.
The poems in Calcomanías anticipate Girondo’s surrealistic turn by infusing his travels through Spain with subconscious desires and humorous juxtapositions. Its impressionistic depictions of places, like the stickers on steamer trunks, records the often-glib impressions of a cosmopolitan Porteño who, in traveling from the humming, diversifying New World sees in the Old a languorous, outmoded culture. Calcomanías (Decals) closes with the lengthy “Semana Santa” (“Holy Week”). Here, Seville’s processions and prayers in the week preceding Easter jostle for space with commerce: hoteliers gorge on lobster-like English tourists, while the calls of street vendors subsume cries of adoration for penitents and holy men.
These jarring scenes reach their climax when a patron orders a meal: “— ¡Camarero! Un bife con papas. / — ¿Con Papas, señor? . . .” The request for steak and potatoes (bife con papas) perplexes, even shocks, the waiter (camarero) thanks to a homophone: Papas (capital “P”) means “popes,” elevating the poem’s themes of consumption and sacrilege to their gluttonous extremes.
As translators, we seek to open a space for new voices and experiences, making them comprehensible, familiar, and yet redolent of their origins. —Gabriel Yoon-Milner
Jokes rarely translate well — the meaning lacks the punchiness of the wordplay in the original. Puns, where wordplay is essential to meaning, are impossible. After agonizing over it, my friend and I opted to keep the original Spanish, explaining the papas/Papas joke in a footnote.
As translators, we seek to open a space for new voices and experiences, making them comprehensible, familiar, and yet redolent of their origins. In our translation of Girondo, we sought to render meaningful to twenty-first century US readers the sensibilities of a proud, rapidly urbanizing Argentina that still looked anxiously across the Atlantic, wrestling with the legacies of Spanish colonialism and the aspirations of the European avant-garde. But what if, as translators, we knew when to stop, to contradict our mastery over language and experience, even in the most mundane modes of expression? What if admitting defeat was the only way to honor the work?
Camille Gagnier is an entering 2018-2019 Philosophy Master’s student at Birkbeck College, University of London and a 2017 graduate of the St. John’s College Great Books Program. She is a graduate of The Cooper Union’s Intro to Architecture 2016 summer program. She is interested in feminist epistemology, the philosophies of language and science, and literary translation. Gagnier is a contributor to the upcoming children’s poetry anthology Dragons of the Prime (Emma Press, 2019). She is translating a book by Bolivian poet Blanca Garnica from the Spanish, a selection from which will appear in World Literature Today in early 2019.
Boris Dralyuk is the editor and translator of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, published in 2016 by Pushkin Press. His translations of Alexander Tinyakov’s poems appeared in Numéro Cinq in August 2017.
Gabriel Yoon-Milner is a contributing translator for Decals: Complete Early Poems by Oliverio Girondo, co-translated by Harris Feinsod and Rachel Galvin. It will be published this year by Open Letter.