What Do We Translate?
Last week, I was invited by AAT, the Spanish playwrights’ association, to join their translator-writer ‘speed-dating’ event. Many of the playwrights asked me what I was looking for. In other words, ‘what do I translate?’ Where to begin?
First: what appeals to me, what speaks to me. But why does it? Why this play and not the other? How can taste be divorced from bias? I tend to like a certain type of play over another. On the one hand, it makes sense to translate the work we relate to. But on the other, being guided by what moves us risks us translating more what represents us as translators than what represents the literature of the languages or countries we hope to platform.
Second: what comes my way. The AAT is a membership association. It is also specific to Spain, not to the Spanish language in general. What about the writers who are not members? What about the countries whose similar associations lack the funds to organise similar events? How do their plays reach a translator like me?
Third: what the decision-makers in my language want. Much of what I translate is by commission, based not at all, or only in part, on what I choose or suggest. How do those individuals and organisations make their decisions?
There is much to unpick here. Conscious and unconscious bias, markets and capitalism, tastes and fashions. Imbalances of power, nationally, linguistically and individually. Structures that promote some parts of society over others, that have done so for centuries, and that seem only now to be facing the scrutiny that is long overdue.
What do I translate? The tiniest portion of the playwriting of the Spanish-speaking world. There is so much more waiting in the wings. I hope to do better at finding it.
The questions we pose one another at our fortnightly residency meetings certainly aren’t getting any easier to answer; in fact, so expansive is this one that we’ve actually been talking about it for several weeks. Not only that, but this particular question has led to some exciting practical developments on my side of things, which I look forward to sharing when things are a little further along. But to be able to share some form of answer here, I can think about what I have translated, and perhaps my anecdotal evidence will resonate with others.
I have translated three books from Slovene into English. Two novels, and one picture book. Based on this output so far, I could say that I mostly translate opportunities that come my way. I translate when I have the time to do so alongside academic work, which is my main source of income. I translate when time and resources allow.
There are multiple initiatives in Slovenia that seek to promote the translation of Slovene literature, and I see advantages and drawbacks to those. This proactivity on the part of Slovene publishers and cultural organisations can be fantastic for an aspiring translator: to be offered an opportunity to translate your very first book, without having to navigate the laborious and opaque process of pitching to publishers is certainly an alluring prospect. But with that comes several conditions: your agency to choose a project extends as far as saying yes or no, and, given that the work is commissioned by those agents (publishers, cultural organisations) in the source culture, the rate of pay is a reflection of standard rates there, which unfortunately can differ quite considerably from rates that would be sustainable for a translator living in the UK. Sometimes, you get really lucky, and you are approached to translate a book that you also happened to absolutely love. And sometimes you are able to find funding to make the project financially viable (see: The Fig Tree, and thank you, English PEN).
I have recently made a commitment to myself to not accept this dynamic as fact. If I am going to continue translating – whatever percentage of my time and wage that might account for – then I would like to have more of a say in what I translate. The absolute ideal, of course, would be to have the support available to pursue projects that I believe in; to pursue those projects which I believe would find success among a UK audience. I’m prepared for that to be a long, slow road.
Last week I made a list of things I’d like to do in 2021. Not a ‘to-do’ list, because I wanted to avoid adding any extra demands. But a list of things that would make me happy, if I were to manage them this year. Finally producing a sample of a certain book I’ve wanted to translate for a long time is high up on that list. It will likely take shape over the course of many short bursts of time carved out of my evenings, but as a slow as that may be, I see it as part of my commitment to navigate the ways in which translation seems to happen from a less translated language such as Slovene. And it’s a step, I hope, towards changing the answer to the question of what I translate.
I remember the first piece of advice ever given to me about ‘what to translate’ which, in this case, was ‘who to translate’, came from the poet Charles Tomlinson, back in the late nineties, while I was a student on the MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cardiff: “Choose your poet as you would choose a friend.” Decades later, I still think that there’s truth in this proposition. It’s always good to feel a certain affinity with the writer’s work, because, in your words, it will become your work.
Collaborating with the writer is specially rewarding: I never tire of Christina MacSweeney’s workshop on the MA in Literary Translation at UEA on writer-translator collaboration, and her account of how ‘The Chronologic’ in the English translation of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth (Coffee House Press, 2015) came about. You can read the whole story in Necessary Fiction, whose ‘Translation Notes’ section “invites translators of literary fiction to write about the process of bringing a book into English” (http://necessaryfiction.com/blog/WhatsinaName).
Last February 2020, in what seems like another era, just weeks before the first lockdown measures were introduced in the UK, Christina and Verónica Gerber Bicecci led a wonderful workshop on their collaboration on Empty Set (Coffee House Press, 2018) and Palabras migrantes / Migrant Words (Impronta, 2019). Again, the friendship and sense of an artistic vision shared was very apparent.
Last week I was able to read for the first time a ‘cuento olvidado’ (forgotten tale) by Alejandra Pizarnik, whose existence I knew of and whose date and place of publication I knew exactly ( May 18th 1958, La Gaceta de Tucumán) but had, nevertheless, been unable to get hold of. I finally wrote to an academic at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Florinda F. Goldberg, who in 1996 had published an article on this story. Fortunately, I received a prompt reply and the cuento olvidado, ‘El viento feroz’, appeared in my inbox the next day. I realised, after I’d printed it, made myself a coffee and sat down to read it, how excited I was: what a rare pleasure, to read something new written by a writer whose work I know so intimately. And the sense of affinity was there again: the memory described, in my mind, called upon my own childhood memory, the divide between the light (on the stage) and the darkness of where I sat, or didn’t sit, as I spent the entire show running up and down the narrow row on that first night at the circus, oblivious of what was going on around me… I’ve been reading a lot about translation and memory recently and in Mapping Memory in Translation (2016) Siobhan Brownlie writes about how a translator uses her autobiographical memory in undertaking a translation. It may be that we tap into our memory of specific words and the connotative load they bring with them, or simply, as I’d like to argue, the fact we have our own memories, and tapping into them is one of the many things that makes translation possible.