First Thoughts on The Art of Translation

In a couple of days, I fly. My ultimate destination: La Feria del Libro at La Universidad de Caldas in Manizales, Colombia, where I’ve been asked to take part in discussions about literary translation. I am honored by the invitation and excited about my first trip to a country that has fascinated me for a long time.

As I pack my bags, I gather my thoughts.

We are in a great moment for the art of literary translation. Print and online magazines are springing up everywhere featuring literature in translation and discussions of the art of translation itself. Translators are becoming more visible and prominent, arguing for better contracts, better marketing, more discussion about what translation is and should be. The hashtag #TranslatorsOnTheCover was inaugurated and it sparked a conversation about why translator invisiblity is not good either for translators or readers (Jennifer Croft, Why Translators Should be Named on Book Covers, The Guardian, 9/10/2021). We translators are becoming recognized as writers in our own right. We are also publishing our own memoirs, criticism, fiction, and poetry in great numbers. We are advocating for women writers, writers of color, writers from under-represented languages. We are gathering steam, our work is urgent.

Men are sometimes allies in the #TranslatorsOnTheCover movement: Colombian novelist Octavio Escobar Giraldo has invited me to the 2022 Manizales Book Fair and he and his colleagues made sure that the majority of authors and translators represented this year are women. But there are also men who choose not be allies: some of them are translators themselves and they argue against the #TranslatorsOnTheCover movement from their position of historical gender privilege, asserting that a good translator is an invisible one. Women are leading this cause, just as we spearhead many social justice movements, I suppose because we have faced invisiblity, silence, and economic and social oppression for so many centuries and we are, at last, saying no to all that.

Literary translation is diminished by some, deemed an unoriginal creation. But originality is only one aspect of great literature, perhaps the least important one. After all, we know that human beings have been telling the same stories for millenia. What makes mere writing rise to the level of literature is how the writer chooses her words and idiomatic expressions, plays with syntax, shapes dialogue, and creates the acoustic-linguistic alchemy that permits readers to disappear into another world that feels absolutely real. This is an act of hypnosis, enchantment, an illusion based on life itself and it is very difficult to do well, whether the product is an original text or a translation of one. And that is why both kinds of writing are arts.

I will soon be in conversation with fellow writers and translators high in the mountains of Caldas, Colombia. We will drink gallons of coffee. We will talk. I will have the privilege to meet in person people I’ve followed on social media for years. I bring my curiosity in my suitcase with me. I wonder: is our conversation in the US and the UK about translator visibility happening there, too? What do my colleagues think about decolonializing translation? How might we work together to broaden the market for literature in translation, particularly books by women, people of color, indigenous, and LGBTQ writers? The discussions we start onstage will spill out onto the streets and into the cafés.

I also have a few ideas in my carry-on. Among them:

  • Language is the point of encounter and recognition. The translator stands on that point as a kind of Janus, looking in both directions, at both languages and cultural realities. Her job is to assimilate the spirit of the original work and filter it through her own life and onto the page.
  • Therefore, a translation contains the DNA of the translator and is necessarily a new and original work.
  • A translation cannot be chained to the original text: It must dance freely with it. How freely? Freely enough to become a literary text in the target language.
  • Translation is inherently a peacemaking activity. It must be concerned with justice.

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