Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Literary Translation: A Practical Guide

In the last post, I mentioned Clifford E. Landers’ book Literary Translation: A Practical Guide. I happened to pick it up at the library a couple of weeks ago and I think it is a good book for beginners; it discusses many of the things I have posted about here before, and has information about a lot of aspects of translation, some of which people don’t necessarily consider. For example, his chapter on a day in the life of a literary translator shows the different decisions he makes (about contractions, honorifics, swear words, and much more) and the research he carries out as he translates. There is also information in the book about contracts, copyright, ethics, and ideology. His view is quite pragmatic; when trying to decide whether to define certain dishes referred to in a literary text, he says that he is not translating a cookbook or a sociological treatise, but a novel. Therefore, no long explanations or footnotes should be used. In sum, Landers’ guide offers a broad view of literary translation as well as some short discussions of particularly challenging or interesting topics, and it is worth reading.


Eric Dickens said...

Sounds interesting. Though I'm always a bit wary of guides to what is, after all, quite a personal and insight-instinct-driven activity, developed by way of trial and error over years of experience.

I've read through Peter Newmark's "A Textbook of Translation", but I got the feeling that the points he made, while interesting, were arranged in a rather haphazard manner.

Beginners do need clarity and guidance. We were all beginners once. Though I do think that these guides often concentrate on the micro-level, when what frustrates us in Britain (maybe the USA too?) is not where to put semi-colons, and whether to use capital letters for chapter headings, but the fact that literary translators are paid abysmally, and often have the status of typists.

As for things like dishes, you have the choice of precision and fluency. Not always such an easy choice to make. But too many italicised names of dishes, if it's in a novel, not a cookbook, can disturb the flow. Although a bit of couleur locale is nice too.

I tend to put all the explanations at the back of the book as notes. So those people who know a lot about the culture already are not disturbed by footnotes as opposed to endnotes, as the former disturb the shape of the page in a novel.

But the idea that "a good novel stands on its own" without notes, introduction, etc., is not necessarily true when you are dealing with a culture that "no one knows". I could not send my translations of Estonian literature to the publisher without an introduction putting the book in context. Because virtually no one in Britain knows the slightest thing about Estonia. And the novel would be read less well if basic explanations of geography, history and local customs were omitted entirely.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks for your comment, Eric!
I think such books are useful, because they offer information/comfort/support/help to beginners, and they often also have interesting points for more experienced translators, too. Of course, however, it is important for readers to remember that they needn't follow everything exactly and that many of the bits of advice are situation- and context-dependent. Your comment about needing to offer some information to readers is a case in point; only the translator of a given work is the best judge of what should be explained and what can be left out, and no guide can tell the translator exactly what to do and when.

Best wishes,