Today I read a short inteview from 1985 with the author Paul Auster. The interview is titled “Translation” and is in The Art of Hunger, Mr. Auster’s 1992 collection of essays, prefaces, and interviews. I actually read the book in Swedish translation, since that was what was available at my local library, so anything I quote from the interview I’ve translated back to English and thus is probably not the way Mr. Auster really said it.
Mr. Auster mentions how the poet Ezra Pound recommended that young poets translate. I definitely agree that translation is an excellent activity for anyone who is fascinated by and wants to work with words, since translation helps you look at language from so many angles. As Mr. Auster says in the interview, “When you translate, you work with the purely practical aspects of the craft, learn to engage intimately with words, and more clearly understand what you are really doing. That’s the benefit, but there is a disadvantage, too. When you translate, you have no sense of creating something of your own. There is no need to be brilliant or original, no need to attempt things you actually can’t manage.”
In other words, he seems to think that translation is a good way for writers to get more comfortable with writing, but is not a creative act in and of itself. I definitely disagree with this. I believe that it is creative work to have to try to understand what another writer wanted to say and then to find the best possible way to say that in another language, given the constraints of the target language’s vocabulary, grammar, melody, cultural aspects, and so forth. I understand that some poets (among other creative artists) like using specific forms, such as the sonnet or the haiku, precisely because the restrictions imposed by the form force them to be creative in a new way. That was what Oulipo was about. It is true that translators can not give voice to their own thoughts and feelings when they are translating and that they can not work on someone else’s text as though it is their own, but I at least feel that there is a creative challenge in translating and that I often am attempting something I can’t quite manage when I translate.