Tuesday, March 15, 2011


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.
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.

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