(Note: This article is the third in our “Cardinal Sins of Translation” series – here’s #1, #2 and #3 if you missed them!)

Having a working knowledge of a foreign language is generally assumed to be the most basic requirement for literary translators. But is it ever possible to translate from a language you don’t know? Having no experience in this myself, I interviewed Diana Arterian, Allison Charette, Matilda Colarossi and Lawrence Schimel over e-mail to learn about their experiences.

To distinguish between translating in the traditional sense and translating from a language the translator doesn’t know, I will be referring to the latter in italics.

First of all, how does translating work? Most often, the translators work with someone, either the author or another native speaker of the source language, who brings the text into English or a bridge language for the translator to work with. This is usually followed by a back-and-forth dialogue, either in person or over e-mail, in which the translator asks questions and tries out different options.

It should be noted that all my interviewees are also literary translators in the traditional sense; that is, they translate from languages they do know. This meant that they were already familiar with the myriad of issues that arise in all kinds of translation and the various ways in which they could find creative solutions.

In fact, for three of my interviewees, it was this work that led them to the other kind of translation.

Allison’s work as a translator from French led her to discover that almost nothing from Madagascar—a former French colony—had been translated into English. Matilda, who mainly translates from Italian, started translating Sicilian while working with a poet friend who writes in both languages. Lawrence has translated works from Icelandic and Latvian into Spanish to help authors (many of whom are also friends) find a wider audience for publication.

On the other hand, while Diana has previously translated from French, her ventures into Persian poetry happened by chance when she discovered her author’s work through some poorly translated pieces posted online, and was driven by both the poetry and the poet’s story to translate them herself.

So, what does translating have to offer that might go beyond traditional ideas about translation?

  1. Translation is writing: Allison admitted that, before she started translating from Malagasy, she, too, thought translators had to be perfectly fluent in their source language. However, translating has taught her that “the ability to write (in the target language) is far and away the most important skill a translator could have.” Lawrence related how, when presented with some unrhymed translations of tightly-rhymed Latvian poetry for kids, he made a “transcreation” of the poems so that they would also rhyme in English. “The people who had asked me to edit the translations were horrified that I had done such a radical rewriting,” he said, “but Kārlis [the poet], who is himself a translator from English into Latvian, liked them, and says one sounds even better in English than in the Latvian original!”
  2. Translation is musical: For Matilda, who works with poetry, translating allows her to focus even more on the sounds of the original language, especially since she finds the Sicilian language “very musical, even more than Italian.” She compares her process to singing a beloved song in a foreign language without knowing the words: “it doesn’t really matter if you don’t get the words, but what kind of singer would you be if you didn’t get the music?”
  3. Translation is collaboration: All of my interviewees emphasized the essential collaborative element of translation. Diana admitted that, “as someone who is generally interested in doing work entirely alone, having to be deeply dependent upon another person (several, really), was very difficult. It did help me learn to trust others and be more open to collaboration.”
  4. Translation happens out loud: Because of this collaboration, my interviewees had to go through the initial translation process out loud, by asking all kinds of questions. Matilda related how she found herself asking her poet, “the strangest things, things I always asked myself, I suppose, but had never quite thought about until I actually found myself asking her: Is it a common, widely-used word? Does it have a historical reference of some kind? Does it recall memories of lullabies or folk songs? Does it call to mind other famous poems, or lines from other poems? Did you use it just for the rhyme?” Similarly, Allison noted that she borrows from her “mental process” of translation in her discussions with her Malagasy authors, working “sentence by sentence, word by word, mostly with me asking the connotations of every single bit.”
  5. Translation challenges translation norms: Lawrence, who writes and translates into both English and what he calls his “step-mother tongue” of Spanish, finds that translation has allowed him to eschew the traditional norm of “faithfulness.” He translates Latvian poetry into Spanish through literal versions in English, which serves as a bridge language. While translating with bridge languages can be controversial, the absence of direct translators from Latvian into Spanish has earned him support from the Latvian Writers’ Union. In fact, using a bridge language doesn’t bother Lawrence in the slightest: “It is more important for me to be able to share these poems with Spanish-speaking readers,” he says, “to try and convey as much as possible the language and imagery of these works.”
  6. Translation is invested in the text: To overcome any misconceptions and perceived flaws in the process, Diana believes that “having a focused, political incentive with the work” is the most important aspect of translating. Indeed, I could tell from my interviews that all four of these translators were heavily invested in the work they translate, since it has allowed them to bring lesser-translated languages to wider audiences, and has helped them encounter the process of translation in an entirely new way.

How about you? Do you translate from a language you don’t know? Is it something you would ever consider? Let’s continue the discussion!

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Christiana was drawn to literary translation through her love of reading, writing, and the French language. Her passion is for experimental writing that seeks to create new kinds of literature, such as the works of the OuLiPo. She received an MA in Literary Translation (French-English) from NYU in 2013 and is currently working on a PhD in Translation Studies from Binghamton University. Her first book-length translation, One Hundred Twenty-One Days, a novel by Michèle Audin, came out in 2016. She lives in Raleigh, NC. You can find Christiana online at www.christianahills.com
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