30 setembro 2010

International Translator's Day - from Russia and Canada with Love

This year International Translation Day on September 30th is held under the slogan “Quality Standards in a Multi-Voiced World”, which for the first time was authored by the Russian Union of Translators. International Translation Day was instituted by the International Federation of Translators in 1991.
The Russian translation school boasts centuries-long history. It saw its golden age in the 19th century, when translation was elevated to a high art. In our days, the translation profession has become part of mass culture. Simultaneous interpreters are wanted everywhere, and translators are required to be knowledgeable on politics, economics, engineering and other areas. But the high status of translator has to be maintained whatever the odds, said Russia’s Culture Minister Alexander Avdeev at the First International Congress of Translators in Moscow early in September. 
"The Russian translation school has to be preserved and promoted to be the world’s best," he says. "To this end, we must guarantee translators excellent working conditions. Translation from Russian or into Russian opens a window into global culture for people of Russia and for those living in former Soviet republics."   
A translator’s job is to foster international understanding. Russia is ready to open a center to assist in this understanding. The Director of Moscow’s Library of Foreign Literature, Yekaterina Genieva, comments.  
"The Library plans to set up an Institute of Translation, or a ‘House of the Translator’," she says. "It hopes to receive financial support to popularize Russian authors abroad through plentiful, high quality translations, which demonstrate increasing professionalism."      
A Translation Institute would render a good service to foreign translators of Russian literature who help advance Russian authors in the world market along with their Russian colleagues. A Russian translator from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jarco Milenic, has this to say.
"I’m fond of translating contemporary writers, such as Sorokin, Sadulaev, Nechiporenko, and contemporary poets – Kuprianov, Amelin. I draw inspiration for my own novels, plays and essays from Russian classics – Chekhov, Andreev, Bryusov, Sologub. I’ve always loved Russian literature, both classical and modern. When I was offered the job of chief editor of “The Foreign Writer Library” in Croatia, I decided that I would do the translation myself and learned Russian on my own."  
The German classic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote that “Those who know nothing of foreign languages, know nothing of their own”. This quotation must be particularly relevant to translators, whose job presupposes a love of the Word, no matter what language it’s uttered in. 

Members of the Literary Translators Association of Canada wrote the following op-ed, which they’ve allowed us to post here on The Afterword.
September 30 is International Translation Day, also known as St. Jerome’s Day in honour of the patron of translators, interpreters and librarians. We, literary translators, would like to take this opportunity to step out for a moment from the backstage of the literary scene to directly address the reading public. The profession of literary translation is as old as literature itself and is practised today by thousands of women and men in every corner of the globe, including, of course, Canada. Yet for most readers it remains a somewhat shadowy vocation.
To shed some light on the subject, imagine opening a book written in a language that is completely or mainly foreign to you. You turn the pages, run your eyes over the print, but to no avail—the book refuses to speak to you. Objectively, you have become illiterate. Thus, for most Canadian readers, the classics of Western literature—Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Pessoa, etc.—those of other civilizations or, for that matter, the Bible, as well as contemporary works like those of Haruki Murakami or Herta Müller, and even Canadian works written in the other official language or an indigenous language—all of them would remain mere collections of meaningless squiggles were it not for the skill and devotion of literary translators.
For some insight into what literary translators actually do, it can be helpful to view them initially as a particular kind of reader. Like other readers, translators begin by bringing the author’s work alive in their own minds. The notion of reading as a creative act is fundamental for literary translators. However, they take the process a step further by rewriting the entire book in their own first language. Hence, the translator-as-reader is also a writer, but one who specializes in translation. It is in this sense that the translator can be regarded as the literary counterpart to a musician interpreting a composer’s work, “translating” it from the written score into a live or recorded performance on a musical instrument. The same analogy could reasonably be drawn with other interpretive arts, from stage acting to film directing.
But isn’t it going too far to portray literary translation as an art? After all, isn’t the translator’s work largely technical—essentially a matter of replacing words in one language by equivalent words in another? The short answer is no. Although translators must possess a wealth of practical knowledge, experience, and skills—as do photographers, dancers, and other artists—such expertise is not enough. Bi- or multilingualism, an extensive vocabulary, a mastery of syntax, an ear finely tuned to the cadence of sentences and the pacing of paragraphs, wide-ranging knowledge of the literatures and cultures relevant to their work: these attributes are required of a literary translator, but they alone will not suffice.
What a literary translator needs above all else are intuition and imagination. For these are the qualities that allow her or him to slip into the shoes not only of, say, the narrator, but of the author as well, and to see the setting, events, and characters as the author might see them. The creative capacity to empathize is essential in order for translators to achieve the greatest possible intimacy with the author’s purpose and style, and to adapt their own writing style accordingly while at the same time maintaining their unique voice as artists of translation. Indeed, the translator’s distinctiveness is what explains why various translations of the same work (for example, the several published English translations of Kafka’s Metamorphosis) will be recognizably different, much like the varying interpretations of the same piano concerto, each bearing the unmistakable touch of a particular pianist.
The translator’s “performance” of the author’s text results in a new version of the work, one where the translator’s reading and rewriting are transparently superimposed on the original. If it is a good translation of a good book, then its readers’ lives are enhanced and enlarged, as are the culture and society into which the book has been introduced.
Canada is endowed with a considerable and outstanding contingent of dedicated literary translators working in English, French and a constantly expanding list of “non-official” languages. They have played a vital role in making writers such as Michel Tremblay, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Marie-Claire Blais, and Rawi Hage known not only to more Canadians, but also to international readers. Their talent and professionalism are crucial to the continuing cross-fertilization and enrichment of our literatures and therefore deserve the recognition and support of all those who understand the importance of a vibrant writing and publishing environment.

For 18 years, Daniel Poliquin worked as an interpreter in the House of Commons. As politicians sparred in Canada’s two official languages, it was his job to ensure everyone understood one another, so that a conversation, however loud, could take place. Poliquin’s career as an interpreter, from which he retired in 2008, has much in common with his other job as one of the country’s foremost English-to-French translators. Just as unilingual politicians require an interpreter to understand one another, it is the job of literary translators to ensure that a conversation can occur between the country’s two literatures and their readers. That makes them important — if unheralded — stars in the publishing universe. Next Thursday is International Translation Day, but chances are it’s not marked on your calendar.
Translators are the mimics of the book world; they must pass for someone else. Just as editors strive for invisibility, translators should be inaudible. “If I have a voice of my own, it absolutely must not appear,” says Sheila Fischman, the country’s most celebrated translator. Polinquin echoes this: “Translating is like writing but with someone else’s hand.”
There are a flock of French-language books to be published in English-Canada this fall, including I Am A Japanese Writer, by Dany Laferrière (translated by David Homel); Apocalypse for Beginners, by Nicolas Dickner (translated by Lazer Lederhendler); Are You Married to a Psychopath, by Nadine Bismuth (translated by Donald Winkler); and On the Proper Use of Stars, by Dominique Fortier (translated by Fischman and reviewed elsewhere in these pages). Books making the opposite journey include Fall, by Colin McAdam (translated by Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné) and Douglas Coupland’s biography of Marshall McLuhan, translated by Jean Paré). Clearly, Canadian readers are doubly blessed, with talented authors in two languages. And translators are the bridge. Yet in recent interviews with several translators, it became clear there are no hard and fast rules in the translation game.
“We’re not robots,” says Lederhendler, 59, who won the Governor General’s Literary Award for his translation of Dickner’s last novel, Nikolski. “We have a way of reading a book. We have a way of using the language. We have our own vocabulary, our likes and dislikes in terms of this phrase or that phrase. It’s a kind of balancing act between observing the fact that you’re at the service of someone else’s work, but at the same time it’s an artistic mission.”
Some won’t translate a book they don’t like. “You will not do a good job if you don’t believe in the author’s work,” Poliquin explains. To others, it’s simply a paycheque. Most avoid working closely with the author. Some read the book before beginning. Others translate it as they read it for the first time, like David Homel, who says, “the writer hadn’t read the book before he wrote it.” He insists he’s not being a smart aleck. “One of the problems with translation is that the story has already been told. But I don’t want to know how it’s going to turn out. I want to have that voyage of discovery as a translator, the same as I do as a writer.”
Some translators, like Fischman, work on only one book at a time (“When I’m translating a book or a novel, I get so deeply and thoroughly inside the head of the author that there’s no room for anything else,” says Fischman, who’s currently translating Kim Thuy’s memoir, Ru, to be published by Random House in 2012); others, like Lederhendler, can juggle multiple projects at once. Some read the author’s previous work (“You become the best reader that writer has ever had,” says Poliquin, 56. “We become scholars of these writers”) while others do not. Some attack the books using shelves of dictionaries, some rely on the Internet. (Poliquin has called on a Canadian Tire catalogue for help with names of tools.)
The time it takes to translate a book varies depending on the length and difficulty of the original text; Fischman says it took four to five months and four to five drafts to complete work on Fortier’s novel: “Each novel presents its own difficulties,” she says. “It’s not a technical process, it’s an aesthetic process,” argues Fischman. Instinctive, too. “I’m not following any theory of translation, or any quick guide to translating somebody’s novel. I just keep working at it until I’m satisfied that I’ve reproduced the voice.”
But even the subject of authorial voice is up for debate. While Poliquin says, “I don’t mind if my own voice is there,” Fischman maintains it’s “essential” that her own voice does not infiltrate the text. That’s not to say she wants to hide the fact you are reading a translation. “In my own translation, depending on what it is, I try to write it in such a way that the reader is aware that there is something not quite English about it, but not wrong. In other words, I try to hold on to a certain French-language flavour,” she explains. “Some people have interpreted me as meaning that I’ll have characters speaking with an accent. It’s not quite that simple.”
Homel questions the necessity of that: “A translated work, its foreignness is built right in. You don’t have to attract attention to the fact that it’s a foreign book. It just is by its very existence.” The goal, he argues, is to reproduce as much as possible the experience that readers in the original language enjoyed. That goal hasn’t changed much since Fischman translated her first book, Roch Carrier’s La Guerre, Yes Sir! in 1970, though she now approaches it differently: She knows more about the French language, she knows more about the métier of translating and, most importantly, she knows more about the English language.
Many translators are writers themselves; Homel has a novel, Midway, appearing this fall. Poliquin was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2007 for A Secret Between Us. Still, even though each man is fluent in both languages, they do not translate their own work (Poliquin did not translate his last nonfiction book, René Lévesque, from French to English; rather, he rewrote it).
“Being able to translate in one direction does not at all mean that the person is able to translate in the other direction,” Fischman cautions.
Poliquin has translated Homel’s work, while Donald Winkler translated Poliquin’s last novel. “My instinct is to trust the translator,” he says. Homel is more blunt: “I’ve written the book once, and that’s enough.”
The translation community is small. The Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, founded in 1975, lists 141 members on its website, but a Fischman anecdote illustrates the interconnectedness of Canadian translators better: Fortier and Bismuth, both of whom have translated books coming out this fall, are best friends; Fischman translated Fortier while her partner, Donald Winkler, translated Bismuth. Long-standing writer-translator partnerships “tend to be respected by other translators,” Fischman says, though this unwritten rule has been broken on occasion.
There’s a lot of evidence that it’s an ageing profession. “I do not see another wave, or another generation, of literary translators,” Homel says. “Translation is still done by old farts, and I’m the youngest of the old farts.” He is 58. “You kinda gotta wonder who’s going to keep doing this?”
One of the reasons may be that literary translation is not lucrative. In fact, says Lederhendler, “translation is essentially a subsidized area of publishing.” In 2009-2010, the Canada Council for the Arts awarded 109 international translation grants (to foreign publishers to translate Canadian books) totalling $354,200 and 102 translation grants to Canadian publishers to translate Canadian works in English, French or an Aboriginal language, totalling $1,129,800.
When Fischman, who is 72, was starting out, her pay was four cents a word; now the standard is 18 cents. A translator can earn double translating nonliterary documents, say, annual reports or court transcripts. “Literary translation is still the poor cousin of [the] industry,” says Poliquin. Adds Lederhendler: “It’s not an easy go. I do it because I love the work.”
Another reason there are few young translators is that, put bluntly, they get no respect. Fischman, who has translated approximately 150 books, has been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation 14 times and is a Member of the Order of Canada. But mention her name outside publishing circles and you’ll likely be met with a blank stare.
“I wish we had better recognition,” she says. “I wish it were automatic that the name of the translator is known.”
Some publishers have made it even more difficult to achieve recognition. There was an uproar in 2003 when House of Anansi decided to remove the names of translators from the front cover, where they normally appear alongside the author, though in a smaller font. Says Fischman: “In other words, they were presenting their translated books as English-language originals. This was downright dishonest. It ruffled a lot of feathers. It was just awful. As one of the translators involved, I remember it with great pain.”
She also recalls the $5-bill flap. In 2002, the Bank of Canada added a passage from a work of Canadian literature on to the back of paper money. For the $5 bill, they chose Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, which Fischman translated. They called and asked for her permission.
“Of course, as a good militant translator, I said, ‘And my name has to be on it.’ Oh, the poor people. They said no in about 85 different ways.”
So, does she even now have trouble holding a $5 bill?
“Oh no, I’m very happy to. And if there are people around, I’ll point to these 11 words or whatever it is [actually, it’s 31 words], and say ‘Those are my words.’” She laughs. “It has been said this is the best-selling translation in all of Canada.”

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