On various occasions, I've spurned the idea of the translation metaphor. Translation is a skilled and artistic task in its own right and deserves to be regarded as such, so I'm wary of comparisons with ventriloquy, thespianism, ferry-operating, and so on. Last night, however, I watched a documentary that changed all that for me. Yes, I have finally found my translation metaphor.
The film in question was Twenty Feet from Stardom, the deserving winner of multiple awards. It's a bitter-sweet look at the careers of a number of background singers, from the first black women in the profession in the late 1950s to the young people following in their footsteps today. These are inspiring women who sing like you wouldn't believe, wear sparkly dresses and wigs, and love what they do. They've also been exploited like you wouldn't believe, from Darlene Love hearing her own voice passed off as other people's under Phil Spector, to their still largely anonymous role. Can you think of a famous backing singer? It doesn't count if she's famous for having an affair with a rock star. Nowadays there is less work for background singers because people are cutting corners, recording at home and tuning vocals electronically after the fact.
But think of some of the most amazing songs in pop history, and imagine them without background singers. Bowie's "Young Americans" would be a thin dirge (watch that video to see a young Luther Vandross in a polyester suit), Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" wouldn't make sense, and Ray Charles might as well have given up entirely. These women share stages with some of music's greats, they adapt what they do to suit each situation, and they get enormous joy out of their creative work.
One of the most moving aspects of the documentary was the fact that some of the women it portrays tried to launch solo careers and failed. In some cases it was bad luck or bad management to blame, but it was never down to a lack of talent. A few of the talking heads mentioned background singers' lack of ego. They're used to standing aside, literally not hogging the limelight, and there was a sense that this quality meant they weren't big enough divas to make it on their own. And this was what made me pick up on the similarity with translators once and for all. To be happy as a backing singer, it seemed to me, you have to appreciate the good parts about not being a star.
To labour the point, translators are writers but not writers. We make books work in another language, we do the same thing as writers in terms of choosing the right words for the right moment, but we're not the people who created the book. Our work adds texture and depth - imagine if Günter Grass had written The Tin Drum in English; it would be like "Young Americans" without Luther Vandross. And while we insist that our role is acknowledged, I'd argue that we're not the biggest divas in the literary world.
Ultimately, the translation metaphor can only go so far. We work at computers with books, not in studios and rarely on stages. But I'm happy to have found a comparable profession with a good portion of glamour to it. I don't write fiction and I don't intend to; I get enough pleasure and creative satisfaction out of translating outstanding writing originally produced by others. But I'd be happy to take someone like Darlene Love, who worked on probably thousands of awesome records and then built a solo career in her own right, as a role model. I have a sparkly dress and I'm not afraid to wear it, given the right occasion.