Tomorrow Pamplona Blog Tour 2011, Gig 7

There is nothing like reading literature in English that was originally written in your native language to make you wonder about translations. So when Peirene Press organised a blog tour about their newest release Tomorrow Pamplona, I had to ask Laura Watkinson, who translated this title from the Dutch original written by Jan van Mersbergen, about her approach to translation.

This month I have been reading several books that were translated from the original Dutch to English. Some seem to try to retain specific Dutch phrases or sentence structures, which might make the text seem ‘clunky’. I can imagine that others choose to take a wholly different approach and just make the book work in English, which might make it necessary to diverge from the original. What was your approach when you translated Tomorrow Pamplona?

Laura: Good question. There’s a lot of academic translation theory out there and discussion about various approaches to translation and how ‘visible’ the translator should be in the text. Some people feel that a foreign text should retain an element of ‘foreignness’, so that the reader is always aware that the piece is a translation and that it comes from a foreign culture. However, I’m not sure how many translators actually spend that much time contemplating their approach and deciding upon particular strategies. I’m also not sure that it would make for a very enjoyable reading experience.
I can’t speak for all literary translators, of course, but, having talked a lot about this subject with fellow translators, I believe that most of us primarily aim to create a text that reads well in English. I always hope to create the kind of writing I’d like to read myself, by trying to be faithful to the spirit of the original, rather than the letter. A great deal of a translation may well be fairly literal, but you’ll always encounter some notions or expressions that just don’t work in English.
My approach, if any, is first to get a feel for the book and then to try to maintain that same feeling in the English: read the original, internalise it and consider how to express that same idea in English. If the literal version works, that’s fine, but if it doesn’t I try to imagine the words I would use to get the same idea across in English or how I would respond in English if asked that particular question, for example.
If you spot something that seems ‘clunky’, it’s probably more likely that it’s a simple slip, rather than the result of an intentional translation strategy. It might have felt like the right translation at the time, but in hindsight was perhaps too literal. That said, I think it sometimes feels easier to criticise a translator’s choice of phrase than it is to criticise an author’s. As readers, we might tend to be on the look-out for clunkiness in a translation, because it’s something that we perhaps expect to find in a translated text, while we’re more likely to accept an author’s clunkiness as a deliberate stylistic choice or a personal preference.

I want to thank Laura for her elaborate answer. For more information about the blog tour and its other stops, please follow this link.

6 responses to “Tomorrow Pamplona Blog Tour 2011, Gig 7

  1. I’m liking the idea of accepting certain limitations of style (clunkiness) in an author that we would possibly put down as a particular writer idiosyncrasy, yet if it appears in a translation we blame the translator, never thought about that before, great question. great reply. Thanks.

  2. I agree, that’s a good point.

    On the other hand, I see translations (from English to Dutch, in my case) where the translation is so literal, that it just doesn’t make sense. For instance, I could translate the last bit of the previous sentence as “dat het geen zin maakt” [you don't say "it makes no sense" in Dutch, you can only say "it's nonsense"]. Yes, such bad translations DO happen!

    On the other hand, I think translating must be very difficult. I can’t do it! Especially difficult is translating just single words for friends “What is overijverig in English?” Erm, I don’t know! However, if I was speaking English with English friends, I would be able to use the word without thinking about it.

    Anyway, nice post, I always like to know more about how translators work.

  3. I think the translators for Peirene are doing a fabulous job. I’ve hardly noticed any of the ‘clunkiness’ that says ‘this is translated’ in their books whereas I’ve read several other translated novels recently – The New Moscow Philosophy in particular – where not only words but sometimes a whole phrase makes no sense at all. Keep up the good work!

  4. This was such an interesting insight into the translation process, which is a subject of interest to me to begin with. Laura’s point that “clunkiness” in a translated work is almost always put down to the translator whereas the same quality in the original language is respected as a stylistic choice is such a good one, and something I’ll keep in mind in future…

  5. A wonderful insight from Laura and great question Iris ,all the best stu

  6. Pingback: A Month of Dutch Literature: Looking Back | Iris on Books

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