Finding Thrills in Translating Novels

“Translation is exhilarating. It is a ride across the roaring rapids of an author’s consciousness, bent close to the waters, listening for the deeper currents of his thoughts. It is the closest we can get to slipping into that room where the author sits in solitude, and peering over her shoulder as she works.Such a task is not only a pleasure for an incurable word nerd like myself; it also helps me be a better novelist.

Translation sharpens the very tools I need for my own writing. It forces me to hone in to the subtleties of language, its limits and reverberations, its meaning and rhythms and sound. It forces me to weigh each word, turning it around and around in search of unintended connotations or effects on the musicality of the text. It is difficult, during such a labor, to avoid falling in love with language, even if you’ve done so already many times in your life. But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of literary translation, especially when bringing work into English, is knowing that you’re doing your teensy part to make international literature more accessible across borders and cultures. In the United States, where only 3% of the books we publish are in translation from “any”language, even the best and most successful authors all too often find themselves against a linguistic glass ceiling that keeps their work from being known and enjoyed by the U.S. public.”


And here is my own experience with literary translation, from some years back:

“Original novel vs translation

As I feared earlier – translation of my own novel is resulting in a book that differs from the original. So far, and I’m talking here about a perspective taken from the first few chapters – I see a plot that begs to go in a different direction and my main character as developing into a whole different person.

I thought that translating will be more or less word for word, with some creative transitions, but it wasn’t working out that way. The only way I could do it was to read the original chapter, and rather than translate sentence after sentence – I’d do the whole thing without following the original text. I found that the result was much smoother and creative. Perhaps too creative… giving the new text a life of its own. Where does translation end and when does original work begin? How far can I go on, before I can call this translation an original? And, can I?

One other thing the translation of my own novel teaches me is the appreciation of there being different languages. I hope that humanity will never come to embrace a single language (unless we figure out how to combine many into one, but even then I would have my reservations: what about the different cultural experiences) as it will lead to a world much less colorful. Describing the same thought in a different language seems to give it a whole different life, life that is richer and more creative.”

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