Translation work is very old and is the only section of the literary world that is able to span across all genres. Literary translation, to break it down to the barest form of a definition, is to take a text in one language and translate it to another. This, at first glance, may appear to be quite simple—after all, shouldn’t a monolingual person be able to simply stick a section of text into a translation website and come out with a translation? However, to act as if the product of such actions counts as a proper translation would be to insult every person who has done translation work. The ability to transform a text into an entirely different language is an art form, one that is honed and perfected through years of experience.
The ability to transform a text into an entirely different language is an art form, one that is honed and perfected through years of experience.
Famous translators such as Lawrence Venuti, Liesl Yamaguchi, and Jacques Derrida have worked in literary translation for years and have a unique understanding of what makes a translation loyal or creative, as well as the merits of each. The intricacies of translation are centered around the fact that the art form is case sensitive. What may be a valid form of translation for one literary work could mean the destruction of another. In genres such as children’s books and nonfiction, loyalty in translation often has less emphasis placed upon it because there are more complex patterns and meanings than in fiction or poetry. For author Aurora Gonzalez de Freire, the emphasis is on accessibility. “When I created the storyboard for Harvey Bear Gets Rescued/El osito Harvey es rescatado, I knew it had to be a bilingual layout. I needed his story of hope and healing to be able to be read together by children and their parents. Many of their parents speak only Spanish, and I had to honor that. In fact, I almost walked away from a book deal because I was adamant that Harvey's story needed to be told in both languages.” For a translator to choose which area to emphasize, they simply must let their project decide.
For a translator to choose which area to emphasize, they simply must let their project decide.
Lawrence Venuti is widely considered to be one of the most well-known translators, for his essays and theories on translation work. One of the areas he focuses on is how present the translator should be in their works. In his novel, The Translator’s Invisibility, he speaks to this debate: “On the one hand, translation decontextualizes the source text by detaching it from the multidimensional contexts of production and reception in its original language and culture.” He goes into detail about the need to adapt a source text to be accessible to a wider audience while still maintaining the integrity and meaning of the author.
To remain faithful to a text and yet conform it to a new language is a delicate art, one that requires countless changes and adjustments of words, punctuation, and everything in between. A translator must remember that their work is to connect people through literature, not to make their own accomplishments known. Oftentimes, true to Venuti’s title, a translator is invisible, their name a subtext below an author’s, unheeded.
So why do they do it? Translation is a noble work, due to the translator's lack of fame, as well as their intent. Language has separated people across the world for a long time, making it difficult for ideas and experiences to travel outside of advertising and products. Literature and creative ideas often become lost in the face of language differences. Even in the same country, such as India, there are over a hundred dialects that keep even the country itself divided. In an act not so different from the translation work taken on by so many, the author Sivasankari took years away from her career to travel across India, documenting her experiences—the product of which was four volumes of work, talking through the different dialects and regions of India. She called it Knit India Through Literature, and it was the first work of its kind.
Barbara Kuhls, author of Standby for God, never questioned that her book should be translated into Romanian as a way to honor the birthplace of her adopted son Noot and reach the Romanian community with her miraculous story of faith. Her translators Tamara and Ruxi Neacșu worked faithfully to bring this story to a Romanian audience through both the original translation and extensive edits. “Tamara and Ruxi were friends that I trusted completely with every nuance of the story." Barb adds this piece of advice for authors considering translation for their titles: "If I were to do it over again, there is only one hint I would offer. Instead of waiting until the whole manuscript was completed and edited in English, I would provide chapters as they were edited. This would make the translators’ job less overwhelming, allowing them to work on smaller chunks.”
Across the world, people are beginning to fight the barriers put into place by language differences, seeking to connect people and allow them to empathize and learn about each other. Translation is the most influential of this manner of work, spreading stories across continents where they would never reach otherwise. The business is an unforgiving one, where monumental amounts of work go widely unrecognized. So next time you realize you are reading a translated work, stop for a moment, and flip back to the cover. Acknowledge the work done by a person who wanted you to hear the story of someone you never would have been able to otherwise.