Translation, Translation Culture

Translation Essentials: Why Literary Translation Matters

literary translation

Technically, almost any writing may be called literature. However, literature is more commonly recognized as a work that displays superior written artistry of lasting value. These are not mere books or poems, these are writings that open our eyes and allow us to see a world beyond our own. Literature brings history to life, along with the lives and adventures of the men and women who went before us. It challenges our thinking, helps us read between the lines, and teaches us to identify themes and find hidden meanings. Other cultures may be explored and better understood. We are allowed to get a glimpse into the spiritual and political minds of people who are not like ourselves and experience the forces that drive them.

Translation of literature is unlike any other form of translation. If one is hoping for true fidelity to the original work, the translator needs to be able to get into the soul of the author in order to transmit the heartbeat and life of the work and not just literal meaning. An accurate translation of literature is different from an effective one. A true translation of literature will include additions, deletions, rephrasing, and re-characterization based upon the intent of the author.

García Márquez is noted to have said that the translation of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ was better than the original. Others argue that his statement was mistranslated and that he actually said that the translation was not better but more accurate. This debate in its very nature reveals the heart of literary translations.

When most people in the English-speaking world consider great literature, they think about William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Alfred Lord Tennyson, etc. However, English writings do not have a monopoly on great literature. Marcel Proust, Miguel de Cervantes, Homer, Leo Tolstoy, Dante Alighieri, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the list goes on.

If you noticed, Asian literature was missing from the above list. Why? Because the authors on the list have had their works translated into numerous languages and shared with the world. Many of the authors share a common “western heritage” and Latin alphabet. The Russians were Allies in the second world war. Works from India, China, Japan, South America, and so forth are not on the list because they have not had the same level of translation exposure.

Other than Vikram Chandra and Salman Rushdie, many in the west have not heard of any of the famous Indian authors. While many have at least heard of “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, most western laypersons could not name any other Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or other Asian author. This leaves a great hole in the literary knowledge base of much of the world.

Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Chekhov bared the soul of the Russian people to the western world through the translation of their literature. There is a better understanding of an entire people group that would have remained closed off if not for the bold, unadulterated narratives penned by these amazing authors and the expert translators who brought their words to life. If the east is ever to be truly understood, and the west is to be understood by the east, there needs to be a greater sharing of literature. The time is ripe for such an exchange like never before.

In addition to prose, there are a number of other genres of literature such as poetry. Poetry is even more difficult than prose to translate since the symbolism is often heavily based in the culture of the source language. Unlike prose, poetry has meter and verse to consider so translators cannot just transcreate at will, every word needs to be carefully considered not only for its ability to communicate intent but its ability to fit the scheme of the poetic style.

Complicating translation, literature is often given permission to move beyond the borders established for other forms of writing. Creativity is encouraged. New vocabulary may be created, there are new lands, ideas, and concepts that do not exist. How do you translate that which isn’t? Such is the job of the expert translator, someone who can take the passion of the new and unknown and bring it to life for an entirely different linguistic and cultural group.

In order to keep our own culture vital and vibrant, it is essential that we expand the depth of literary options available. It is estimated that in the United States less than three percent of published literature is from a translated source. This narrow view of the world keeps minds narrow and global awareness limited. To truly be among the most enlightened, a culture must be open to and read works from the great authors of the globe. As it stands, some of the best works ever written will remain unread by the vast majority of the world’s population simply because an effective translation was never made available.

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