On being more than a dictionary: translators as poets

I’ve jusInternational Translation Day Flyert got back from a weekend of translation events, socialising, networking. There was the annual International Translation Day conference at the British Library, and then there was the ITI German network workshop. They were both great events and I will write about them shortly. But at the moment, I am feeling increasingly cross about a remark made during the opening session at ITD.

The discussion was on the “Rise of the Reader”. I can’t remember how it came round to this, but somebody spoke about “exciting collaborations” between translators and poets, where the translator provides a literal version of the text and then the poet “turns it into literature”. This isn’t a new idea. It was around when I was doing my MA years ago, and I was offended by it then.

The thing is, I thought we’d moved on. I thought the work we’d done since then (by we I mean the translation community, advocacy organisations, individual translators, events like ITD itself etc) had successfully promoted the idea of the translator as writer in their own right. Indeed, that idea was stressed at all the other sessions I went to that day.

“I am a writer. I just don’t have to come up with my own stories!”

So why celebrate such a backward step? Why put the translator back into the role of a mere hack while a “real” poet or playwright turns their words into “literature”? I don’t translate poetry very often; it isn’t a field I feel very comfortable in. But if I do, I produce a rough draft, a literal version, and then I, not someone else, turn it into a poem. Or, if I don’t feel that I can, then I find someone else to do the whole thing from scratch.

Everyone’s favourite lazy cliché is, in full, that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”. But I don’t believe that. And if other people do, we need to educate them out of it, not go along with the idea. Otherwise, we are just dictionaries, just doing Google’s job for them. Whereas if we believe that a human translator is needed to tease out nuance, understand metaphor or allusion or whatever, then we should also accept that a human translator also has the skill to be a poet, to make literature.

French and English dictionaries

A translator is more than a walking dictionary

If someone sets out to translate poetry, they should have confidence in their own writing ability. They should be a good enough poet that their translation is literature. When I translate a book, I have confidence in myself as a writer, and it should be the same for poetry and theatre translators, and for the people who commission them.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not opposed to collaboration, I can see how an English-language poet and a translator-poet working together could produce something very interesting and exciting. But let it be a relationship of equals, of two poets. Otherwise, we’re undermining ourselves, putting ourselves at the level of a machine, whose translation needs post-editing.

We have more to offer than that; we just need the confidence to stand out and say so.

Dictionary image by Tim Green, (CC BY 2.0)

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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2 Responses to On being more than a dictionary: translators as poets

  1. Pingback: ITD and ITI – a whirlwind weekend, part 1 | a discount ticket to everywhere

  2. Great remarks on poetry translators as writers… have you seen Asymptote’s latest submission guidelines? A call for experimental translations of poetry… here’s a journal that really understands what literary translators are capable of! http://www.asymptotejournal.com/submit/

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