Read the world: literary translation today

Saturday 28 October, 14:0015:30, Barbican LibraryContemporary Controversies

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To most people, translation is largely seen as a technical skill and the translator an anonymous wordsmith. But it has been long argued that the work of the literary translator is grossly undervalued both commercially and critically. How many of us, when we read a book in translation, have ever pondered on the knowledge and artistry that made it possible? And yet, throughout history, it has been the translation of sacred, philosophical and literary texts that enabled knowledge and thought to be shared, and humanity to develop.

In literature specifically, translation expands our ability to explore the thoughts and feelings of people from other societies and other times. Translation enables us to discover books that we would never have otherwise encountered. In fact, ‘world literature’ as a discipline of academic study depends on translation.

In recent times, there seems to be a growing recognition that translation is an art to be celebrated and not concealed. Indeed, the Man Booker International Prize 2016 was shared by Han Kang, author of The Vegetarian, and Deborah Smith, who translated it from Korean. Smith subsequently achieved greater celebrity than the author in the UK. Her translation was lauded – all the more so because she had apparently only started to learn Korean in 2010.

But perhaps the more interesting question is how much of herself Smith put into the book. If translation is more than a technical procedure, might the translator’s own creativity change the work fundamentally? Is it even a translator’s job to retain a book’s literary ‘essence’ or is her work better understood as something inevitably new? This new-found recognition of the translator comes at a time when there has never been a greater demand for translated literary texts.

But is a translation ever a truly faithful rendering of the original work, or are monoglot Anglophones kidding ourselves that we have really read Tolstoy or Goethe, or indeed Han Kang? As Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon reminds us, some concepts, like Dasein (German), pravda (Russian), saudade (Portuguese) and stato (Italian) are difficult, perhaps impossible, to capture properly in English.

Should we celebrate the fact that translators are being recognised as artists and writers in their own right? Or does the recognition of the creativity of the translator mean accepting a certain distance from the author? Are there limits to the freedom a translator can exercise in their interpretation of a text? Can we meaningfully strike a balance between slavishly literal translations that lose the soul of the original, and completely new literary works that are only really ‘inspired’ by that original?