REVIEW: Lost In Translation

By Press Room contributor, Chloe Reeson

Friday – 5pm-6pm, The Royal Exchange

Translators, to me, are the coolest writers of all. Effectively manipulating imagery is difficult enough in one language let alone understanding and moving between two, three, twelve (maybe?) languages at once. It’s not about replacing text with word-for-word translations but rather about understanding and capturing a sense of those texts and moving that ephemeral sense between languages. I have only recently started learning a language and thinking about the nature of translation myself and so I was pretty stoked to attend the “Lost in Translation” panel at the RE on Friday evening.

The panel featured three writers and translators, Jennifer Down, Rosalind Moran and panel chair, Alex Mckeown. Jennifer Down translates technical writing (like choking hazard warnings on baby medication), as well as literature and short stories in her spare time. Rosalind Moran is a clear language nerd (in the best possible sense), she speaks multiple languages and said she likes to experiment within those languages, seeing what each has to offer. Alex Mckeown teaches French in university and likes to translate French poetry. He said he originally thought translating poetry was impossible. Poetry is language, he thought, so if you change the language you changed the poem. Then he discovered Guillaume Apollinaire’s ‘Adieu’ (a particularly difficult poem to translate) and thought ‘challenge accepted’.

The ensuing discussion touched on a variety of topics such as the ability to open a text up to a new market, as seen with hot translation of the moment, Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”, which was translated by Deborah Smith and won the Booker prize this year. The prize money was split equally between Smith and Kang as the translation had become so important to the text as a whole. Rosalind also provided a few fun gems of translation. For instance, Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat in French is adorably called Choipeau – a portmanteau of choix (choice) and chapeau (hat). The panel also discussed some of the important dilemmas involved with translation, like how to translate sound-specific puns and humour or phrases that relied on ingrained cultural background. They also discussed how much licence a translator could take with the original author’s work.

On this point, the panel clearly disagreed. Alex asked whether the other panellists would aim to make a mediocre book better with their translations. Jennifer stated that she felt it was a question of ownership. She didn’t feel it was her job as a translator to make the book better. Alex, on the other hand, said he felt that he was the English expert and so he felt more comfortable toeing the line of altering texts in order to make them better (taking out racism or sexism, for example). Rosalind pointed out that this could lead to some awkward interactions between two readers of the same text.

Alex then asked the panel how they felt about translating across identities (e.g. men translating women or cis people translating trans texts). For Jennifer intent and responsibility would become a thousand times more important and she said she would be hyper sensitive of the original voice—their identity might have influenced the piece. Alex on the other hand, seemed, perhaps unthinkingly, to complain of the extra effort involved in first finding marginalised texts and then having to consider that sense of identity. To me, it was disappointing and uncomfortable to see this attitude being expressed, especially in light of the current state of the cultural appropriation debate.

That said the panel ended on an optimistic note. I asked the panellists how they approached learning to translate that innate ‘sense’ of a text. Did it require travel or extensive familiarity with the language in its natural environment? Apparently not! All the panellists agreed that watching films and reading texts and familiarising yourself with the language and vocab could be enough in order to get started. So you heard ‘em mates—keep racking up those lingots on duolingo, it might just win you the Booker one day!