Rewriting the Mind


Translation is often seen as a mechanical process. Now that it’s easy to get a rough translation of a text over the internet, many view the complex practice as little more than the substitution of a word in a foreign language for its equivalent in their own.

The fact is that it’s not nearly that simple. Some languages express certain concepts much better than others and it is the job of the translator – and particularly of the literary translator – to ensure that the true meaning of a text does not become lost between the two. There are some who would argue that because a translator works from an existing source, he or she can never reach that peak of creative inspiration achieved by the author himself. It is partly for this reason that translation has often been relegated to a lesser order of literary importance than other kinds of writing.


Dr John Rutherford, Spanish Fellow at Queen’s and translator of Don Quixote (amongst other things), sees this as unfair. ‘Culture atrophies without influence from outside and the main channel for that is translation’, he says. ‘The imaginative use of language is every bit as intense, and arguably more so. I am a writer in the sense that my translation is my own reading, put into new words by me.’


Each translator’s ‘own reading’ differs from the others; Rutherford deliberately included the intrinsic humour of the Quixote in his own translation, where others see it as a serious work. Another difficulty lies in deciding how accessible a translation should be; should it seem almost as though it was originally written in the new language, or should it retain a feeling of alienation, what Rutherford calls ‘marks of otherness’?


Rutherford views translation as more of an art than a craft. Stories, he says, are things which we create as we read. A translator uses his personal reading of a source text to create a story which will make sense to its readers in their own language, whilst at the same time keeping its feeling of the alien and remaining faithful to the author’s intentions. An adept translator will find the middle way between the two, allowing the reader a sense of the text’s origins whilst ensuring that they understand it. It is not a mechanical and unoriginal process but a complex skill, requiring subtlety and imagination: the hallmarks, in fact, of the great original writer.


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