The Joy of Translating

I’m grateful to Erik McDonald of XIX век for spawning an interesting discussion of translation and communication based on Masha Gessen’s December NYT piece on Anna Karenina. That branching conversation over the past couple of months led me back to a transcript of  a talk by Eliot Weinberger, a translator of Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges among others, given in Iowa City almost fifteen years ago. Its conclusion raises an important question for me–why don’t we talk about the joys and thrills and pleasures of translation? (Emphasis mine.)

Translation is the most anonymous of professions, yet people die for it. It is an obvious necessity that is considered a problem. (There are never conferences on the “pleasures of translation.”) Yet it is a problem that only arises in the interstices when one is not casually referring to some translated bit of literature: the Bible, Homer, Kafka, Proust. . . Could it possibly be that translation essentially has no problems at all? That it only has successes and failures?

A lot of the conversation around Gessen’s piece has focused on the act of interpretation being done by readers of the original and by translators. Reading is an active process, of course: texts do not convey meaning without a reader, and in the back and forth  between reader and text, numerous legitimate interpretations are created. The author floats out there somewhere, playing an ambiguous role in all this. The interpretive act of translation adds another layer of activity, some of it difficult and problematic. But why do we never seem to talk about the thrill of this additional layer of engagement?

For me as a translator,* the task of translation provides an opportunity to do two things I can’t or don’t really do as a reader. First, it compels me to engage with the text at a much more granular level than I ever would as a reader. I get to obsess over the meaning of words in English and Russian. I get to think about household hierarchies and types of carriages in 19th century Russia. I have good reasons to delve into secondary literature that I would ordinarily pass by as a reader. Second, once I’ve crafted an interpretation of the work I’m translating that seems to have integrity, I get to rewrite a book I love for English-language readers in a way that preserves my interpretation (not arbitrary or uninformed, but nevertheless personal) for posterity.

This last point is worth unpacking a bit, because it’s what makes me love translating. It’s the reason I now spend an hour or more most nights after work engaging with Tolstoy. Late last year, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sologub’s The Petty Demon for the first time. But the interpretation I built in my head while reading it is now gone, and I only shared it with a few people back then; I would have to re-read it to describe to someone else what it meant to me in detail, and the result would be slightly different from my 2014 interpretation. By contrast, my interpretation of Childhood brought me a lot of enjoyment while creating it, and it’s now on Amazon for anyone to read. When I next re-read Tolstoy’s original, I’ll receive it in a slightly different way. But my 2014-15 interpretation of the book is still out there.

If literary translation were my life’s work instead of an avocation, I would likely feel the slights translators discuss more deeply. But even after experiencing all the slings and arrows of the translator’s lot, we ought to hear more about why literary translators love this work. It excites me, and I’m sure it excites those who do it for a living. We should celebrate what makes literary translation beautiful and empowering for readers-turned-translators.

* I am a newly (self-) published translator of Tolstoy, see here. A full announcement on the blog is coming soon, but I want to get the paperback version prepped and released first.