Literary Translation: The Art of Bridging Cultures
Literary translation is the art of carrying a piece of prose or poetry from one language to another. But unlike the technical nature of interpreting and translating conversations or official documents, translating literature requires great deliberation and strong linguistic capability in both languages.
When done right, a translation can be so powerful that readers become loyal to that version and prefer it to other translations. In this post, we’ll look at the skills required to translate literature, the impact that translation can have, as well as its current presence in the publishing industry.
Literary translation transforms how we think
Why is literary translation important? If books and stories are meant to show readers a range of experiences and perspectives, then translated literature is absolutely crucial to doing that. Through translations, you can travel to various places and experience various lives without even leaving your armchair. It makes accessible to us the worlds of the foreign narrators, their concerns, their conundrums, and their joys. We can see cultural similarities and differences in a way that encourages empathy and consideration of new points of view on all sorts of issues.
Not only does foreign language literature expose us to different ideas, it also continuously boosts diversity in genres and storytelling craft. Can you imagine a world without the realist psychoanalytic masterpieces of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the magical realist tales of Gabriel García Márquez, or the ruminations on human relationships of Elena Ferrante? These insightful materials that can provoke thought in readers as well as inspire writers all over the world to broaden their horizons with their writing — something that would be far more limited without literary translations.
It allows authors to reach a global audience
While we’re on the topic of how writers benefit from translation, let’s talk about the advantages in reach that translation can give a book. The world is globalizing, meaning readers are becoming more and more interested in diverse stories and viewpoints. English-speaking markets are increasingly interested in stories that aren’t set in English-speaking places — and vice versa. Literary translators help bridge this gap and connect authors with new groups of readers worldwide.
The best translators are world-class writers
To accurately capture and realize the nuances that a piece of literature has in its original language in a translation, it is required that the translator has linguistic skills and a strong cultural knowledge. First, the translator has to make sense of the writing in its cultural context, as well as the voice and purpose of the original author. Then, they must find a way to meticulously replicate all of that in another language.
As Gregory Rabassa — the translator of One Hundred Years of Solitude — once said, translating novels is similar to acting: “You’re playing Shakespeare, but you’re playing Hamlet as well.” You’re trying to step into the author’s shoes while the author simultaneously steps into their character’s shoes. To coherently recreate that action, along with the tone and style that the author uses throughout this process, you have to be a very skilled writer indeed.
Regardless of what type of translation they do, translators are very knowledgeable in every language they work with, and they’re especially skilled with the language into which the work is translated. It’ll be of no surprise to you then that many translators are also well-known authors, as in the case of Haruki Murakami or Jhumpa Lahiri.
They’re also first-rate problem-solvers
While every translator has their own approach when tackling a piece — some may read the whole book first before starting their work, some translate a rough draft that they go back and edit later — they are all expert problem-solvers. This is especially evident when you look at poetry translations. For example, take the two translations of the Japanese haiku by Matsuo Bashō above. Each translator would first have to understand the structure of the poem — which, in Japanese, follows the five-seven-five syllable system — and the purpose of this type of poetry. Verses of haiku often capture a moment in nature, an observation that appears regular, yet is rendered powerful by the skills of the poet.
While both translators, in this case, choose to replicate this whimsical moment in their own way. Barnhill strives to preserve the original syllable structure by using shorter, simpler words. Meanwhile, Hamill picks a more imaginative interpretation with more forceful verbs and adjectives. Barnhill might have conserved the concise nature of the haiku, and Hamill stuck by the imagery, but both would have pondered their choices carefully, trying to balance rhythm, structure, and tone to produce their translation.
As such, every piece of literature to be translated is a puzzle to be solved with great care and eloquence.
Translation is shaping contemporary publishing
As important and admirable as their work can be, translators didn’t get much public recognition in English-speaking markets until recently. Though the majority of publishers have no coherent policy on this issue, one of the Big 5, Pan Macmillan UK, made a positive move when they committed to putting the translator’s name on book covers in 2021.
Additionally, there is growing recognition within awards like the International Booker Prize. Translators are being celebrated for their hard work with prizes specific to their field of work, like the National Book Award for Translated Literature.
And while traditional publishing may be notoriously slow-going, indie and self-publishing are providing more options for translators and readers alike to approach a wider range of literature.
At Reedsy, we help connect publishing professionals with authors hoping to publish and sell their books. If you’re interested in translating literature, why not sign up (it’s free!), create a profile, and start getting requests from authors?
Literary translation is a wonderful profession that enriches our bookshelves as well as our imaginations. Considering the continual growth in its popularity and recognition, translation is also a field of work with plenty of potential — and we’re all here for it.