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The Demanding Art of Literary Translation

Joyful. Crushing. Exhilarating. Exhausting.

These are some of the words that literary translators use to describe the translation of novels, poetry, and other creative texts. Whether the work makes them frustrated or satisfied, it is often humbling to face the limitations of their own minds and those of language.

Imagine trying to convey in another language the specific-word-dependent charms of rhyme, meter, symbolic names, metaphors, or jokes. The tone of narration and dialog can also falter if the cultural context is not transliterated, and thus the personalities and deeper meaning of the plot will also be lost.

 The Demanding Art of Literary Translation

What about machine translation? Is it conceivable that a Norwegian novel could be translated by a machine into Japanese? “Don’t hold your breath,” says translator Juliet Winters Carpenter. To illustrate, she suggests, “Enter ‘Don’t hold your breath’ into Google Translate and you’ll get an injunction to not stop breathing. A human touch is needed to understand layers of meaning in context and to create something pleasurable to read.” *

Five techniques address the basic literary translation challenges: **

  1. Adaptation – replacing one cultural element with a comparable one in another culture (even if not exactly equivalent).
  2. Linguistic amplification – paraphrasing the idea of a word that has no equivalent in the target language.
  3. Compensation – moving or rearranging an element of the text when it does not work where it is when translated.
  4. Elision – Condensing irrelevant information in the original if its translation will interfere with the quality of the translation.
  5. Borrowing – retaining, without alternation, a word or phrase from the original.

Between and around these choices, there are skills and mental tasks that can’t be quantified and enumerated. The translator of Emily Dickinson’s poetry or a Dostoevsky novel must deeply understand the spirit of the time period, culture, language and text they set out to carry from the original into the world of another language. Some do so by reading the work in its entirety first, some by stepping page to page with the curiosity of any other first-time reader. If the author is still alive, the translator can consult with her/him throughout the process. Whatever their method, for a brilliant translation, profound mental capacity is required.

 The Demanding Art of Literary Translation

There are organizations and presses dedicated to translation that will make foreign voices available to the rest of the world. However, there is another problem: English is so dominant globally that there may be less literature being created in other languages in the first place. Minae Mizumura sees this in her country, Japan, and writes about the dangers of losing the special nuances and truths that each language contains.***

Skrivanek’s translators possess dedication and passion for the complex art of carrying meaning from one language to another. Contact us for any language help you need – we respect and understand the unique qualities of every language and culture we service.

* Absorbed in translation: the art – and fun – of literary translation, by Juliet Winters Carpenter, theconversation.com, 2015

** Translation and Translation Studies: Introduction to Translation, by Professor Amparo Hurtado Albir, as discussed at Culturesconnection.com, 2015

*** The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Minae Mizumura, Columbia University Press, 2015