The Highest Art
in the World of Translation
"Not everyone who knows how to write can be a writer. Not everyone who knows two languages can be a translator."
– Nataly Kelly.
Moreover, not everyone who is a translator can translate fiction. Seriously.
Literary translation is definitely one of the most creative and challenging translator's jobs. It’s like the highest art.
"Problems relating to the translation of literary texts are not the same as those relating to the translation of non-literary genres."
– Susan Petrilli.
First of all, a word-for-word type of translation won’t do here at all. Any effort to keep as close to the original as possible will kill the translation making it sound extremely unnatural and awkward to any native Russian-speaking reader.
"Even the simplest word can never be rendered with its exact equivalent into another language."
– Kimon Friar.
In literary works, even a well-known word may have sometimes a very different interpretation. There are idiomatic and fixed expressions, figures of speech and other culture-bound elements that make it quite impossible to translate fiction in a word-for-word manner.
"Woe to the makers of literal translations, who by rendering every word weaken the meaning! It is indeed by so doing that we can say the letter kills and the spirit gives life."
That’s why one of the basic principles is, "Don’t just translate words – translate ideas!" That is, you take an idea from the source text and put it into words using the target language. The idea itself remains unchanged.
"Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes."
– Günter Grass.
So the most important thing is to convey the same sense by means of another language. And your task as a translator is to choose the most suitable words, phrases, grammar and syntax for that purpose.
"Translation means that a translator has picked one word above all the others: one winner, with all the finalists gone from the page forever. Translation always calls upon the translator to make a judgement call, and what the reader hears, then, is a judgement."
– Aviya Kushner.
It is essential to ensure that your selected wording always sounds as natural as possible. Why? Because readers simply can’t enjoy a book if they keep stumbling over awkward phrasings or foreign-sounding idioms and speech patterns in a text supposedly written in their native language. They don’t want to read a translation, they want to read a story. That’s why a good translator will always make readers believe that they are enjoying a piece of fiction that was originally written in their own language.
"A translated text, whether prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, is judged acceptable by most publishers, reviewers, and readers when it reads fluently, when the absence of any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities makes it seem transparent, giving the appearance that it reflects the foreign writer's personality or intention or the essential meaning of the foreign text – the appearance, in other words, that the translation is not in fact a translation, but the 'original'."
– Lawrence Venuti.
Yes, a good translation is always supposed to sound absolutely natural to target-language speakers, it should be well-written and fluent to read. That’s what readers normally expect from any fiction book.
"A good translation doesn’t make a book better. It doesn’t make it worse either. It just doesn’t get between the reader and the story."
– Feliz Faber.
In other words, a fiction translator should remain invisible to readers. The less they recognize that they’re reading a translation, the better the translator’s work.
"As translators are just re-tellers they should actually be invisible, and should be like see-through pieces of glass between the eyes of the reader and the source text."
– Valeria Viesti.
The more talented you are as a translator, the less noticeable your presence. You become absolutely invisible if the final text looks like it was originally written in Russian rather than translated into it from English.
"Translators are like ninjas. If you notice them, they're no good."
– Etgar Keret.
This means that a good translation should reflect the style of the original text, while the translator's own personal style shouldn’t show through. A good translator is supposed to capture and reproduce the color, emotion, tone and voice of the author, ensuring that the true spirit of the original literary work is transferred seamlessly into the target language.
"I realized that the translator and the actor had to have the same kind of talent. What they both do is to take something of somebody else's and put it over as if it were their own."
– Willard Trask
Moreover, the translation should be read as a text written at the same time as the original rather than at the translator’s time. For example, if you’re translating a classic English novel written in the 19th century, you should absolutely avoid using modern Russian terms, idioms or set expressions. The same is recommended for contemporary historical fiction.
That’s why literary translation is a very creative art. It involves re-processing and re-expressing the original creative work to come up with a credible and well-written narrative in your native language.
"Translation as a product is an artistic reproduction, translation as a process is unique creation, translation as a kind of art is therefore a combination of the art of reproduction and the art of pure creation."
– Jiří Levý.
So in fiction translation, the final text is always a recreation. But this recreation should be as faithful to the original as possible.
However, making your translation sound absolutely natural in Russian and at the same time keeping it close to the English original is the very hardest part of any fiction translator’s job.
"Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful."
– Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
So how can a talented linguist turn the trick? The answer may seem a bit paradoxical:
"The art of translation lies less in knowing the other language than in knowing your own."
– Ned Rorem.
Yes, absolutely. The secret is that a fiction translator should possess a profound knowledge of the target language and have a perfect "feel" for how to put ideas into words – that is, simply put, he/she should be a very good writer. Only having highly creative writing skills in his/her own language, will the translator be able to complete the job successfully.
"Target text readers do not want translations that read like translations. In consequence, politically incorrect or not, most good translators want to produce works that are going to be read, and they want to write well."
– Susan Bassnett.
Yes, you should write very well in your own language. Otherwise, any efforts will be next to useless.
On the other hand, having good writing skills without being able to reflect the author’s distinctive voice is no good either.
"To translate, one must have a style of his own, for otherwise the translation will have no rhythm or nuance, which come from the process of artistically thinking through and molding the sentences; they cannot be reconstituted by piecemeal imitation. The problem of translation is to retreat to a simpler tenor of one's own style and creatively adjust this to one's author."
– Paul Goodman.
Now, with all the above in mind, you will most probably agree that fiction translation is a job not every translator can handle.
Please remember that a poorly done translation can easily turn readers off your literary work and tarnish your reputation as an author.