Carrying Over: Translation as Conversation

‘As a reader, there is a feeling of trust and hope when you abandon yourself to translation. You are exposing yourself to other minds, other manners, other cultures, other possibilities.’

In this latest article in our A Year of Conversation – Translation as Conversation series, Jennie Erdal shares her thoughts on translation as someone who has practised its art.


In discussing translation, you find yourself looking for metaphors, as if translation can’t quite be itself and nothing else. Which is odd perhaps, since it does not need to serve any purpose but its own. In fact translation and metaphor mean exactly the same thing. One derived from Latin, the other from Greek, they both signify a carrying over. And this carrying over is what we do when we talk to one another, when we try to understand one another; we carry over into words our take on the world so that others may know it too.

Translation is therefore a basic human need: conveying in words our experience of life. Whether it’s the birth of a baby, the death of a parent, the silence of a snowfield, the getting or losing of love – we search for ways of expressing these happenings in a language that can be understood by others. In that sense we are all translators.

Those who translate literature for a living, however, are involved in an act of creation that can seem like a miracle. If the miracle happens we are gifted a new-born life in another language, as natural and as pleasing as the life that has gone before, and all recreated out of that most common currency: words. Yet literary translation is so much more than mere words. To be able to translate, it isn’t enough to have learned another language, however well it has been learned. Words are just the starting blocks. Such a lot is bound up in any language – the way sentences are arranged, the cultural nuances, the grammar, the rhythms, cadences and textures. And each language has its own appearance, its own countenance, its own skin. To say nothing of the bits beneath the skin: the veins, the blood vessels, the heartbeat, the animating spirit.  Those engaged in the complex act of translation have to understand a great deal about many things, not least their own language, whose possibilities and limitations they must know inside out. In the end, of course, it does come down to words, and the best translators have an abiding love affair with them.

In a previous life I used to be a not-good-enough translator, mainly of Russian novels. During this time I became aware of some of the challenges and limitations involved. I came to know that some things will necessarily be lost in translation – in any translation. Quite often there is no exact equivalence between languages, and sometimes English simply cannot tolerate certain aspects of the original, at least not without irony or some other modifying factor. Words have different magnetic fields. For example, humour is a notoriously difficult area – sometimes what is funny in one language can look simply inept or embarrassing in another. Puns, double-entendres, malapropisms, indeed any kind of wordplay – these are all hard to transport safely, to carry over.

In the Russian language, there are other difficulties. It is such a dense, inflected, elliptical language that sometimes what is only implied in a tightly packed phrase has to be made more explicit in a longer English sentence. A single verb in Russian can actually be a complete sentence, telling us not only who is doing it, and whether the doer is male or female, but also whether the activity has been completed or is still going on.  The architecture of a language goes much deeper than its inflections or other distinctive features. In some mysterious sense a grammar expresses the culture of its people, their way of thinking, their soul – whatever we mean by that. (And the Russian soul – dusha – has no direct equivalent in English.) All of this is at stake in the translation process. I also came to understand there is no such thing as ‘the perfect translation’. It is always work in progress, never quite completed.

Reading a novel in a foreign language is like travelling abroad: everything is different, the landscape interesting, even the smallest details. You don’t feel completely at home but you sit back and give yourself to the experience. When you are the translator, however, you have to engage in a very intense form of reading, which involves much more than simply understanding the words on the page. It is painstaking, concentrated work, the closest attention that can possibly be given any book. Once the text is absorbed, you need to let it hum in the head for a while. Only then can you work the clay of the language, turning it into something new – a palimpsest of the first creation.

One of my university teachers, in order to discover who had read War and Peace in the original (and, more importantly, who had not), used to ask us what was striking about the language at the beginning of the novel. It was a question designed to trip us up. The answer he was looking for was that the opening words are not in fact written in Russian. The book begins: ‘Eh bien, mon prince’ followed by long passages in French spoken by Russians as if it were their normal everyday language. The characters in question are aristocrats who converse with one another in French for reasons of fashion and ostentation – something the linking text (in Russian) makes clear. Ironically the discussion is about the possible invasion of Russia by Napoleon and ‘les atrocités de cet Antichrist’. Since French was a foreign language for the Russian reader, it is arguable that every translation should keep those sentences in French; otherwise, Tolstoy’s device, which is key to setting out the characters and the relationships between them, is lost. And yet out of all the translations of War and Peace, only the most recent [Pevear & Volokhonsky, 2007] stays true to the original. The others all begin in rather stilted English with the words, ‘Well, Prince, ….’ as if this were a natural way of speaking to an aristo.

Even as a student I understood that Tolstoy in translation seemed a very different writer. The early translations of his novels were done mainly by genteel educated women who rendered his writing ‘refined’, complete with all the I says! and You beastly things! Tolstoy himself rather scorned fine writers, dismissing them as ‘hairdressers’. He is able to describe human emotions as almost no other writer can, concisely and precisely, but he is not elegant in a classical way. There is a lack of ornamentation, the style is simple and lucid, the syntax sometimes goes awry, and there are bumpy bits. These bumpy bits tend to get smoothed out in translation.

Constance Garnett, who introduced many in the English-speaking world to Tolstoy, removed several of the characteristics of his prose and missed out certain tricky passages – this in the interests of ‘good writing’, which meant fluent, elegant sentences. She thought that Tolstoy’s writing was easy to translate – ‘it goes straight into English without any trouble,’ she said. Well, yes and no. It went into Constance Garnett’s English without trouble. She produced stylish late Victorian prose, easy on the eye, reflecting the time in which she was living and appealing to the sensibilities of English readers. And because it appealed, her translations have endured. The poet Joseph Brodsky said: ‘The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either. They are reading Constance Garnett.’ The point was well made.

Happily other translations and re-translations have followed. Not just of Tolstoy, but of Homer and Dante, Goethe and Proust. New translations are new conversations. They return to the original text and uncover new meanings and new truths. They are a good and necessary thing, showing that the original endures, is still vital.

In the 80s I went to work for a London publishing house that wasn’t afraid to commission translations. While I was there I had the idea for a new imprint – a series of ‘literary encounters’: translations introduced by living writers whose own output had been influenced by the foreign writer. This was ‘translation as conversation’ made flesh. The editorial meeting to float the project took place on May 19th 1983, and my notes (I have them still) seem now to come from a lost Eden, gloriously eclectic and high-minded.

My lofty proposal began with a quotation from Melville: ‘For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round’. Ideas for translated works ranged from the Czech writer Skvorecky (with an introduction by Tom Stoppard) to Zbigniew Herbert (prefaced by Ted Hughes). I even suggested George Mackay Brown might introduce Strindberg’s The People of Hemsö. In fact, none of these came to pass, but the imprint went ahead and in 1985 brought out its first six titles, which included translations from Hebrew (Aharon Appelfeld), Polish (Witkiewicz), Italian (Grazia Deledda), and German (Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka). Hardly anyone will remember them now. They didn’t sell.

The following year, 1986, we published another six books, amongst them Ismail Kadaré’s The General of the Dead Army, the story of an Italian general who is sent to Albania twenty years after the end of World War II to search for the remains of those who lost their lives in the campaign. The enormity of the general’s task slowly overwhelms him and eventually despair gives way to madness. It is a solemn, sobering book, whose haunting message is the futility of war. No one in those days had heard of Kadaré, but some twenty years later he would go on to win the inaugural Man Booker International Prize. For me this completed a personal conversation that had started much earlier, when I was a post-grad student in the 70s on a visit to Paris. A young man at my table in a café was reading a book called Le Général de l’Armée Morte. I asked him what it was about. ‘De la futilité de la guerre,’ he said. The next day I bought the book and discovered that it was a translation. Kadaré was not French, but Albanian.

If literary translation is a kind of miracle, it is one we have been slow to recognise.  Until the King James version, translators of the Bible were routinely strangled or burned at the stake. William Tyndale, who coined such phrases as ‘let there be light’ and ‘the salt of the earth’ suffered both fates. We have come a long way since then, but the translator’s work is still too often marginalised and taken for granted. Things are certainly improving, but until recently the name of the translator was often hidden amongst the prelim pages, a tiny intimation tucked away alongside the printer and binder.

This may have been a deliberate attempt on the part of the publishers to maintain the illusion that whatever we are reading comes to us fresh and first-hand – the word unmediated, as it were. Readers prefer authors, and may not want to be reminded that anyone else is involved. Despite the fact that much of our own culture and literary canon has been shaped by translated texts, from the Bible to Homer, from Freud to Dostoevsky, the supremacy of English as a world language has led to a certain complacency in Britain and a chariness of anything ‘foreign’. Our relative monoglotism has led to a strange suspicion of translation.

People used not to know how to think about translation, or what to say about it. It was regarded as slightly mystical, and those who practised it a little bit suspect – the linguistic equivalent of train spotters: sad, dishevelled, middle-aged men in fingerless gloves, still living with their mothers – or so legend had it.  Translators, as if sensing this, learned to do a kind of disappearing act. David Bellos, Director of the translation programme at Princeton and an award-winning translator in his own right, has described his trade as ‘a second-rate kind of thing.’  Michael Hoffmann, another foremost practitioner, puts it this way: ‘Translators are very much alone with their secret pride and public humiliation.’

In reality translators are quite normal people, if typically precise and conscientious, aware of the huge responsibilities and obligations upon them. They are often naturally diffident, used to being in the background. In many cases they have colluded in their own invisibility. I certainly did at one time, sometimes not even being credited anywhere on the book. Many years later when I mentioned to a translator friend that I was writing a novel featuring a translator, he said: ‘Ah, a minor character then?’ – as if someone of his own profession couldn’t possibly be centre stage. Translation has traditionally been a low-profile, as well as a low-status career, a private affair conducted by rather private people working mostly alone, and accustomed to doing a sort of disappearing act. In other countries, however, translators are highly esteemed. In Japan, for example, they enjoy much the same status as novelists. But all translators know instinctively not to overwhelm or compete with the author, understanding that the author’s whole identity is bound up with the way he or she places words on the page. Literary translation, when it is done well, is therefore a supreme act of empathy.

Alas, when it is not done well, it can cause grievous pain to the author, the kind of pain not helped by opiates. I experienced this once – as author not translator – and to read carefully written passages that had been mangled and rendered senseless in another language (one that I was familiar with) was truly distressing. In his essay A Publisher’s Vision, Christopher MacLehose, who has perhaps done more than anyone else to advance the cause of literary translation in this country, wrote: ‘It seems to me certainly desirable that a translator open a line to the author, and keep it always open. I don’t remember a single case in which the time taken to establish communication with an author was time wasted. On the other hand I remember many cases where a failure to do so has led to grief.’

My own translations, from long ago now, were mostly of Russian dissident writers, often imprisoned or in Siberian labour camps. How I longed to be able to contact them, to check on meanings that no dictionary could provide. With the advent of email, collaboration between translator and author has become easy. Keeping a line always open, as MacLehose puts it, is to everyone’s advantage, not least the reader’s. When a book of mine went into Dutch, my translator emailed me around one hundred questions, not because she was a bad translator; rather because she was a very good one. But if a translator refuses to engage with an author, there is nothing the author can do, and the results can be a pig’s ear. Or the ear of a pig, as my terrible arms-length translator might have written.

Nowadays the business of translation is changing, and a good thing too. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which opened the floodgates to Scandi Noir, did much to soften the profile of ‘foreign’ fiction. The perception of novels in translation is now different, no longer off-putting. We are gradually coming to see ‘foreign-ness’ as pleasing and attractive, to accept that we don’t always have to feel at home in foreign fiction. Dancing with strangers can be fun. Talking about it afterwards too.

In Britain we have tended to be an insular lot with literary tastes to match – this despite the fact that our whole literary canon has been shaped by translation: from Homer to the Bible, from Dostoevsky to Freud. But tastes are changing. Translated fiction plays an increasingly important part in literary festivals. Translation is a conversation piece. Prize money is being equally divided between author and translator. Relative to how it once was translation is being shouted from the rooftops.

When John Keats, aged just twenty, first looked into Chapman’s Homer, he was in effect paying tribute to the wonder of translation. He likened his experience to that of an astronomer discovering a new planet or an explorer laying eyes on an unknown land. Keats’ poem is an extended metaphor, the ‘realms of gold’ the poet has ‘travelled’ signifying both the lands of ancient Greece and books themselves embossed in gold lettering. Like most of us, Keats could not read Greek. It was Chapman who opened a new and magical world to the young poet, and it is Keats’ thrill of encountering this new world that is in turn conveyed to us – the readers of his poem.

As a reader, there is a feeling of trust and hope when you abandon yourself to translation. You are exposing yourself to other minds, other manners, other cultures, other possibilities. Literature in translation doesn’t always repay your trust and your hope, but when it does it is truly rewarding and enriching and mind-expanding. It allows you to see other ways of life – other possibilities, other matters, other manners –  and can help increase the understanding between nations far better than politicians, who often do the reverse.


Jennie Erdal is the author of the memoir Ghosting: A Double Life and the novel, The Missing Shade of Blue. Both books have been widely praised, Ghosting already having reached classic status. She is completing her second novel with the same care, intelligence and imagination she brought to the first.

Find out more about A Year of Conversation at (#AYOC2019)

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