In an age of globalised literature and artificial intelligence translation tools, to examine the function of literary translators is to question the substance of literature itself. Texts are not one dimensional. To render one piece of literature in a new language is to consider every word and combination of words within it as the deliberate intersection of a huge number of dimensions: context, style, tone, audible sounds, connotations, images, and the original kernel of information that the author wishes to convey.

In its most binary sense, in semiotics, the text is a meaningful unit or “sign” that combines a number of “signifiers” – here, the original words in the exact order written by the author – with the inherently ineffable “signified” – the concept or meaning set forth by the author using those words. Through “signifying” words in the original language, the author can communicate a “signified” meaning to the reader; the translator’s work thus begins with identifying and beginning to draw out this meaning beneath the words. Hence the original question of what makes the substance of literature: its literal meaning, that can be rendered word for word in another language? A story, image, or unit of information regardless of the style in which it is told? What feeling it generates in the reader? A marker or milestone in the culture in which it was written or a social stimulus which must be adapted to the culture in which it is read if it is to produce an equivalent reaction? As such, the translator cannot simply swap words and hope to retain a good amount of these; they must decide on a strategy and do their best to render whatever dimension(s) of the text they are deeming the most important, and they will endlessly decide, compromise, and ultimately compose their version as they make their way through the text. 

In this view, then, the essence of the text is not altogether in its words but in some inarticulable current of meaning that is held within them, one that somehow endures when it becomes necessary to prise away the original set of words written in a language and replace them with another. Friedrich Nietzche wrote (I believe in German) that ‘to use the same words is not a sufficient guarantee of understanding; one must use the same words for the same genus of inward experience; ultimately one must have one’s experiences in common.’ The translator’s job is not only one of writing but of perceiving – the literary translation is often the result of a life’s work, passion, and study, and has the resounding significance of opening the relationship between author and reader beyond the bounds of a single linguistic population. The translator takes on the enormous responsibility of rendering the author’s meaning and there is a kind of contract whereby the translator must do right by somebody: usually the author, sometimes (as may be the case in liberal translations, rewritings or adaptations) to their own authorial voice, and almost always to the reader in the target language. They are making them a whole new book! One could lightheartedly say that translators are often treated by general readership in the same way as parents by (ungrateful) children, that is, if the translation is “perfect”, we come away thinking what a fantastic book; if the translation is flawed we come away thinking what a terrible translation. But the situation is magnificently serious, including for non-fiction and traditionally “non-literary” texts: translators today have a direct hand in the tone and urgency conveyed in international research articles, news headlines, and government broadcasts surrounding the Covid-19 crisis, which influences the amounts of fear and hope that these generate, and consequently people’s behaviour. Translators tomorrow will play a crucial role in communicating how different leaders and populations behaved during these times, which will shape how the global population learns from itself and emerges into the future. And examples exist abound in the past. In July 1991 Hitoshi Igarashi, a literary scholar and the Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, was murdered in his university office following a fatwa and bounty issued by the then-leaders of Iran against Rushdie and all those who played a role in the book’s publication. The onus on the translator is varied and huge, and their role is fundamental to the existence of an international readership. 

Consider the translation of a single word. If there is an equivalent word (in literal meaning) in the target language, the translator will likely lose a number of other dimensions of the original: cultural connotations, the association to similar sounding words, cadence, double meanings, and so on. The structure of each language is unique and so the transplantation of one word into another language pulls away the connections to other words and meanings encoded in a single word of the original text. As the translation takes shape, new connections are formed and the translation may retain much of the original’s sentiment as well as certain idiosyncrasies of its own language, but it is intrinsically not the same text as the first. Then consider a single sentence: the translator may tinker around to come up with a sentence that preserves as much of the literal meaning or that has an equivalent figurative meaning (such as a similar idiom in the target language) but which greatly differs in length or sound. Translating poetry is pandemonium! The preservation of images, register, sound, syllables, and rhyme are in competition with one another and the translator must prioritise as they see fit, according to what they believe would have been more important to the author and their own capacity to work in the language. The phenomenon only expands as we consider the entire text: the accurate translation of one word or one sentence is not necessarily conducive to the best translation of the work as a whole, and we see the dynamic between language and text – repeated words as motifs, different registers, images, (rhyme!) – as it disintegrates through translation. The understanding that the translator will need to creatively repair some of these fissures benefits the legacy of the author (that we do not consider the translation as precisely their work) and recognises the skill taken to create the translated text.

The case feels less momentous when the author of the text is alive at the time of translation. This dialogue between author and translator can then take place (as best it can and in some degree through translation, given that they will most often have different native languages) in real time and the author can have more of a say in how their work is delivered into another culture. Their literary, cultural, and commercial hopes for the translation can be articulated, and as such the translation could be seen more as an extension of their literary vision than when authors are no longer alive to oversee the job. The Japanese author Haruki Murakami, who himself has translated American texts into Japanese, elects for his translators to transpose cultural references into the target language, that is, to aim to structure the reader’s experience around associations that they already know. There is of course a great virtue to the author’s sovereignity over translation techniques: ‘When a literary world that I have created is transposed into another linguistic system,’ Murakami wrote of this, ‘I feel as if I have been able to dissociate me from myself, which gives me a good deal of peace.’ This “Murakami phenomenon” of translatability and a great deal of talent have led to the author’s work being translated into over 50 languages and reaching a hugely international readership, sure, but it is worth remembering that in some degree these are different books that are being read, and perhaps some singularity should always be reserved for the original Japanese version. Sometimes authors translate their own work, where the roles of the author and translation strategist, superimposed, sharpen our focus on the author’s original, pre-verbal, sentiment or tone. The bilingual Irish writer Samuel Beckett, translating his own play En attendant Godot (1952, Éditions de Minuit) into Waiting for Godot (1954, Grove Press), changed the temporal marker ‘depuis la morte de Voltaire’ (since the death of Voltaire, i.e. 1778) to ‘since the death of Bishop Berkeley’ (in 1753). Bishop Berkeley briefly became Samuel Johnson in a London edition and then returned to himself, the loss of accuracy in time being demonstrably less important to the author than the reader’s understanding that he means, essentially, “ages ago”. What agency! The author was alive (so Beckett had to abide by the author’s wishes), but Beckett was the author (so he could do as he liked with the text). 

When the author is no longer alive or is unknown, the responsibilities and nature of translation may differ greatly. When authors die or when copyrights to texts expire, often up to 70 years later, the text enters the public domain and the author naturally no longer exists as an authority in the process of creation of this translation, this translated version, of their work. Literary translators then occupy an important role in shaping, opening up – sometimes, modernising – the text’s legacy and enter a transtemporal dialogue with the author, asking how would you want me to write this? Do you like what I have done with what you meant? Even: is this what you would have wanted? The translation can often be greatly influenced by the translator’s “relationship” with the author: how they feel the words were intended to be read, by their study, in some cases politics, the input of families, perhaps, adjustments made necessary under censors or by untransferable conventions in the target language. The translation is the result of a series of compromises, yes, but also an artefact exemplifying the nature of both languages (what remains when the original text has been pushed through these holes; what holes were there in the first place?), and there is material that the translator has used to rebuild the text in the target language: in the words of Greek-American poet and translator Kimon Friar,

‘this is not a problem of finding the proper word, synonym, or paraphrase, but of ringing over an event, a point of view, a situation, a talisman or totem that is peculiar of one particular nation, tribe, or locale, and which cannot be found or fully understood anywhere else.’

The posthumous literary translation is then decidedly a version and to remember this is to do justice to the author, to the translator, and to our own understanding of a foreign text which can otherwise be so utterly and haphazardly shaped by the edition or translation that we picked up in Oxfam books. It is a wonderful thing: how much closer we get to understanding a language, perhaps an author, and certainly the heart of a text if we superimpose the nuances in different translations, all different studied versions and interpretations. Or we may wish to divorce the author and the text fully (‘The birth of the reader must always be ransomed by the death of the Author’) and likewise the translation from the translator, and so on, but even more so then we would see that the translation is not a shadow of the original but a relative and a version: that the essence of the literary text is not solely its history and its genesis but its future in what it can become in the hands of readers.

In any case, be wary of me. Most of the quotations I used in this article are translated, and perhaps consult the translator of the IKEA instruction leaflets for a less idealistic response.

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