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Literary translation

This has been a busy autumn for me, and I’ve been lucky enough to attend a number of interesting professional events. One of my favourites was a literary translation workshop organised by the London Review of Books to celebrate Translation Day at the end of September. The German workshop was led by the renowned Anthea Bell (one of the few translators who has her own entry on Wikipedia!). I don’t usually do literary translation (academic and cultural texts being my areas of specialism), but I’ve always been interested in it and thought this would be a fun way of finding out more.

The text Anthea had selected for us was one of Grimm’s fairy tales, “Bruder Lustig”, one of a number of tales about (ex-)soldiers (you can find the German version here and an English version here). We were asked to translate roughly a page in advance and send it in for her to look at. I am a great lover of fairy tales (in fact, some years ago I was lucky enough to be involved in translating a book about fairy tales!) and so this choice was right up my street. Simple as they seem at first glance, I soon found that translating this little tale posed several challenges.

Perhaps the greatest challenge was also the first one – was how to render the title. “Bruder Lustig” translates literally as “Brother Jolly”. However, it is (or was) also used as a generic expression referring to a “jolly fellow”. Although older translations into English simply rendered this name “Brother Lustig”, treating “Lustig” as a personal name, I thought this missed out on its symbolic or more generic dimension. In the end, I settled for “John Jolly”, as “John” seemed a fairly generic name (as in “John Doe”) and “Jolly” provided a nice alliteration. Anthea liked “John Jolly”, although she did say that it made her think of a “Jolly Jack Tar” more than a soldier! Other participants went for the more literal “Brother Merry” or “Brother Jolly”. For me, it was simply fascinating to see how much debate and discussion could go into this one small issue – and how important a factor association is in the rendering of literary names. Ultimately, it seemed that any solution we came up with would represent a compromise of sorts; one of my favourite quotes of the day was Anthea’s statement: “I hate compromise, but unfortunately it is something you have to do quite a lot in translation.” Our discussions continued over several other challenging aspects – for example, the difficulty of rendering the difference between the familiar “Du” and the (archaic) formal “Ihr” – although for nearly all we found a compromise that satisfied the group.

After an exhilarating morning and a very pleasant lunch with other participants at the British Museum, I boarded the train back to Rutland and mulled over what I had learnt on this first foray into literary translation. One thing was the sheer amount of time it could take to find a satisfactory translation for even a fairly simple story such as “Bruder Lustig”, which made me think that translation rates for literary translation by rights should be significantly higher than for other kinds of text, rather than the other way around as is more frequently the case. Related to this was the range of factors that needed to be taken into account – cultural and historical connotations, associations, and traditions – for more than with any other kind of text, translating literature truly means translating one culture into another. But on the workshop I had also gained a sense of why literary translation for so many remains the Holy Grail, if you like, of translation – working on a text that is itself a work of art, and finding ways of transferring it into another tongue so that it actually works, is both pleasurable and incredibly satisfying. So I think I may well take up opportunities to learn more about and gain more experience in literary translation! For those who are interested in finding out more themselves, I have provided some useful links below.

What are your own experiences of literary translation? Do you enjoy translating literary texts, and what do you think are the challenges? Have you any other points or resources you’d like to share with readers? I’d love to hear your thoughts – please post them below!

Illustration © C. A. Hiley

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