Literary translation as a form of creativity and expression

Literary translation can be considered a totally different translation discipline to that of the majority of texts that are being translated around the world every minute of every day, in the fields of law, engineering, medicine, IT, etc. Whereas these technical texts are mainly functional in purpose, literature is generally considered a form of creativity and expression, meaning the approaches to translating these texts vary greatly.

In this blog post we will discuss not only the linguistic challenges that literary translation can present, but also the inherently cultural considerations that must be made in the process. We will be inviting you to reflect on ethical concerns of translation ownership, as well discussing a cultural imbalance in the translation of literature, and the problems this poses.

Linguistic challenges

As we know, the style of language can vary enormously in literature. In literature, language is used freely, without the constraints and conventions of a legal contract, an instruction manual or a medical report. This, in turn, impacts on the translator’s approach, in their bid to recreate and stay ‘faithful’ to the original text and the author’s intentions. The translator is aware that the author has spent months, even years, carefully choosing their words in order to paint a particular image or spark a certain feeling in the reader.

But we must consider not only the voice of the author but also the voice of the translator; is this recognised or acknowledged and, if so, in what way? We must consider the extent to which the translation can be seen to belong to the translator. Translations can be seen to be inauthentic due to their imitative nature, as opposed to the original, self-expressive, unique authorship of the original text. Who do you think has greater ownership of the translation? To what extent do you think a translation also belongs to the author?

This can also be considered from a legal and economic standpoint; literary translators generally charge a rate per word or per 1000 words, which varies depending on the language combination and the country. Literary translators generally do not earn royalties from a published work, and there are a lot of arguments as to whether or not they should. Do you think literary translators should earn royalties?

Language can also be interpreted differently. Translation is in this way always the subject of conflict and contestation because the interpretation of the original text by the translator can always potentially be contested, due to its subjective nature. Literature can also contain linguistic features that are challenging to translate, such as ambiguity, irony, metaphors, names, and slang.

Harry Potter, a series that contains invented words, rhymes, anagrams and acronyms, required a great deal of creativity on the part of its translators, and many different strategies were used, though not all agreed with.

For example, in the French, ‘Hogwarts’ is translated ‘Poudlard’, and in Russian “Hufflepuff” is translated as “Puffendui” and “Ravenclaw” as “Kogtevran”. Translators of other languages, however, left the invented names the same.

Cultural challenges

In terms of its content, literature can comment on a wide range of topics – political, social, historical, etc. These can be very culturally-embedded, and therefore likely present concepts to the audience they are unfamiliar with, or perhaps completely unaware of.

An important and interesting concept to discuss, which is fundamental in the academic study of translation, is that of domestication and foreignization, terms coined by Lawrence Venuti. These are approaches to the translation of cultural content, particularly in literature. Whereas foreignization would present a foreign concept to a reader in a way that emphasises its foreignness, domestication would replace foreign concepts with familiar, ‘equivalent’ ones, almost concealing the original text’s origin.

For example, if a text contained reference to a Spanish ‘puente’ (bridge), meaning a Thursday and Friday or Monday and Tuesday being national holidays, this could be translated into British English as a ‘bank holiday’. This would imply the day off being only on a Monday, but would be guaranteed to be understood by its readers.      

Domestication is a translation approach that has been widely used by dominant Anglo – American culture in its translation of literature from other minority cultures. Many critics believe this to be oppressive of the source language and culture, and Venuti even wrote that it can be considered a form of ‘ethnocentric violence’. What approach would you rather see if you were reading a translation?

Literary translation worldwide

Venuti not only introduces us to the ethics and responsibility behind how a text is translated, but he also places an equal amount of importance upon what is translated. This is because of the momentous role that translation plays in constructing the identity of a foreign culture for another, therefore potentially having some involvement in ethnic discrimination, cultural appropriation, geopolitical confrontations, colonialism etc.

Likewise, then, what is not translated is as suggestive and influential as what is translated, as it contributes to the aforementioned representation of a foreign culture for another. It can be observed that dominating cultures place less importance on and noticeably publish less translations than perceived non-dominating cultures do, whilst their own social space is invaded by media translation of the dominant.

The dominance of English translation is clearly exposed by a simple search in the Index Translationum UNSECO’s website that claims to total more than 2.000.000 entries in all disciplines.

  • The results for all translations from English:

1279527 records found in Index Translationum database

  • The results for all translations from French:

 231008 records found in Index Translationum database 

  • The results for all translations from Spanish:

 55322 records found in Index Translationum database 

  • The results for all translations from Estonian:

5531 records found in Index Translationum database 

 The results for all translations from Bengali:

2404 records found in Index Translationum database 

To further this point, jurisdiction over the publication of translated texts can be considered from a commercial point of view, as publishing houses not only select and reject the texts that they want to print, but they also take part in the editing process of the final text, very often with no knowledge of the source language or even reference to the original text.

To conclude, the topic of literary translation is a fascinating and, at times, controversial one. Leave us a comment or tweet us with your opinions on this post, or with any interesting topics of discussion you have on literary translation!

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