The 2015 programme for the Edinburgh International Book Festival was packed with an array of events to satisfy every taste, from those in touch with current trends (I was far from surprised to learn that tickets for the reading workshop on To Kill A Mockingbird were sold out) to those who prefer to read books that are off-the-beaten-track. If it had been possible, I would have been there almost every day to go to something, but alas, limited time and a typical student budget allowed me only a day to see what the festival had to offer. Fortunately I managed to make it to a couple of events, one of which was the Polish Translation Duel hosted by Daniel Hahn, featuring Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Bill Martin, both esteemed translators of Polish literature.
The event was part of the festival’s Talking Translation series, the aim of which was to explore the role of the translator and the challenges they face, whether linguistic, cultural, creative, or political. The ‘Translation Duels’ were held for a range of languages, including French, Spanish and German and each brought together two translators, who had produced different translations of the same text, to discuss the nuances in their interpretations.
Upon arriving at Charlotte Square Gardens for the Polish Translation Duel, I was handed a printout of the feature text, including the original extract and both translated versions. This was my first surprise of the day, because the text (as I would have known had I bothered to read the event description properly) was in fact an extract from a comic strip called ‘The Night Caller,’ or ‘The Night Visit,’ depending on which translator’s version you look at. I suppose, in an event like this, I was expecting to be presented with a thick chunk of text ripe for translation, but the comic was a rather refreshing reminder that there is much more to the literary world aside from novels and poetry.
By presenting the two translated versions side by side in a booklet, we were able to see clearly the differences between the translations, ranging from whole sentences to the mere position of commas. In his role as host, Daniel Hahn picked through the text bit by bit, questioning the translators on their choice of a specific word or phrase, and opening up some intriguing discussions about language and cultural reception. Bill Martin and Antonia Lloyd-Jones, in turn, engaged in enthusiastic discussion – and debate, as per the event name – about the thinking behind their different results.
As a comparative literature student, I have studied my fair share of texts in translation, and naturally it is something we discuss in class, but I do not think, before this event, I truly appreciated the full scale of a translator’s work. It is more than simply converting a text from one language to another. Rather, it extends as far as adapting it to suit an entirely different audience, and with older texts, even a whole new period in time. As if I needed a reminder that countless words or phrases in a certain language have no exact counterpart in another, right before I went to the Duel, I found a book called Lost in Translation in the festival bookshop. It is a beautifully illustrated edition full of ‘untranslatable’ words from around the world which have no direct translation in English.
With such obstacles in their path, how does a translator decide what to do with every phrase or sentence encountered, and how much creative freedom does – or should – a translator have? Recently, I read Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, but sitting through this translation event made me wonder – as, perhaps, I should already have been wondering – how much of what I read was Jonasson, and how much was the input of translator Roy Bradbury? And is it a negative thing that a text is altered in translation, if such alterations make it more suitable to the new audience?
The translator’s level of textual authority is something I had never really considered in much depth, but after this short, curious, and thought provoking event, I will be sure to turn a more critical eye to my reading of translation in future.