Languages are complex, differ widely and some things just don’t translate. This means translating literature is not simply about finding the corresponding words. In fact, translations often need as much creativity and work as the original.
Philip Gabriel, one of Haruki Murakami’s translators, said cultural differences, “are always tough. I think that, in part, we read foreign literature to learn more about foreign cultures, but it is precisely these cultural differences that sometimes resist easy translation.”
When he lists some of these you realise how much you’re missing out on by not reading in the original language, “Food, the differences between Japanese and Western houses, the way people are referred to sometimes by their role rather than their name (“Section Chief,” “Sensei”), references to Japanese literature, film, and TV shows/stars that everyone in Japan would know yet don’t conjure up any mental image with Westerners, the difference in the school year and in the business year (everything starts in afresh in April), even something like the fact that Japanese refer to ten months as the gestation period while we see it as nine.”
French translator Charlotte Mandell said, “The main challenge for me is making whatever it is I’m translating from French live and breathe in English.”
You might think that a translator would have to know and fall in love with a book before they decide to work on it but Mandell said, “I never read a book before I translate it, so that I’m approaching it with fresh eyes and an open mind — this helps me feel as if I’m more a part of the creative process of bringing the book to life, not just reproducing it in English but resurrecting it, reviving it, so that it sounds just as convincing and ‘original’ in translation.”
But just as there are different ideas on writing novels, there are many ways to translate. Poetry translator André Naffis-Sahely said, “What I do feel is important is that the translator has an intimate knowledge of the writer’s entire body of work, their culture, their language, their religion, their history, their context. I translated a lot of my Moroccan books while living in Morocco, imbibing their way of life, their way of being, their sounds, their food. A good translator should be like a method actor.”
Languages are sometimes extremely different, especially ones that evolved over thousands of years on opposite sides of the world. Japanese is a subject-object-verb language while English is S-V-O. Gabriel said, “Sometimes I feel like I’m giving away the punch line by having to put the verb so early on the sentence in English.”
Naffis-Sahely said, “Just as with architecture, translation is both a science and an art. A certain amount of intuition is needed and accuracy is not necessarily true north: the spirit of the poem is what truly needs to be preserved, and linguistic precision can be slightly sacrificed so long as this is achieved.”
Translation can be a big risk for the author. They hand over their work to someone so that it can be presented to a foreign audience but even when the work’s done, they mostly only have the word of others to know whether it’s good or not.
Naffis-Sahely said there is a generational divide in how much authors want to be involved with the process, “Younger authors tend to want to be more closely involved with the translation process, especially if they know the target language. Older writers prefer to have no say and to let their translators carry on with their work.”
Translations can turn out very different depending on who’s doing them. Mandell said, “Because all translators are different, there is no ‘correct’ way to translate anything. You could give one simple sentence to ten different translators and they would all translate it differently, because of their own sensibilities and approaches.”
She said, “In a way, all language is translation: We translate the language of the body, our feelings and thoughts, into words — which is not necessarily an easy thing to do. So even our ‘native’ language is a second language, after the ‘original’ language of the body and mind. If you approach language in that way, as a translation, then translating itself becomes another mode of expression.”
But with technology progressing ever year will translation soon become a profession of the past? Gabriel thinks this is a long way off yet, “I can’t imagine that this will happen for literary translation any time soon, at least Japanese-English translation, because of all the judgment calls that have to be made and, among other things, cultural differences that have to be taken into account.”
Naffis-Sahely is also skeptical, “No computer program can ever account for ‘intuition’. At the very least, this is hundreds of years beyond us for the time being. Google Translate can help one make sense of surface-level meaning… but it will completely miss out on puns, plays on words, the humour even. There is much more to language than meaning or sense.”