They stand to the side and let others get the accolades. Their job requires that they listen and measure and invoke, and yet we rarely give them a second thought, let alone know their names. Their work is unglamorous, seldom considered, poorly-paid and often dictated by tight deadlines. And yet the success of the entire project and that of its creator rests on their performance.
Culture is a moving thing, like water. It travels and irrigates and goes stagnant if it is not shared with other territories. Translators are not only the people who stamp the passport of cultural works about to be showcased overseas, they fly the plane, too.
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In Ireland, where the quality of our literature is inversely proportionate to the size of the domestic market, bookshelves beyond the English-speaking world simply cannot be ignored. So important are translations, in fact, that official bodies such as Literature Ireland exist to midwife the process.
“It was set up in 1994 by the Arts Council as a reaction to the fact that Irish literature wasn’t being recognised as Irish around the world,” says Executive Director Sinéad Mac Aodha. “There was a need to say that it was.
“Also, it can improve the income for writers. There’s a whole other world out there so why shouldn’t readers in other territories read your work as well? It’s good for the writer’s profile, and can lead to festival invites, awards nominations, who knows, maybe even a Nobel Prize.”
Literature Ireland attends all the major book fairs (Frankfurt, London, Beijing, etc) peddling the finery of this island. There, it meets publishing houses from around the world, and after coming to an agreement, it facilitates and supports translations in the host country. Translators almost always work from the second language into their mother tongue, and each publishing house tends to have a small stable of trusted local incumbents.
Trust, it turns out, is a commodity upon which no price can be allocated. Literature Ireland needs to know that the translations they are funding will do justice to the work in question. For this reason, Mac Aodha explains, it asks the publisher to submit a sample translation. This is then given to an independent expert and a report is commissioned to see if hits its targets.
For a piece of by-numbers genre fiction, this is perhaps simpler. But modern literary fiction can have a real seam of stylistic boldness about it, and even if it doesn’t, it can be laced with endemic idioms, turns of phrase and gnarled syntax. How do you pass that kind of work through the filter of a professional translator who has lived all their life in a culture vastly removed from their Hibernian client and come out the other side with style, flare and personality intact?
With great difficulty, seems to be the answer. There are some things that can be done to ensure baby does not go the way of bathwater, however. Extensive background research is always done into a writer when a contract is undertaken, for example.
Elizabeth MacDonald is an Irish academic, translator and writer based in Pisa, where she has lived for more than three decades. Her debut novel, A Matter of Interpretation, comes out in September, and tells of a 13th-century monk who uncovers lost knowledge and upsets the establishment while translating the works of Aristotle.
“You have to research in order to know what you’re dealing with,” she says. “It allows you to second guess the writer with greater accuracy. The poet George Szirtes compared it to ballroom dancing – the writer takes the lead and the translator has to have that unerring instinct for where the writer is going to take us. It’s a shadow activity.”
Irish-born proponents like Frank Wynne and Shaun Whiteside are stars of English translation who are called on to retool the works of literary heavyweights, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Michel Houellebecq. Having grown up surrounded by two languages, could there be something that predisposes us to this skill?
“I think Irish people are linguistic, potentially,” Mac Aodha says, “but the problem is that the publishing scene here is quite small, so literary translators are at a disadvantage in that most of the English translating work is being done in London.”
MacDonald, meanwhile, feels that being born on a small island and being intrigued by visiting Spanish students contributed to her fascination with other cultures.
Literature Ireland also hosts foreign translators here so they can immerse themselves, something which helps add a layer of cultural sensitivity to proceedings. Recently, it has welcomed a French translator working on bringing Lisa McInerney’s The Blood Miracles to Gallic audiences, and has organised for a Danish translator to do a stint in Belfast while she reworks Anna Burns’ Milkman.
Another is Hiroko Mikami, Professor of Irish Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, and now translator in residence at the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation. She is currently working on bringing the works of the great playwright Tom Murphy to Japanese readers, and in the past has translated and published works by Frank McGuinness, Brian Friel and Thomas Kilroy.
“You have to understand the source text and its background,” she says, “but it is more important to have a good writing competence of the target language. I always try to keep the rhythm of the source text. I find jokes, particularly witty wordplays based on ambiguities of words or in puns, are very challenging. I try to not use footnotes, but sometimes I have to.”
While Mikami understands the market for translated Irish theatre will be quite niche in Japan, she is confident Murphy’s themes will travel, and has always found the Galway playwright to be “a gateway” to understanding Ireland’s culture, history, and people.
Thanks to obligatory inclusion on front covers, translators are more visible in her homeland, some attaining near household-name status. While this part of the world has been slow to catch up, progress is being seen. The International Dublin Literary Award now gives 25pc of the overall €100K prize money to the translator if the winner has not originally been penned in English. In 2017, when José Eduardo Agualusa won, his translator Daniel Hahn used part of his €25K to establish a prize for debut literary translation.
And given what’s at stake, it seems ludicrous that translators have been treated like invisible utilities. We are living in an age where readerships demand to have access to the latest Scandi-noir offering or sensuous Japanese literary fiction. The circulation of culture, knowledge, language and ideas is central to human progress, and always has been. While translators agonise over tricky linguistic equivalences or uncooperative local idioms, let’s ensure they get all the recognition and support they deserve.
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