LITERARY TRANSLATION: A PERSONAL APPROACH

by Irena Joannides

As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 1, March 2013

I chanced upon literary translation some twenty years ago while writing a Literary Profile for the Cyprus PEN. My first attempts at translating poetry into English revealed that my approach to translation would be shaped by the stance I would take on the question of a free versus a faithful translation.

Realizing, almost immediately, that it was impossible to remain simultaneously faithful to the original and deliver an authentic voice, I had to decide which language to serve. Thousands of translated pages later, I remain committed to a free translation and maintain that the translator’s task is to interpret the work in an authentic voice in the target language.

I say ‘authentic’ because without authenticity any creative endeavor falters. Authenticity engages. It suspends the readers’ disbelief, enveloping them in the conjuration. A medium such as film utilizes multiple techniques to achieve this but in literature language bears the entire burden of the creative construct and is solely responsible for activating the reader’s imagination. If language fails to engage and suspend reality, the edifice collapses.

An exceedingly faithful translation is, by default, an obvious one, and an obvious translation fails to engage and convince. I would even argue that even a somewhat faithful translation suffers from the lack of authenticity to some degree. It may feel artificial, wooden and awkward, much like a poor acting performance.

Personally, I want to read a novel or a poetry collection, not an obvious translation of one and, to my mind, the gap between the two is unbridgeable. The pleasure of reading is as much about story, images and ideas, as it is about voice and perspective. Without such a magical, energized and living language literature ceases to exist. The text may still communicate the same ideas but the seduction, persuasion and magic are lost.

With the first stroke of the translator’s pen, the original dissolves. Its multilayered matrix of cultural references, sensibilities, allusions, emotiveness, symbolism and subtext nearly vanish. This is especially true for poetry, although the same holds for prose, even if its demands are somewhat different.

The hues and sensibilities of the original cannot be translated; they must be created anew. For authenticity to be achieved in translation, the work must be ‘reborn’. The translator should be a co-creating interpreter who transforms the original matrix into a wholly new expression.

How does one attempt this? I can only offer my personal experience and process, whether successful or unsuccessful… Over the years, I have followed the following steps:

1: The Impressionistic Stage. I do not read the original from beginning to end before I start translating. I read only what I am about to translate. This technique resembles automatic writing in that it captures my initial, raw and immediate impressions – simply the feeling of the language and of the images. The average reader will only read a text once; whatever that text manages to convey, it must do so upon that first reading. It is this first impression that I am trying to record.

Not reading the entire text also preserves the element of surprise for me; it brings into play my enjoyment of the language, before I embark on the painstaking process of de-construction and reconstruction. At this early stage, I try to operate below the analytical mind as much as possible. No matter much time I spend on the steps that follow, in the final draft I frequently settle on, or return to, these initial choices, after carefully having considered all the alternatives.

2: Analysis and Accuracy. Having translated the entire text, albeit quite roughly, I revise in fine detail and in very close comparison to the original. I pull back to a more faithful translation, verifying that I have rendered the original meanings as accurately as possible. When I am working in collaboration with the author, this is the stage when I require feedback. If the author is not available, I look to other sources for clarification.

3: Co-creation and Interpretation. Having arrived at an accurate translation, which is albeit built upon my initial impressions, I now feel free to improvise. I set the original aside and work on the text as though I were the writer. I allow my own sensibilities to come into play as I work on pace, rhythm, sentence structure, nuance, etc. This is the most pleasurable and interesting stage because I am exploring and co-creating. However, this ‘free translation’ stage is also the stage of incessant negotiation around the question: How far can I depart from the original?

4: The ‘Reader’ Stage. I set the translation aside for days or weeks, if possible, aiming to return to the first step, the Impressionistic Stage, as a reader. I gauge my responses, making sure that the new creative construct rings true, and by that I mean ‘as though it were written in the target language’.

I spend a great deal of time on the Free Translation and Reading stages. These are the most creative and difficult steps as they are rife with deliberation about how many liberties I should take with the text. Typically, I am uncompromising in favor of free translation and have learnt to rely on my sensibilities; I have nothing else on which to base my choices on anyway…

In closing, I should say that I do not like over-analyzing what I do or how I do it, since my diverse and lifelong experience with the creative process in many media has shown me, time ana again, that the more cerebral the process, the less successful the result. Like any form of creative writing, translation needs to be inspired and driven by subconscious, intuitive operations, albeit organized by rigorous analysis. It is, for me, a strange intersection between a highly cerebral and a stream of consciousness process.

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