Booknotes: Favorite Writing How-to Books Part 4

Happy International Translation Day. Perhaps you are wondering why there is yet another Hallmark-like day for this. I had to look it up too. Wikipedia, that font of never-ending rabbit holes, er, wisdom, says that FIT (International Federation of Translators) had designated this day in 1991 for the official celebration of translation because it is also the feast of St. Jerome, the Bible translator considered the patron saint of translators. Of course, the celebration is for all countries, not just Christian ones. And, earlier this year, the UN also passed a resolution declaring September 30 as International Translation Day to recognize the role of professional translation in bringing nations together.

At the outset, let me say that I believe all of us, readers and writers alike, are translators. The very act of reading involves translating and interpreting the writer’s meaning and intent. The act of writing involves translating and interpreting one’s own meaning of everything we have ourselves read, seen, heard, experienced. So, translation to me is not simply the act of converting words from Language A to Language B. And, as such, I have found the following books on translation important to me as a reader and a writer above anything else.

That said, as some of you regular readers know, I’m working to do some literary fiction translation work of my own this year. I have finally settled on the short stories of Gujarati writer, Dhumketu. He was a pioneer of the short story form in the early-20th century. He was also one of my mother’s favorite literary writers. So, naturally, I have been revisiting these translation books with that mindset also.

Before I get into each of these books, however, let me also mention how translation from regional/local languages into English is a growing and necessary practice in India, which has so many languages and dialects. The 2001 Indian Census recorded 30 languages spoken by more than a million native speakers, 122 spoken by more than 10,000 people and 1599 spoken by less than 10,000 people. Without translation, then, many of our rich works of literature, dating back centuries, will remain undiscovered and forgotten. Beyond that, many of these languages will also continue to fade out entirely from lack of use. A language is not merely words, phrases, idioms, etc. Languages contain entire cultures within them; entire ways of thinking and being too.

Sadly, translation is not a valued, well-paying profession anywhere in the world and much less so in countries like India. Readers would much rather pay for mediocre entertainment and make them bestsellers than pay attention to the painstaking work of non-English writers. And gatekeepers in publishing industry worldwide would rather keep giving readers more of the same old, same old.

Edith Grossman, one of the featured writers below, had this to say about why translation matters (it matters, of course, for many reasons beyond this but this, to me, is the most fundamental):

There are roughly six thousand extant languages in the world. Let us hypothesize that approximately one thousand of them are written. Not even the most gifted linguist could read complex literary texts in one thousand languages. We tend to be in awe of the few people who can read even ten languages well, and it clearly is an astonishing feat, although we have to remember that if there were no translations, even those multilingual prodigies would be deprived of any encounter with works written in the 990 tongues they don’t know. If this is true for the linguistically gifted, imagine the impact that the disappearance of translations would have on the rest of us. Translation expands our ability to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from another society or another time. It permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions, and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.

Translation, I am learning through my own initial experiences, requires as much skill as original writing. As I said earlier, it is not simply about sitting with a Language A to Language B dictionary and simply rewriting. It involves understanding and leveraging the subtexts, cultural implications, and stylistic choices made by the original writer in Language A so they can be recreated in Language B without losing any literary merit in terms of plot, story, dialogue, insight, action, character, setting, etc. It is about being a close reader in Language A and being a skilled writer in Language B — both of which require rich cultural understanding, literary sensitivity, and a writer’s intuition.

Here are my current go-to books on translation. I believe that any writer, even if he/she is not a translator, will benefit from the advice and examples in these.

1/ Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman

This book is as much for readers as it is for writers and would-be translators.

Grossman is a Spanish-to-English translator and is most well-known for her controversial translation of the classic, ‘Don Quixote’. She is also one of the most important translators of the 20th and 21st centuries of Latin American fiction. Gabriel García Márquez once said, apparently, that he prefers reading his own novels in their English translations by Grossman and the other great translator, Gregory Rabassa.

As I have already given a sample quote from this book above, here’s a bit from Grossman’s 2003 tribute to Marquez at PEN American Center:

Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation. Let me insist on the obvious: Languages trail immense, individual histories behind them, and no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly. They can be linked by translation, as a photograph can link movement and stasis, but it is disingenuous to assume that either translation or photography, or acting for that matter, are representational in any narrow sense of the term. Fidelity is our noble purpose, but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable.

2/ The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading by Chad W Post

Three Percent‘ is a long-running website out of the University of Rochester and began as an effort to promote international literature. The moniker refers to a statistic about how only about three percent of English books published in the US are translations from other languages.

Post is the founder and publisher of Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester, a nonprofit press dedicated to publishing literature in translation. He runs this website, which includes a comprehensive translation database, a spirited podcast series, and the annual Best Translated Book Awards (BTBA).

I first came across this site and the book in 2012 and promptly bought the Kindle version. The book is targeted to publishers but is as much for writers and readers too. There are case studies by country, translator profiles, perspectives on how the publishing industry operates, and a whole lot more. It is essentially a collection of the best blog posts and lays out a “guide to the publishing industry,” which is useful for all writers, not only translators.

While I have several paragraphs highlighted on my Kindle and need to revisit someday soon, here’s a bit from the website’s About page that also explains the book’s main purpose:

The motivating force behind the website is the view that reading literature from other countries is vital to maintaining a vibrant book culture and to increasing the exchange of ideas among cultures. In this age of globalization, one of the best ways to preserve the uniqueness of cultures is through the translation and appreciation of international literary works. To remain among the world’s best-educated readers, English speakers must have access to the world’s great literatures. It is a historical truism and will always remain the case that some of the best books ever written were written in a language other than English. […] An even greater shame is that only a fraction of the titles that do make their way into English are covered by the mainstream media. So despite the quality of these books, most translations go virtually unnoticed and never find their audience.

3/ Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos

Growing up in India, we spoke Gujarati at home, English at school, Hindi with friends, and Marathi with pretty much everyone else (as we lived in the state of Maharashtra at the time.) At university, I studied German for two years and even wrote my major thesis in the language. During my first two years as a full-time engineer, I studied French and it is passable that I can still read and understand, though not speak it well. I found the connections and differences between all these languages endlessly fascinating and telling of their societies, history, and humanity itself.

Bellos is a much-acclaimed literary translator, biographer, and academic. And this book is not so much a practical how-to for translation as it is a history and anthropology of translation through the ages in all its forms. If that sounds boring, let me assure you the book is anything but. Bellos writes with a dry sort of humor and wit and has many wonderful insights and examples. I found this book useful enough as a writer before I had even considered attempting a translation.

You can read an excerpt here, so instead let me give you a spot-on description of the book itself from various bookselling sites:

Using translation as his lens, David Bellos shows how much we can learn about ourselves by exploring the ways we use translation, from the historical roots of written language to the stylistic choices of Ingmar Bergman, from the United Nations General Assembly to the significance of James Camerons Avatar. Is That a Fish in Your Ear ranges across human experience to describe why translation sits deep within us all, and why we need it in so many situations, from the spread of religion to our appreciation of literature; indeed, Bellos claims that all writers are by definition translators. Written with joie de vivre, reveling both in misunderstanding and communication, littered with wonderful asides, it promises any reader new eyes through which to understand the world.

Till next month then, readers and writers and translators. And, if you have come across other interesting books on translation, do share. Thanks.

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