The Department of Modern Languages and Cultures hosted an afternoon of Chinese whispers on Wednesday 18th March. Luckily, this was in a literary context, demonstrating the joys and sorrows of translating from one language to another – not a throwback to the well-loved game often found in the playground.

A guest lecture was delivered by Rosalind Harvey, a well-respected and award-nominated professional translator. Rosalind delivered an informative and thought-provoking talk on several aspects of a career in literary translation: her personal venture into the realms of translating professionally; how the business itself actually works – from how long an average book may take to translate to how much one can expect to earn, working with international authors to the workflow itself (which was eloquently described by Rosalind as ‘a patchwork way of making a living’); and how to enter into the world of professional literary translation. Rosalind helpfully provided several examples of organisations to join and events to attend if you are curious about translation, such as the BCLT Summer School (in partnership with the National Centre of Writing at UEA) and literary festivals (i.e. Edinburgh). An important organisation mentioned was the Emerging Translation Network, which supports early career literary translators (working primarily into English). This forum helps new translators to ask questions, seek or give advice, and even pass on work.

She also gave much helpful advice on how to begin a career as a translator. For example, read as much as you can, in and out of your second and third languages; find books that grab you in your target language, and if you believe they deserve a place in the English market, try and find an English publisher that publishes similar material into English. Next, write a reader’s report, and through this, build your reputation among publishers.

Rosalind also provided several interesting musings on the actual act of translation – in her own words, ‘I like being forced to reflect on my own practice.’ One of the concepts that she introduced stunned me: a translation allowing someone to read another language through translucent English – for instance, to make someone feel like they are hearing the Mexican Spanish thoughts of a Mexican protagonist by means of the English language; manipulating the English language in such a way as to reflect the tongue and tone of another language, but obviously still making it comprehensible for the English reader. Rosalind also described a ‘treasure hunt’ she had organised as part of a translation event; at the end, the two competing teams had to hold hands and form an archway for passers-by to cross under. This, she said, served as a kind of metaphor for translation itself: how collaboration is key to translation, how knowing other languages builds bridges, how we can take different routes but arrive at the same conclusion and all be winners.

The next part of the workshop gave us the opportunity to put pen to paper and try our hands at being a translator – and it certainly made me reflect on my own practice.

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Staff and student getting hands on practice

The approach to our translation was inspired by Multiples: Twelve Stories Translated In and Out of Eighteen Languages by Sixty-One Authors. This book is a veritable game of Chinese whispers – the original story we worked on was in Spanish, and had been passed from language to language to be translated; not by translators, but by authors. Some of these authors are well versed in other languages and are bilingual, and some are not, and the results are very interesting, if not, at times, perplexing (to put it lightly). In our group, we examined a translation taken from this book from French into English. At first glance, the translation checked out. The meaning seemed to carry across. But as we delved deeper, we noticed subtle differences – the translator had divided the text into five sections and named them in the English version, and had made some interesting choices in terms of adjectives – for instance, ‘le murmure’ of the sea became ‘the rustle.’ At first, I was irked by this seemingly reckless and bizarre approach to translation, but then some questions arose about the nature of the translator. Can the translator put their own identity into their translation? Should they leave their mark on an interpretation of the work of another? Should the translator be transparent or translucent? I was surprised to find that I am somewhat of a purist in my own approach.

There was also the option of giving homonymic translation a go, which was an entirely new strain of translation that I had never come across before. One takes a language that one is not familiar with, and instead of looking to convey the original meaning, you simply find words that have several appearances or sounds to the foreign words. In other words, it’s like a super highbrow and abstract form of word association, or, like making a surrealist painting with words and sounds.

The question remains – would I ever consider becoming a professional literary translator? Possibly. I think I would like the power that goes with it. But I have a newfound respect for those who dedicate their lives to providing us with new things to read, giving the words of one author (who may not be very well known) the ability to reach the ears of several.

See also:

British Centre for Literary Translation : http://www.bclt.org.uk/summer-school/

Emerging Translators Network: https://emergingtranslatorsnetwork.wordpress.com/