Literary Translation Panel at General Meeting

By Nina Scott

The May General Meeting held a cornucopia of delights for literary lovers, and lovers of language, in the form of a panel discussion among three of NCTA’s “transliterati.” In a talk moderated by Translorial editor Steve Goldstein, literary translators Anne Milano Appel, Alison Anderson, and Olivia Sears shared their insights about language, writing, poetry, and the business of translation.

All three of the panelists hold extremely strong literary credentials. Anne Milano Appel has been a full-time Italian/English translator since 1996; her recent nonfiction translation of Stefano Bortolussi’s Head Above Water won the 2003 Northern California Book Award for translation. Alison Anderson is not only a literary translator, but also a published novelist, whose most recent novel, Darwin’s Wink, was published last fall. She has just completed a translation of Ensemble, C’est Tout, by best-selling French author Anna Gavalda. Olivia Sears is a poet as well as a translator of Italian poetry. She is the founder of both Two Lines, an annual journal of new, international literature in translation, and the non-profit Center for the Art of Translation (CAT), which promotes translation as a bridge between cultures.

The session got off on a high note at the very beginning with the reading of a press notice from that very morning announcing that the prestigious Man Booker organization in Britain had inaugurated a new, $28,000 award for literary translation. With spirits thus suitably raised among both the panelists and the audience, the discussion began in earnest with a look at the kinds of qualifications that are required for literary translation. First and foremost: a love of books and reading, and a “feel” for language.

Building relationships

“It’s like trying to figure out a crossword puzzle,” said Anne, a former library director before becoming a translator. “You have to have a feel for literature and language to begin with … it’s about finding the right word, and hearing the text breathe.”Being exposed to a second culture at a young age was more an advantage than a true requirement, the panelists agreed. Anne shared that she grew up having her maternal grandmother speak to her in Italian and recalls she would always answer her grandmother in English. She feels this experience gave her an advantage, adding, “you can’t have language without culture”—a notion not disputed by the other panelists, who nonetheless came to their second languages a bit later. Olivia, whose specialty is Italian Renaissance poetry, didn’t grow up immersed in foreign languages and didn’t touch Italian until college. She says, “I didn’t know the culture and it was not in my blood so I had to work at it.”

That work includes developing a relationship with the author, if possible, if he or she is still alive—and even if not! And not just for relatively straightforward issues of terminology, either. For Alison, translating gives her the chance to get “… into the heart and soul of the author,” which allows her to participate in his creativity.” Similarly for Anne: “You have to get into the mind of the author. Most authors are flattered if you’re interested.”

How do authors and translators find each other? There rarely seems to be a fixed pattern, although networking, writing proposals to publishing houses, and oftentimes sheer determination, helps. As does, at times, serendipity, as when a delayed airplane flight allowed Alison to read a book she might otherwise not have read. When she later contacted the publisher about the book’s translation rights, the publisher offered Alison another, larger translation project on the spot!

The translation of poetry is a special type of literary translation; it is the very subject for which Robert Frost penned the immortal phrase “lost in translation.” While it is not a prerequisite to be a novelist in order to translate fiction, it is almost indispensable that one be a poet if one is to translate poetry. Olivia cited one exception to this, but it was the exception that proved the rule. This is understandable when one considers that poetry translation brings with it a host of special challenges, from meter to register to that perennial bugaboo, rhyme. “Translating rhyme is especially difficult because it makes poetry hard to access,” commented Olivia.

Considering the audiences 

When asked about where fidelity lies—to the source text, the author, or the reader—the panelists had a variety of insights. Anne, for example, found herself translating plays differently than prose. Once, when translating a play, she found the process “too stiff” but tried to hear how it sounded in the source text so as to be as true to it as possible. Alison tends to try to improve language where appropriate: “I will do it if it’s unclear, for example, or if it seems like it needs to be broken into smaller sentences.” Other topics the panelists addressed included pay rates (“Decent money is possible with commercial projects,” commented Olivia; “Don’t quit your day job!,” said Alison), credits and copyrights, and book recommendations. At the end of the session, a lively question-and-answer period ended with Steve posing one final question for the audience to consider:

How can we get Oprah to do a show on translation and translators?

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