What Is the Point of Literary Translation?

Translators may alter the composition of a line, a paragraph, or a stanza. But when do their choices overstep, and where do the changes stop?

A chalkboard featuring many words in different languages

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

Translation is everywhere.

The better machines become at transferring equivalent words and even almost correct syntax and grammatical structures from one language to another, the more the mechanics of translation matter less, and the more we are aware of inflections and innuendoes; what we don’t know what to call, we call beauty.

Translation is everywhere: I’m at a beach in South America. The grainy exuberance of a megaphone begins to blast indecipherably. Something about menopause. Seriously? It’s a little putt-putt plane, tooting advertisements. A billboard I spot later as I bounce along in the back of a truck provides the rest of the story: it’s not that Argentina’s especially empathetic to the woes of the older late-summer crowd, there’s a local theatre show about menopause. Fallait le savoir.

Below the sky, hordes of birds perch and circle, hoping for the bounty of the sea or some morsel of human garbage: gaviota, not gull. How dull the English equivalent is, how doltish. Gaviota captures the awkward, insistent shriek. There’s that guttural opening g and an echo of the French gaver. The translator’s undoing is the multiplicity of languages, each with its own best words.

One day I will translate a book by just leaving all the original words in.

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The mourning doves mourn differently here. In southwestern Ontario, where I spent my adolescence, the doves say oo-hoo, a slight, descending afterthought. These birds warble a fancier four-note call with a little slur at the end: we’re really mourning and don’t you forget it. Perhaps it’s the economy.

All the consumer goods here in Argentina are packaged smaller than in North America—six eggs to a carton, nine diapers to a bundle, half-kilo bags of flour. A holdover from harder times? In Cuba, people used to stir little spoons audibly around in demitasses filled with water. The tinkle made the absence of coffee, the pretence or the memory of it, less bleak. Coffee had existed and it would come again. Translation as association: meaning slides sideways.

Here I’m on instant coffee unless I walk a kilometre down the beach to get a café en jarrito at one of the places that’s still open. Instant coffee is an inaccurate translation of coffee, a semiotic transgression, wrong in taste, texture, and smell, in its very making. The only rescue is some Turkish-coffee jerry-rig. What instant coffee does is summon, for me, paucity and luxury: during Tito’s rule, when my mother and I travelled to what was not yet allowed to be Croatia again (my father was in exile and couldn’t accompany us), we brought my aunts Tampax and toothpaste though all they wanted was makeup. Dubravka Ugrešić talks about this, the way luxuries go further in helping the dispossessed feel human than any seemingly more useful item for household or hygiene. Meanwhile all my tetka wanted was instant coffee, and so my mother packed jars of Nescafé alongside the forbidden books we carried. We can talk about all of the forbidden things now. Geopolitics, too, is translation, over time.

While I’m in Argentina, an article appears touting the looming extinctions of clouds: anxiety porn and clickbait, sure. Nature Geoscience reports that there is a level of global warming at which stratocumulus vanish. Since this low cloud cover helps shield the surface of earth from the sun, the warming effect then becomes, or will become, catastrophic. More catastrophic.

Translations exist only in their own time. While literature is out of time, translations are always, in the hapless plod of linear time, out of joint. (Or can a translation be timeless? Discuss.) Looked at another way, can translation be a moment’s effort against forgetting? Can you imagine having to footnote what clouds were? How do you translate clouds?

What the translator reiterates has already passed. Its absence, its bygone fixity is an even stronger evocation of absence, the way we feel the beloved more clearly in their absence. Some translations’ original texts are so far in the past or so far in another cultural or linguistic realm that the excavation and the recontextualization means explaining the world, a world. Dear world, as you boil and burn and snow and storm to a likely end, every species we name as writers, every phenomenon we have to remember in order to unfold it carries our collective orphaned grief and our recourse to the stories we tell about the things we have known. The future is no longer hypothetical. What we are writing will one day not exist: translation as an act of love, the archive of an anticipated elegy.

A literature professor once told me, with some degree of poetic licence, that the Greek root of the word metaphor was akin to the notion of a pickup truck.

This morning, the ocean has its hackles up and the sand is being lobbed south in great cosmic handfuls. Down the beach, some men are transporting boards in an open metaphor. The boards are plastic. The wind keeps sliding its edge under them and flipping them out of the truck into the sand. Each time, the guys get out, retrieve the board, replace it. Finally, the wind, dissatisfied with its tier-one mischief, blows harder. Now the three men stop, gaze back at a scattering of white plastic.

My prof and I didn’t develop the image of the metaphor-as-conveyance further then, but even more than the figurative, associative work of poetry, it seems an apt analogy for translation. What you put in you must get to safety, intact or at least recognizable, but the top is open, the shocks are bare, and you don’t have ropes.

The translator was a dancer in a past life. Actually, not another life, this one, though it’s a past that feels far from the forgetting, forgotten body. It was the best part of my life, such luck, and the truest. It’s impossible to bullshit dance, to fake it. You’re either doing it or you’re not. You’re on your leg or you’re not. You catch the upswing, land the turn, stick the relevé, or you don’t. It is an art of absolutes, though not to the detriment of inflection or innuendo. The nuance, and what makes it the most human of the arts, is the impossibility of perpetual or continuous absolutes; the beauty is in the reaching.

Literary translation, on the other hand, is a pack of lies. Every word compensates, approximates; every sentence omits far more than it includes. Choice is begrudging; while the chooser wrangles every possible permutation and absence, the reader trots around in the target language, blissfully oblivious to what is missing, what’s been cut, inserted, made up, woven in.

In dance, you assume in the French sense: assumer l’espace qu’on occupe, assumer la limite de son mouvement. Translation assumes—there is no other way, the moments of creation have come and gone.

I wrote before I danced, and I came back to writing. I spoke French and Croatian before English, which I acquired from Sesame Street and which became my dominant language. Literary translation is filling the creative furrow of not writing carved out by my householding years.

And I’ve translated forever, as I imagine many children do who are born to immigrants who arrive in a country the language of which is not their own. My father speaks a dozen languages, including English, and very well, but his English has never been native. It’s those articles, endlessly pesky to Slavic-language speakers—Where do they go? But why?—and his linguist’s tendency to default to Latinate derivations when in doubt, a lethal, purple habit in English. Very young, I was tasked with Englishing his English, and later, when I had demonstrated some literary proclivities, to render his cribs as real and perhaps even worthy or at least publishable literary texts.

The aforementioned father has a goofy sense of humour. Buy me a beer one day and I’ll tell you his favourite joke. He’s also from a particular time, with then accepted slurs that colour an axiom he likes to repeat: literary translation is like a woman, either beautiful or faithful, but never both.

That belle infidèle chestnut barely begins to scratch the surface of the complicated ethics of literary translation. Still largely about fidelity versus treason, the discussion has not yet quite been breached by intersectional averments. Somehow, the conversation about cultural appropriation hasn’t trickled into the literary-translation world. Is the act of appropriating a text into the target language and culture so totally appropriative that the actual perpetrator is incidental? Or are some experiences better rendered by a translator whose identity is more closely aligned with the author’s? When I met with Haitian Québécoise writer Stéphane Martelly to discuss translating a book and an essay of hers, my first question was whether the translator oughtn’t be Black. The texts already were, she said, and she was Black enough for two; the translator didn’t need to be.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained in the expressed is inverted in translation: the expressed must be contained in the inexpressible. The false words—the almost right words, what words may be found, must. It’s all loss, and it’s all finding.

All literary translators are failed writers, at least in the moment they are translating. By the time the translator sits down at her desk, the hard generative work has—phew—been done by someone else. The heavy lifting: the house has been built or at least the land razed and the plumbing roughed in for a new construction. The characters and plot and symbolic values are all laid out; all that remains is rewriting.

German novelist Thomas Pletzinger, on a festival panel I chaired, spoke of socks that had changed colour from one page to another in the original German of his Bestattung eines Hundes and were caught and rectified by his English translator Ross Benjamin.

In the novel I’m just finishing, the title of which shall remain secret to protect the continuity trespasses of its author, someone jumps to her feet who had already stood up a sentence earlier.

Socks are one thing. We can fairly confidently correct errors of continuity and logic, though still preferably with the author’s approval. But when do a translator’s choices overstep? And where do the changes stop? Compensation within a sentence or line, a paragraph or stanza, and perhaps even a whole chapter or poem, can be rationalized. Entire worlds—systems of government, economic paradigms, cultural values. A Russian colleague (who actually still claims to be from Leningrad) told an anecdote about Monopoly.

A mere mention of the board game in a Russian translation of an English-language short story had to be explained at length to allow for at least some context of ownership, greed, and so forth. Can you imagine the confusion, how far you have to step out of the author’s voice and universe? Walter Benjamin may well absolve the translator from having to consider readers; what do we owe intelligibility?

Could a translator forgivably go so far as to restructure a book, move around causality, raise the dead? What in the target language might warrant or justify such drastic renovations?

The question isn’t just about domestication versus foreignization or how to explain why an opponent gets to build a little green hotel. It’s a question of voice, of what stands out, what we choose to ferry over the river.

And what, dear reader, makes a good translation? Effective is often the operative word where beautiful or faithful fail us. Fluidity comes up again and again. Benjamin is a big fan of high purposefulness. Robert Frost famously found his life’s work in the avowed table scraps of translated work. In an interview, Dutch-to-English translator David Colmer muses about gift horses: “A good translation accepts the gifts English offers and is not an endless procession of compromise and loss.”

A bunch of people feel that the mark of a good translation is the translator’s invisibility; others point to the ultimate invisibility of the source text. Still other translators speak of empathy, some of ruthlessness, and to the same end.

Julia Sherwood, the Czech half of a husband-and-wife team that translates into English, goes further still: the target text is like “a goulash or a soufflé prepared from locally available ingredients that comes out with a texture as stodgy or fluffy and that burns your palate or tickles your taste buds in the same way as the original.” Don’t try to unburn it.

Roman Jakobson went for elaborately described cheese, the cheesiest, the accuracy of the words and words and words required to capture the sensory totality of eating it, smelling it. Knowing it.

Back on the beach, the guys and their boards aren’t giving up: they’re picking them up in the sandy wake of the truck, laying them back in the bed. They are reloading the same boards in the same truck in the same wind in the same way.

The doves have found their lost loves and are growing quiet in the pines. Their mourning, even in another language, is recognizable. It rains briefly, tentatively; an arco iris yawns over the Atlantic. An errant dog—beautiful, a collie, perhaps abandoned by a family after being bought for the kids as a summer pet—chases every motor vehicle. The dog wants it so bad, and maybe this will be the one he catches. The wind is down and the men and their truck full of plastic boards have moved elsewhere with their nonchalance or their ham fists. I don’t know what to say about literary translation.

Adapted from “Ways of Looking,” published in Culture in Transit: Translating the Literature of Quebec, edited by Sherry Simon. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted by permission of Véhicule Press.

Katia Grubisic
Katia Grubisic is a writer, editor, and translator.