Monday, 25 March 2013

On Admiring Admirable Translations

Today I've been thinking and corresponding about how to admire translations in a learning context. This is partly because I remembered a time when I and a group of fellow translation beginners had weekly meetups, where we would share knowledge about aspects of translation, give each other little talks and workshops, and so on. One of the things I rather relished doing was looking at published literary translations and comparing them with the original. And what we inevitably ended up doing was trashing the translator's work. Now at that time, as I mentioned, none of us had translated a great deal and we were interested in honing our skills. But I was sure I could have done a far better job than the professional literary translator whose work we picked apart. I have no doubt now that that was utter nonsense. Now that I've been working in literary translation for a little while, I'm also finding it more and more difficult to say, This Is A Good Translation - as in of an objectively high standard and fit for all purposes.

I've been planning for a couple of workshops I'll be leading, and talking to creative writing teachers in the process. What I want to do is hijack the creative writing teaching method of admiring great work by other people. I want to do a similar thing to that fun exercise of before, comparing translation and original, only in a positive way. I want to seek out really great translations and kowtow in awe before them. I want to pick up on great solutions to things that plague me in my everyday translation work, I want to celebrate creativity in translation and voice and tone and playfulness and trickery and the all-round magic of an admirable translation.

A couple of people have given me some very useful hints, which I shall just blatantly reproduce here. Charlotte Ryland, who has taught translation at Oxford, told me she asked her students to write an essay comparing two published translations of the same text:
Last year, for example, we set two versions of Musil's Toerless - with one (highly praised by the students of course) by a certain Shaun Whiteside. I really like the exercise, as it's a way of doing an in-depth critical analysis without encouraging students to denigrate or make distinct value judgements (x is good, y is bad, etc.). I've also worked on comparative Tin Drums with them in class, which is fascinating.
And Karen Nölle, who has been holding workshops for German translators for many years, wrote:
I've been doing this for years in my seminars - on the last morning, by which point we've honed our critical skills, we analyse all the things that have been done well in a text - and bow down before good ideas and skills. I find it a very good method for boosting one's own ambition...
My own workshops are never going to be the same as Charlotte's in terms of scope - the people I "teach" are not students but aspiring and emerging practitioners, and I don't feel qualified to teach translation theory. Nor will they match up to Karen's seminars, which usually involve working with experienced literary translators. But I intend to foist the admiration of excellent translations upon my fellow experimenters the no man's land translation lab in Berlin and on participants at the BCLT summer school. Because surely admiring each others' work is key in recognising our profession as a creative one.

If readers have any suggestions for admirable translations, I'd be very grateful for comments.

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