Spotlight on Literary Translators is a regular feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!
Spotlight on Literary Translator John Woodsworth
LC: What language(s) and genres do you translate?
JW: My literary translations are from Russian to English. Genres include novels, short stories, archival correspondence and other historical documents and—my favourite—poetry.
LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?
JW: My career as a literary translator evolved from an ‘incubation’ stage as a pupil in a French immersion kindergarten in 1940s Vancouver—through taking German lessons from the gardener at a boarding school on Vancouver Island—through an intensive summer Russian language course at Indiana University in America—through teaching Russian at several universities in both Canada and America—through translating archival materials for the University of Ottawa—to recognition by Russian-language authors seeking an English translation for their works. For a more complete answer to this question, please see my Translator’s Notebook which was posted as a guest blog in September 2012 here on Lisa’s site.
LC: What do you love most and least about this work?
JW: What I love absolutely the most about literary translation is the challenge of rendering a Russian poem into English while reproducing the original rhymescheme and metre. The translation of rhyming poetry is an art-form all to itself, where the translator must constantly strike a delicate balance between coming as close as possible to the author’s semantic message and at the same time staying faithful to the non-semantic features of the poem. But that is a topic for a whole other guest blog, which I am still hoping to write one day for Intralingo.
Something I love the least, or sometimes—depending on what kind of mood I’m in—(close to) the most, is endless discussions with Russian authors on nitty-gritty questions about the precise distinction among English synonyms (e.g., idea, concept, conviction, opinion, belief), or about how to distinguish a dialogue speaker’s mood as expressed in Russian punctuation usage (e.g., ellipses to convey a feeling of uncertainty). Least—because I can sometimes feel quite embarrassed that I hadn’t been fully aware of these delicate distinctions until questioned by a Russian-speaking author. Most—because such discussions cause me to think about the inner workings of the English language as never before, driving me to delve into dictionaries, thesauruses and online linguistic guides and reevaluate my hitherto held assumptions about English usage.
LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?
JW: A recent project that might be considered the highlight of my translation career was the autobiographical memoir of Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya (Leo Tolstoy’s wife), entitled My life, on which I was fortunate enough to work with a Russian-speaking co-translator, Arkadi Klioutchanski, under the editorship of University of Ottawa Distinguished University Professor Andrew Donskov. The University of Ottawa Press decided to give it the royal treatment—a beautifully produced 1250-page hard-cover volume (the author’s signature embossed on the cover), on fine paper with colour headings, including 64 pages of glossy illustrations, plus a lavish book launch at the university’s Tabaret Hall complete with speeches, readings, refreshments and a live chamber orchestra! Not only did this book meet with glowing reviews in both academic journals and popular print and electronic media (see for example, the reviews on Goodreads), but it garnered several Canadian and international awards, including (a) a listing among the Globe & Mail’s top 100 non-fiction works of 2010 and (b) that year’s Lois Roth Award for the best translation of a literary work into English, presented by the Modern Language Association of America. You can peruse sample pages from My life at Google Books.
This project was an excellent example of the value of collaborating with native Russian speakers, which I have done with many of my translations—either an editor, a co-translator, or (where possible) the author him/herself. In the case of My life, Arkadi Klioutchanski proved extremely knowledgeable about the Russian language and society during Sofia Tolstaya’s lifetime, while editor Andrew Donskov, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (with whom I have had the privilege of working for many years), is one of the world’s foremost experts on Tolstoy. The expertise shared by both these individuals made a significant contribution to the quality of the translation.
While the translation of an autobiography is naturally one of mostly prose, Tolstaya does cite, in whole or in part, 39 poems written by a variety of both professional and amateur poets (including herself)—thereby providing the opportunity for me to indulge in my favourite translation genre. It was an interesting challenge to render translations of poetry written in so many different styles. At the request of the editor and publisher, I translated all the cited poems in full, which were then included in a special Poetry Appendix at the back of the book, together with their Russian originals. Most of this Appendix can be read on-line as part of the Google Books preview (click on “Poetry Appendix”).
LC: Anything else you’d like to add, John?
JW: Music performance—specifically piano—is a personal hobby I most definitely consider related to my literary translation work. It’s another form of translation. You are taking a composer’s notations on the page and translating them into sound on the piano, so that those who aren’t familiar with reading musical notation in print can get the message by listening to the sound ‘translation’. Only with music I tend to allow myself more freedom than in my translation of prose or poetry. I often make my own arrangements of a piece, sometimes improvising on the original melody as I play. And occasionally I improvise without reference to any piece that anyone has written down. Even that can be considered a ‘translation’—a translation of the thoughts and feelings I am currently experiencing into a form that can be appreciated by others. Some recordings of my improvisations and arrangements can be heard on my YouTube music channel under the pen-name Ottaworth.
An interesting case of musical translation is seen in piano improvisations which ‘translate’ poetry directly into musical sound. Some years ago I was approached by a Catholic theologian and poet, Miroslava Linda Sabbath (1926–2013), to ‘translate into music’ [my terminology] a collection of her poems entitled Detour to Paradise (the collection was published in print form in 2002 by Sasquatch Writers Performance Series in Ottawa). You can read more about the history of this venture on my second Ottaworth channel, Ottaworth-Mirosab, starting with the Introduction. Then a click here will bring you to the first poem-piano ‘translation’ in the collection, to which I am currently (August 2014) in the process of adding the remaining 20 or so (at the rate of one or two a week). (Sabbath’s autobiography, The unveiling of God, is available as a Kindle download from amazon.ca.) What is interesting here is that the resulting improvisations are not ones I would have ever thought up myself—they derive their inspiration, form and sound-shape directly from the author’s poetry. They are truly a ‘translation’.
For a further exploration of the relationship between poetry translation and music, you might like to tune in to a talk I gave in April 2006 for the Alumni Writers’ Group at the University of Ottawa—hosted by the same Miroslava Sabbath—entitled: “The poetry of music and the music of the spoken word: a poet-translator’s view”. You can access a four-part video presentation of this talk on my website by clicking on the link above. To quote from a poem included there (which I wrote in English), “A poem is a song / That carries me along / The upward edge of a thought. … As thought o’ershadows ear, / I cannot help but hear / The music in the words.”
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