Mistakes. Missteps. The dirty secrets, the errors burned into a translator’s brain. Like typos, often so tiny they barely register — which is the point — and yet in reviews they are seized on by critics as nuggets of proof that flag up the translator’s unworthiness for this undertaking, a kind of textual “Gotcha!”
This mining of mistakes by reviewers (and sometimes editors) to flagellate the translator is at worst unnecessarily cruel and at best unhelpful, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it must be acknowledged that regardless of experience and proficiency as translators we all make mistakes and secondly, by its nature this kind of review pulls these instances out of context and ignores the translation as a whole. I’m not suggesting that every translation is excellent and therefore above criticism, but rather that reviews of translations (where the translator is named, of course) should be, as Josephine Balmer suggests in her essay ‘Notes on Reviewing Translations’ in In Other Words (No 28, Winter 2006), “incisive and critical, of course, but also compassionate”: recognising not only errors but also reflecting on the considered, careful choices the translator makes in every line.
A recent experience set me thinking about mistakes. It was somewhat unconventional: a translation commissioned by an agent to sell translation rights rather than for publication. After negotiating an extension on the initial deadline (from impossible to merely extremely tight) I submitted what I believed to be a fairly decent translation on time.
However, the agent’s feedback was staggeringly unhelpful and cruel. She highlighted every word she disagreed with, making no distinction between minor errors and deliberate choices (even when what I’d written was more idiomatic English). Her unspoken expectation for a publication-ready text became apparent in her vitriolic criticisms, when I’d approached it as I would any other translation, assuming an editorial process to follow. In my experience, misunderstandings are usually ironed out in a thoughtful back-and-forth with an editor, but her emails made it clear that she despised my work.
I spiralled into a deep funk of shame. Was I a terrible translator? Deluding myself as to my ability? Bruised to the core – I’m supposed to be good at this – I sought solidarity on social media, and was overwhelmed by floods of supportive private messages and voicenotes from fellow translators, all of whom admitted they too had made mistakes in their work.
Having inched beyond the shame, I now see things differently: mistakes are inevitable in translation, but needn’t be wholly negative. As Kate Briggs suggests in This Little Art, “mistakes can be productive, too, as well as regrettable.” The trick is to interrogate your mistakes, find what can be learned from them to deepen your translation practice, and take courage. As Josephine Balmer puts it:
“Translation is about courage; about facing up to the impossibility of a task and yet still finding ways to accomplish it, of somehow squaring the circle.”
I take a breath, and pick up my pen once again.
Laura McGloughlin has been a freelance translator from Catalan and Spanish since completing a Masters in literary translation at the University of East Anglia. She was awarded the inaugural British Centre for Literary Translation Catalan-English Translation Mentorship in 2011. Among others she has translated work by Llüisa Cunillé, Maria Barbal, Flavia Company, Toni Hill Gumbao, and Joan Brossa, as well as for director Carlos Saura, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and the Association of Writers in Catalan (AELC). Her most recent publication is a translation of Wilder Winds by Bel Olid. During the residency, she plans to explore the extra-lingual factors affecting literary translation, especially the Anglophone literary tradition.