You are a translator. I am. We are all translators – in a way. Each day we navigate
an ever-changing landscape of words, impressions and experiences. We make
sense of the world by interpreting it. We make sense of ourselves by remembering
these interpretations – and memory, I think, must be the supreme act of
translation. Why else do we all have different versions of the past?
It has been said that if you gave one simple sentence to ten translators, none of
the solutions they’d produce would be identical – even if they were all translating
into the same language. It’s no wonder then that ten people who attend one
party are likely to have conflicting accounts of it. We all, I’m sure, have reluctant
recollections of some occasion when everyone claims we behaved rather
differently to the way we think we did…. Transpose this to the macro level and
you can see how each of us must have our own, highly individual, worldview.
I would venture so far as to say that translation, in the everyday interpretative
sense I’ve outlined, is the funnel through which we distil and form an identity.
Our perception of things defines us. That’s why you have optimists and pessimists,
intellectuals and jokers, fanatics and liberals. Yet, while, on the one hand, we
constantly filter reality, so much of what we receive is already interpreted for
us, pushing us to see things a certain way: the religious beliefs of a parent, film
adaptations of plays, books or short stories, classical music in new versions
influenced by conductors and orchestras, statistics presented in order to support a
political agenda. These are all instances of translation. However, in each of them,
we do not necessarily expect the level of fidelity to the original idea or creation
that we do with literature.
Great literature still has a status that commands a certain reverence.
Most translators are admirably humble about the task of translating fiction.
They refer to themselves as craftsmen – never artists. The artist, they feel, is
the creator of the original. But it takes tremendous artistry to translate well. As
readers we accept the role of the translator in a way that we never would, say,
with a piece of art. A perfect copy of a Picasso or Richter painting wouldn’t satisfy
anyone. In such cases one wants to possess the ‘original’ because the majority of
the value lies in the fact that the work is ‘authentic’ – touched and moulded by
the artist himself.
So what does that say about the power of literature? Often, an author has little
or nothing to do with the translated book. Yet the reader will see the author’s
name on a book cover and accept that it has come directly from that person. If the
translation is good, the reader will feel no sense of disconnection from the text or
disappointment at not being able to read the original. This is the gift of language,
the magic of stories. This is why literature can bridge divides like no other art