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PEN World Voices Festival: Writers Who Are Translators and On Translation

By Austin Woerner

Translating a novel, or a poem, takes serious artistic acrobatics--one couldn't have staggered out of yesterday's back-to-back double feature of “Writers Who Are Translators" and “On Translation” without having arrived at this conclusion.

But who would have thought that voice and style are just as important for translating alarm clock instructions?

Writer and translator Cole Swenson gained a surprising insight from this former moonlight gig: even when translating something as cut-and-dried as a patent for a two-button hotel alarm clock, finding the proper voice can mean the difference between sense and nonsense.

“Which is probably why you couldn't get that alarm clock to work,” Swenson joked.

In translating literature, sometimes “sound is more important than sense,” to borrow Swenson's words. It wasn't surprising that this would be the consensus at a panel called “Writers Who Are Translators.” Novelist Paul Verhaegen, who translated his own Omega Minor from Dutch to English, lampooned the kind of translator who works slavishly to preserve every drop of meaning from the original--what such a technician produces is, at best, “so good, you can't believe it's not writing.” By contrast, for writers, “truth is a momentary thing. If you know the exact note that will come out when you open your mouth to sing, then you're not a writer.”

So, the moral of the story: a piece of literature--or anything else, at that--cannot simply be translated out of its native tongue. “It must be written into the new language,” Swenson said; otherwise, it “never fully comes into life.” I usually liken translation to figure-drawing: if you drew first a hand, then an arm, then a head, then hair, then a pair of glasses, and so forth, giving each detail scrupulous attention, you probably would end up with something on the page that doesn't look quite human. But if first you sketched the whole contour, trying to capture a pose, a gesture--only then would your model come to life on the page.

So how do writers react when this theory is put into practice?

At the beginning of the second talk, which could just as well have been titled “Writers Who Have Been Translators,” Danish author Morten Ramsland described what it felt like to read his own novel Doghead in English. “It was not a good experience,” he said. His own long sentences had been chopped into shorter ones, a chapter had been split in two, and, what was worse, many things were stated outright which in the original he had merely implied.

Moderator Michael F. Moore, chair of PEN's Translation Committee and a translator of Italian, pointed out that conventions differ from language to language about what is good writing. “In Italian, it's become fashionable to write long sentences with lots and lots of commas--in the US, it hasn't caught on,” he quipped.

In other words, the tricky thing about voice is that it is inseparable from culture and custom. Every voice says something unique about the speaker, and it can be difficult to find equivalences across languages.

For example, Peruvian novelist Santiago Roncagliolo described a challenge his own translator, Edith Grossman, faced in bringing his Red April into English. The narrator's voice identifies him instantly to the Spanish-speaking reader--it is the voice of a certain type of Peruvian official, poorly-educated, adept at stonewalling in a malfunctioning bureaucracy, pretending to investigate a crime with all due diligence but actually not interested in finding the answer. So how does one convey this in English, how does one make the English-speaking reader know, instantly, a thing so specific to a particular place and culture?

Voice, as it turns out--voice skillfully used--is still the answer.

Roncagliolo picked up the English translation and read the first paragraph aloud. Within minutes, the audience broke into laughter.

“This account could not be confirmed by any of the 1,576 residents of the municipality, who attest to having also been in the aforementioned alcoholic state for the past seventy-two hours on account of the aforementioned celebration,” he droned. Legalese!

Such is the power of voice in translation--to imply, effortlessly, the sorts of things that would take pages of footnotes to explain. The right voice puts the reader in the right frame of mind, so that they can fill the spaces between the lines themselves.

And how to make the reader understand the culture of the Quechua people of Peru, their dark rituals celebrating death and resurrection?

“Write thriller!” Roncagliolo exclaimed. “Everybody knows thriller!”

Published May 4, 2009   Copyright 2009 Austin Woerner

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