Whose text is it anyway?

Published 15th December 2010
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Good translators make themselves absent from their work. When a translator has done the job well, the voice we hear on reading a translation appears to be the writer’s own. Readers only notice translations which sound stilted, not quite right – as though the author were speaking a language other than their native tongue, a language we sometimes call ‘translationese’, something which is found when the translation of documents is carried out by inexperienced linguists: tripping over prepositions and mangling idiomatic expressions. A good translator becomes a kind of ventriloquist, learning how to speak in many other voices while appearing not to speak at all.

As translators, we may at times resent our invisibility. So when an author kept urging me to make his text my own, I should have felt vindicated. I found it such a joy to work for him that, quite contrary to my usual practice and at my own insistence, I let him see some pages of my first draft very early on. ‘I want to make sure you are happy with the translation,’ I told him. ‘After all, it’s your book, not mine.’ His reply, though deeply appreciative of my work, shocked me. ‘You are quite wrong to think of the German translation as my book,’ he wrote. ‘This book will be yours. You must make it your own.’

He would insist that he had no style (‘I only write plain English’) when, as his ventriloquist, I knew perfectly well he did. And what a style! The man had been a pastor for many years, using simple words to great effect, in a voice that knew how to speak to God and how to address a church full of sinners. Over those years, that preacher’s voice must have become second nature to him. And therein lay my problem – it didn’t come naturally to me. What he considered ‘only plain English’ was to me a truly foreign language of almost biblical beauty and authority. Even his e-mails, which he deplored as ‘such an ephemeral medium’, read like communications from an Old Testament prophet. To make matters worse, his subject was the life and truth of Jesus. How could I ever make his book my own? I couldn’t.

Sure I could; I would have to. After all, I grew up, not quite in a parsonage but close enough: with a father who is a New Testament scholar and would occasionally hold services in the university chapel or our local church. I know a biblical reference when I see one. I know how the preacher’s voice must resonate so that it reaches the deaf old lady in the front pew and the hungover teenagers at the back. I know how to use rhythm and repetition to rouse a congregation. I did a bit of acting as a student. With enough practice and the right props, I should be able to do a fair impersonation. My father graciously agreed to be my voice coach.

My own academic background is in literary studies and the translation of documents. I realized that he was at best half right to dismiss ‘style’ as something external to the text, a writerly device artificially imposed on ‘plain language’, a smoke screen between what is meant and what is said. In good writing, and also in good translation, style is integral to both speech and meaning. Very often it, too, becomes inaudible to the untrained ear.

In the past, I’ve worked with authors (and editors) who got upset not to find every single word reproduced in the document translation. I‘ve certainly never before had the pleasure to work with somebody who actively encouraged me to be a writer. I told him that I preferred to see our work together as a collaboration. The words of the German translation would be mine, but the ideas and the erudition behind them could never be. Have you ever had an experience like this? I’d be very interested to hear about it.

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