Friday, 30 January 2009


Reading a recent interview with George Szirtes at Hungarian Literature Online reminds me of all those unsung heroes that give us a window into the world's literature, showing us its culture, mind and soul. Sarah Weinman talking about the death of Bernard Scudder (translator of the Icelandic crime writers Indridason & Sigudardottir) calls them the "neglected stepchildren of literature".

The writer and translator David Albahari in an interview says "When you translate, you have to transform yourself. You have to become the writer whose work you are translating in order to find the best solution in your own language. You have to understand how his mind worked, how he dealt with the problem of structure, how he chose his words,...When you translate, you simply become more aware of the power of language to create, and sometimes to destroy, the world"

Of course it can go slightly wrong, the last book I read (the Murakami of the previous post) was translated by Alfred Birnbaum and his choice of English words was grating in parts. The writer Grigory Chkhartishvili, better know by his pseudonym Boris Akunin insists on approving his translators and Andrew Bromfield has translated all the English versions of the Erast Fandorin series of novels.

I think that translators who are poets seem to be the more successful, possibly because they are alive to the slippery nature of words. Possibly the reason the Japanes Zen Buddhist poet Ryokan is one of my favourites is because I read the beautiful translations by John Stevens in the book 'One Robe, One Bowl'. His understanding captures the essence of this poet.

As an example in the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse there is a poem translated by Bownas & Thwaite as:

The wind is gentle,
The moon is bright.
Come then, together
We'll dance the night out
As a token of old age

Stevens renders this as:

The wind is fresh, the moon bright,
Let us spend the evening dancing
As a farewell to old age.

As George Szirtes says "There is no such thing as a perfect literary translation and such judgements are inevitably coloured not only by personal but cultural circumstance" Translations "inhabit the air between two cultures".

So lastly I give thanks to those gifted translators through who we can read the Russian Classics, journey through books to all parts of the earth and sail with Odysseus to Troy.

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