A contributor to the BBC Russian Service, Anna Aslanyan is a journalist, literary translator, and public service interpreter. Her translations into Russian include works of fiction by Mavis Gallant, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, Rod Liddle, and Ali Smith. Aslanyan grew up in Moscow, lives in London, and feels most at home in books.
Below, Anna shares 5 key insights from her new book, Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History. Listen to the audio version—read by Anna herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Literal translation is a myth.
In 1903, Mark Twain published a short story collection. Titled The Jumping Frog: In English, Then in French, Then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil, it contains three short stories. The first is “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” one of Twain’s earliest works. Originally published in 1865, it’s a humorous piece set in California during the Gold Rush era. The second story is a French version of it that appeared in 1872, and the last is the author’s revenge against the French translator: Twain’s own, deliberately literal translation of the unfunny version back into English.
Whether or not Twain’s French readers found the story funny, the original certainly is—though not as hilarious as the double-translated piece. The former begins, “There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley.” The latter reads, “It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley.” The character in the original is described as a compulsive bettor—“Any way that suited the other man would suit him—any way just so’s he got a bet, he was satisfied”—and the same can be concluded from the other text, which reads: “All that which convenienced to the other, to him convenienced also; seeing that he had a bet, Smiley was satisfied.” The next sentence is transformed more substantially: “But still he was lucky, uncommon lucky; he most always come out winner” becomes “And he had a chance! a chance even worthless; nearly always he gained.” It goes on for twenty pages, “no more like ‘The Jumping Frog,’” to quote Twain again, “than I am like a meridian of longitude.”
“Multilingual communication can be effected in infinite ways, but word-for-word translation is seldom one of them—and so much the better.”
This anecdote demonstrates that translation is not about simply putting the right words in the right order. Sure, multilingual communication can be effected in infinite ways, but word-for-word translation is seldom one of them—and so much the better.
2. Poetry needn’t get lost in translation.
The American poet Robert Lowell once said of his selection from the European canon, published under the title Imitations: “I have been reckless with literal meaning, and labored hard to get the tone . . . I have tried to write alive English and to do what my authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America.” Some accused him, predictably enough, of appropriation; some noted that the poems sounded a lot like Lowell; some said they could now hear Homer, Rimbaud, Rilke, Montale, and other great poets speak in natural American idiom.
Poets dabbling in translation, or translators who also happen to write poetry, are an easy target for criticism. They hunt for ideas to steal wherever they can, the argument goes, passing it off as a quest for inspiration; often they can’t be bothered to learn the language of those they imitate, and even when translating from the original, they believe that their status, sealed with the cliché, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” gives them the right to be free, or less than diligent. What their accusers tend to ignore is that the works they allegedly appropriate don’t end up in their private collections, but are shared with the world.
3. The invisible translator can be highly visible.
There is a photograph of Jorge Luis Borges and his American translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni walking down a street, the old writer leaning on his young companion’s arm. Di Giovanni moved to Buenos Aires in 1968 to work with Borges, translating his prose and poetry into English. Di Giovanni would make a rough draft in advance; sitting with Borges, he would read half a line to him, first in Spanish and then in English, and they would discuss possible improvements. Describing his collaboration with Borges, di Giovanni describes their idea of a good translation: “Aspiring to inconspicuousness, invisibility, it should bear no telltale trace of the original.” This is typical of the anglophone culture, which traditionally favors the invisible translator.
“To make yourself invisible in a translation, you have to put a considerable amount of effort into it.”
When the photo of the pair appeared in the press, di Giovanni thought of it as his moment in the limelight. A young American coming to a country under a military dictatorship, unpopular among democracies, to secure international recognition for its most famous writer—it was a gesture the nation appreciated. “Which was why the story was about me,” di Giovanni says in his memoir The Lesson of the Master, “why the pictures were of me with the national treasure on my arm, and not of Borges with me on his.” So much for the translator’s invisibility, it’s tempting to say.
But then again, visibility is a relative notion, defined by where you stand. To make yourself invisible in a translation, you have to put a considerable amount of effort into it, which in itself can hardly go unnoticed. If the reader doesn’t know that the book they have before them is a translation, it may appear to them merely as a text written in their language; otherwise, it’s only natural that the translator’s fingerprints should show on the transparent surface. Whatever their strategy, it’s never hard to detect that the words they use are, ultimately, their own.
4. Domestication and foreignization are two sides of the same coin.
In 1857, Edward Fitzgerald, a wealthy English gentleman, became interested in an eleventh-century Persian manuscript and set out to translate it. Two years later, he printed his work under the title Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the Astronomer-Poet of Persia. By the turn of the twentieth century, it had become one of the most widely read and quoted poems in English.
As scholars insist, there are two approaches in literary translation: domestication and foreignization. According to the textbook definition, when Fitzgerald describes a certain establishment in Khayyám’s text as “this batter’d Caravanserai,” it’s an example of foreignization, while “the Tavern Door agape,” used in another stanza, is an attempt to domesticate the same place, making it sound less exotic. However, these are clearly relative notions, each meaning different things to the author and the reader, whereas to the translator they look like two sides of the same coin.
“What any act of translation inevitably domesticates is the source, whereas what undergoes foreignization in the process is the target language.”
It always takes me a moment to remember that domestication stands for cultural adaptation, while to foreignize means to preserve exoticism. The logic of this dichotomy is as vague as why it should be a dichotomy in the first place. After all, what any act of translation inevitably domesticates is the source, whereas what undergoes foreignization in the process is the target language. Comparing these techniques with each other is like comparing apples with oranges. Surely the task of the translator is to create a hybrid of the two?
5. Robots are not here to steal our jobs.
Machine translation tools have been improving fast. The range of their applications today is vast, and includes cross-language information retrieval, automatic subtitling and captioning, text-based messaging, direct speech translation for voice messaging systems, and so on. The technology is also making inroads into the publishing industry, with more and more books being translated by machines and then post-edited. One example of this is Deep Learning by Ian Goodfellow, Yoshua Bengio, and Aaron Courville, which came out in English in 2016, and two years later appeared in French, translated by DeepL, one of Google Translate’s competitors. The French edition did well, although it’s hard to tell how much of its success was due to human input.
One of the people I interviewed for my book, Thierry Poibeau, a researcher specializing in digital humanities, is the author of a book called Machine Translation. Working on its French edition, he updated the conclusion and put it through a translation tool. “It was French,” he told me, “but it was too literal, too close to the English original, so it was easier to rewrite it from scratch.”
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