There's no guarantee that the translations we get are the best possible ones—but that's not the point. Photo: PH

Between worlds: in praise of the literary translator

Translated fiction now sells better than English fiction. It’s time to celebrate the linguistic detectives who make it all possible
March 3, 2019

Here’s a translator’s tale: it’s early morning and I’m working on a scene from an Argentinian thriller. A woman has discovered her husband’s infidelity and leaves him a chilling message on the mirror written in rouge. In rouge. That doesn’t sound right. Although I’ve never tried it, I think it would be hard to write on glass with a cream rouge and impossible with a powdered one. Surely you’d use lipstick? I turn to WordReference, the online oracle for linguists, and ask the other forum users if rouge can ever mean lipstick in Latin America. Someone from Spain immediately says no. Lipstick would be pintalabios. Another poster from Mexico agrees, although he says that lipstick there is lápiz labial. Then the southern hemisphere starts waking up. A commenter says that rouge does indeed mean lipstick in Chile. And finally someone from Argentina agrees. Her mother always uses this word.

While writing is famously solitary, translating thrives on connection and collaboration. If I’m writing a book I tend to secrecy, but when I’m translating one I’ll rope in anyone useful. My plumber provided diagrams when I was working on a short story about a piece of jewellery lost in an S-bend. An architect friend explained how the foundations are laid for a tower block, for a novel in which a body is buried in wet cement. Various lawyers have helped unpick the workings of different judiciaries. The book club at the Argentine Embassy has been helping me with some Lunfardo, a language derived from Lombardy, honed in the prisons of Buenos Aires and as unique to that city as Cockney rhyming slang is to London. Sometimes translating feels like detective work and sometimes it’s like solving puzzles. So it was gratifying to learn that the renowned translator Anthea Bell, who died in October, and worked on the Asterix stories among other works, was also daughter of the first compiler of the Times’s cryptic crossword.

Of course, translating isn’t only the business of people who get paid to do it. Around 300 languages are used daily in London, and New York may be home to as many as 800, according to the Endangered Language Alliance. Children routinely interpret for their parents. An Italian architect may brief a Polish project manager working with Lithuanian builders on behalf of Iranian clients. Schools and hospitals host hundreds of languages. Not all of us can switch between languages but we all learn, from infancy, how to decode linguistic patterns.

Yet any talk of translating literature—rather than shopping lists or doctors’ orders—is oddly esoteric. Often there is a reference to WG Sebald, the German author of Austerlitz and first director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. The work gets described as an “art,” which seems like a way of putting it on a high shelf, out of the reach of mainstream readers. Apologies and anxiety accompany the conversation around it: people feel that they ought to speak more languages or be more interested in the cultures of other people. If “ought” could be eliminated from the equation, foreign literature might seem more attractive.

The tone is partly explained by a historic hurt. It’s fair to say that translators feel hard done by. A book can take two or three times as long to translate as it took to write. Yet translators are often either not mentioned in book reviews or fobbed off with an adjective: “vibrant,” “meticulous,” “faithful.” (At parties we wryly compare notes on how many adjectives a project garnered.) While it’s reprehensible not to mention the translator, it is also understandable that reviewers don’t often venture further than a glib pat on the back: they can’t see the work well enough to describe it. To compare an original text to the translation—assuming the reviewer even spoke the language in question—would be time-consuming and beyond the budget of most book pages. Only academics can justify that kind of scrutiny, which perhaps accounts for the dry tone of the conversation.

All the same, great efforts to broaden the appeal of translated fiction have at last started paying dividends. In 2015 the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize—re-established by long-term literary editor Boyd Tonkin, after a hiatus—merged with the Man Booker International Prize, with an award of £50,000 shared equally between author and translator. The International Dublin Literary Award offers €100,000, €75,000 for the author and €25,000 for the translator. Other new prizes include the TA First Translation Prize, endowed by Daniel Hahn, which recognises editors alongside translators, and the Peirene Stevns Translation Prize, offering £3,500, publication in the UK and a translating residency in the Pyrenees to a first-time translator.

These initiatives—together with a new generation of independent publishers, a lively crowd of online blogs and a hashtag, #TranslationThursday—have seen a boom in the sales of translated novels. Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard are household names. Small presses like And Other Stories, Peirene and Charco have quietened the “ought to” element by specialising in short novels from new voices. Fitzcarraldo Editions, producing highbrow fiction and essays in plain covers, saw its author Olga Tokarczuk win this year’s Man Booker International Prize with Flights. A study commissioned by Man Booker in 2016 found that UK sales of translated fiction had grown by 96 per cent since the millennium and that, on average, “translated fiction books sell better than books originally written in English, particularly in literary fiction.”

The figures come from Tonkin’s introduction to his The 100 Best Novels in Translation, an approachable compendium but one that, again, shies away from considering the actual work done by translators. Sure, they get their adjectives: Anthony Briggs’s translation of War and Peace is awarded four: “sturdy, readable, reliable, colloquial.” Edith Grossman’s Don Quixote merits five: “Faithful, readable, creative, festive, contemporary.” But each entry considers the plot, style and context of a novel (with inevitable spoilers) as though the translator were invisible and that style purely the author’s. We learn that husband and wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are “radical” in their approach to Tolstoy, but not how. (Pevear does not speak much Russian but works from a literal translation, and copious notes, provided by Volokhonsky.) For my part, I’ve always wanted to know why Gabriel García Marquez claimed to prefer One Hundred Years of Solitude in Gregory Rabassa’s translation. Was he just being polite, or is it really “stronger” in English?

These are not abstract questions, because language is fascinating and translation so subjective that it makes no sense to ignore the ways in which an original text has been rendered, sometimes in many different ways, over years or centuries. Perhaps there is a squeamishness about acknowledging that one interpretation can vary radically from another. Some readers feel so uncomfortable about questions of authenticity that they won’t read translations at all, for fear of not getting “the real deal.”

That’s where the anxiety kicks in, because a translation can rarely be both perfectly faithful and perfectly readable. As a very simple example, in Spanish verb forms do not need to be accompanied by pronouns so a character can perform a long string of actions without “he” or “she” having to be repeated each time. In English the repetition can be wearisome to read and some syntactical rejigging is often necessary.

Every translator, at the start of a career, hopes to produce a piece of work so seamless that it reads as though it had been written in the target language. Some make this a more literal goal than others. John Nathan, translating the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima at the age of 23, bought an expensive Montblanc pen like Mishima’s, and, like him, worked from midnight to dawn to recreate The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. For others, readability means smoothing out any “problems” in the original text, or updating it for current tastes.

Nancy Mitford earned a reprimand from Harold Nicholson for modernising The Princesse de Clèves, written in 1678 by Madame de Lafayette. “She both catches and reflects the tone of the original,” he wrote, “but there are moments when fatigue overcomes her and she relapses from the style of rue de Vaugirard into the style of Roedean.”

In their Russian translations, Pevear and Volokhonsky have been restoring the odd syntax that was tidied up by others. In War and Peace, in a scene that repeated the word “wept” (“plakat”) seven times, they have honoured the repetition, where others introduced some variation. They also won’t use English vocabulary that came into use after the publication of the book they are working on.

With experience, you realise that too smooth a translation loses that friction that should stand as a record of one language’s transition to another, and risks transposing authors, along with their words, to alien cultures. I can make an Argentinian teenager sound like an English one, but if I peppered his language with “like” and “not gonna lie,” would you still have the sense of being in Argentina?

Slang and expletives are the hardest elements to get right because they keep changing, and the task is complicated when the translation needs to reach readers in different English-speaking countries. One man’s “tosser” is another man’s “douchebag” (and let’s not get into “fanny”). Alberto Manguel and I argued once in my kitchen about a novel in which he appeared as a character himself. I had translated one line as “Alberto Manguel is an arsehole.” “But I would definitely call myself ‘an asshole!’” he protested. It seemed rude to disagree.

What makes a translation vitally different from the original text is its impermanence. For readers of English, Bleak House will always be the same, but Madame Bovary can keep changing. (Tonkin’s favourite is the latest version, by novelist Adam Thorpe). Every generation can have a new DonQuixote. That fluidity allows for a remarkable invigoration, but also alarms readers who want “the definitive text.” It’s hard to accept that translation cannot be perfect and it isn’t static. There will always be mistakes. Two thousand years ago, Saint Jerome rendered “keren” as “grew horns” instead of “radiated light” when translating the Bible and his choice spawned countless paintings and statues of Moses with horns.

It’s a confusion befitting the patron saint of translators, because unreliability is built into each step of the process. Cervantes acknowledges as much by claiming that the first part of Don Quixote was written by an Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli, and translated for him by an unknown morisco, both of whom, he warns the reader, may be liars. Words themselves change meaning over time and when I translate a Lunfardo word into English, I can’t hope to convey its cargo of nostalgia, exile and invention. But in making a bridge from an Italian/Spanish/Argentine word to an Anglo-Saxon one, I’m only extending the journey.

Increasingly it’s a journey that appeals to younger readers and translators. Deborah Smith chose to learn Korean for the sensible reason that it “seemed a good bet—barely anything available in English, yet it was a modern, developed country, so the work had to be out there, plus the rarity would make it both easier to secure a student grant and more of a niche when it came to work.” Her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the first Man Booker International Prize and sold 140,000 copies within the first few months of publication. One of the contenders for the TA First Translation Prize is The Sad Part Was, by Prabda Yoon, translated by Mui Poopoksakul and one of the first modern Thai works published in the UK.

This flourishing interest in other literatures comes at a time when the number of students studying Modern languages is in sharp decline and not only because of the misconception that “everyone speaks English now.” Language departments have been stripping the literary content out of their courses in favour of dull conversations about the environment. Yet for me and many others, reading foreign fiction, however imperfectly, sparked an enthusiasm for studying languages. I well remember my first short story, Horacio Quiroga’s “The Dead Man,” in which a farmer accidentally falls on his machete and knows that he is going to die.

For translator Frank Wynne, it was Guy de Maupassant’s En Mer. Now Wynne has compiled a hefty tome, Found in Translation, of the best 100 short stories from around the world, one sure to cause huffs (“The Dead Man” isn’t in it), but nevertheless a wonderful showcase of foreign fiction. The usual suspects are there—Mann, Borges, Chekov, Lispector—along with writers including Poland’s Boleslaw Prus (whom Conrad thought better than Dickens), the father of modern Bengali literature, Rabindranath Tagore and Chinese 20th-century giant, Lu Xun. The contemporary offering includes stories originally written in Azerbaijani, Catalan and Romanian.

Can we be sure that all of them are the best possible translations? Certainly not. There will always be something lost in translation—but to be so afraid of the loss that you deprive yourself of the gain? That really would make no sense.