Are translators writers?

I should note from the outset that I only translate when necessary and don’t consider myself a translator. I find the nuances of language very interesting, particularly when the languages are far apart, but for whatever reason moving a work from one language to another doesn’t interest me as a potential project. That is not to say that I don’t admire those who do.

I have long thought that translators don’t get the credit they deserve. Take a language like Japanese, for instance, which is so high context that very little is verbalized in order to communicate vast amounts of information and feeling. In a culture that strives for uniformity from its frozen north to its tropical south everyone will have nearly the same background concepts and referents in mind and so very little need be said to mean a lot. A comment like “It’s cold today” will refer to the current temperature but will also recall seasonal changes, and with them the associated customs, foods, and behaviors. Characters in a Japanese novel will of course share all of this and the author need not spell any of it out for the reader, making the challenge a translator faces in trying to put all of this into English a daunting one. What to add and what to leave out? Should purely cultural elements be defined in endless footnotes or should she try to cram everything into the dialogue? What about words like amaeru that can’t really be properly translated at all? (Loosely, a pleasant feeling of dependence or the receiving of indulgence.) More to the point, how closely should the translator try to follow just what is written when going from a language where subjects are often dropped, verbs can frequently come last, have numerous declensions, and makes extensive use of the half-said to leave matters intentionally vague? When faced with a task such as this why don’t we consider translators as writers?

The answer to that last question probably comes from the perception that a translator is not a creator. I think this is an inappropriate way of looking at what they do. Emil Cioran, a Romanian famous for his writings in French, once remarked that the second language user is more creative than the native speaker because he is not bound by the same deep, unconscious conventions and is therefore free to invent as he goes along. A translator, even when going from her second or third language into her first, follows a similar pattern in that she is forced to find novel ways of saying in Y what has been written in X. Donald Keene, a scholar and translator of Japanese literature, has said it’s thought a translator should take a famous work and show what he can do with it. As the multiple translations of literary classics show each translator adds something entirely new and entirely their own when they engage in this. Such may not be writing in the sense in which the word is commonly used but it still falls squarely under the rubric of writing unless one adds all sorts of caveats to the term. While we’re at it, why not insist that only handwritten scripts qualify as writing? You see my point, I’m sure.

Credit then where it’s due. We ought to think of translators as writers, and if we wish to be more specific we can subcategorize beyond that in the way we do for writers of fiction versus writers of nonfiction, thrillers versus romance, history versus historical fantasy, etc. We might even wish to put their names right there on the cover next to the original author. Why not?

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  1. Nick Cody
    Posted January 10, 2016 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Synchronicity! I happen to be reading the Ciardi translation of Dante’s Inferno at the moment. He argues that a translator should aspire to be like “transposition” in music, where a musician playing a violin can not possibly hope to produce the same sounds that were written for piano. In this case, Dante would be the pianist and Ciardi the fiddler. But another school of translators typified by Nabokov argues that the translator has a primary responsibility to translate the literal meaning of the work as much as possible. If necessary, poetry in the original language should become literal prose in the tranlation. Otherwise, it looks like the translator is trying to outshine the original poet and that’s a bit much to take. He despised translators who in their effort to satisfy a rhyme scheme twisted the sense of the original. Being a monoglot, I have no truck with the various positions of this issue. Good read though!

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted January 11, 2016 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing those views, Nick. I think that for myself I’d agree with Nabokov as far as the importance of keeping the sense of the original as much as possible (and for something like poetry I imagine it would often have to lose its original structure), but as far as a general position goes I like the sound of Ciardi’s take.

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