Jen Calleja’s foreword to UEA’s 2022 Literary Translation MA anthology, published by Egg Box and available HERE
Taking A Chance
Translating is not sauntering over a bridge, ferrying a package over a calm body of water, delivering a pre-wrapped gift with a bow. It’s more akin to painstakingly building something magnificent from scratch while doing a triathlon. I’m going to get even more hyperbolic, but don’t worry, I will immediately undercut it.
I recently described translating fiction the following way on Twitter:
translating a novel is like being given plans for a labyrinth & you spend ages going: what if the walls aren’t high enough, or the hedge is too opaque, what if this is the wrong kind of moss???
I thought this was pretty clever, and felt accurate. A few weeks later, I came across this tweet in the form of the ‘Nobody:’ meme by translator Brian Robert Moore:
Translators: translating a book is like climbing a mountain and passing the bones of the author along the way but it is you who have killed them and when you reach the summit you realise that it’s actually a mountain made of bones and all those bones, they are your bones
Some of us clocked this parody and felt seen. Ha-ha, I thought, good one. That’ll stop me coming up with over-the-top extended metaphors for translation. But others shared it, saying ‘true,’ ‘me,’ ‘accurate.’ It turns out that after translating a book filled with ‘heaps and heaps’ of bones, this is just how he felt; genuinely overwhelmed and disorientated by a mountain of bones. Probably. It’s hard to read sincerity on the internet. What I’m trying to get at is it’s alright to have the urge to try to communicate what literary translation is and then flounder or fail, and that it’s remarkable and miraculous that anyone translates literature, or anything, at all.
I’m positive someone more eloquent than I must have said something along the following lines before, but: though the meaning of ‘essay’ is ‘to try,’ wouldn’t it be so much more fitting – and helpful – if this were instead the meaning of ‘translation’? An essay is a way of giving meaning, connecting people through writing, bringing about understanding. We are also doing these things when we translate. And if we considered more properly translation as ‘an attempt,’ this could empower translators for at least two reasons.
Firstly, it would make translators, readers and reviewers alike accept that it doesn’t have to be perfect and that it’s one human giving it a try, a go, a fair go, more likely than not trying their best in the process. Secondly, it recognises that a translator took a huge leap to even decide to attempt it! They considered the prospect of having to rewrite a book, maybe a bestselling book, possibly an award-winning book, one written in another language, by an author they most probably greatly admire, and then concluded: I’m going to do it!
That’s why I feel vicarious pride and admiration for this impressive cohort of MA Literary Translation students, who have risen to this almost impossible prospect and, not only that, they’ve produced confident, sparkling, evocative, urgent, moving, alive work. Again, it bears repeating that they haven’t written essays or reviews or reports about a work of literature, they have attempted to recreate it. These pieces are unimaginably intricate and skilled events of creative-critical research. But they’re also absorbing literary narratives you can expect to intrigue, challenge, and entertain you. They are both at the same time, oscillating between the two before your reading eyes.
Slipping momentarily back into the hyperbolic, I want to congratulate them on taking that chance: on themselves, on translation. Every translator has to draw up their own map and find their own way, but they’re not alone: we have each other’s backs out there in the literary wilderness. This is just the beginning, and I hope the cohort stay in touch with one another, and reach out to us, their new peers in striving, endeavouring, attempting.