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Translating Tolstoy

Last week, my review of Bath Literature Festival's Translating Tolstoy event was published in the Bath Chronicle.  The editor restricted me to a mere 150 words, so for those who like a bit more meat on their bones, here is the piece in full written for a non-specialist readership.


Native speakers of English often forget just how spoiled they are. As speakers of one of the world's major languages we do not always appreciate just how much has been translated for our benefit. And it is rare that we ever consider how complex a task this might be.

Rosamund Bartlett, who has been commissioned by Oxford World Classics to produce a new translation of Anna Karenina, demonstrated some of the challenges she faces as she tries to convey the life, mind and culture of one of Russia's greatest 19th century writers.

Ms Bartlett began her presentation by explaining that having started the translation of Anna Karenina she then broke off to write a biography of Tolstoy. This experience revealed to her the many styles and registers that Tolstoy commands and has allowed her to return to her earlier drafts of her translation to rewrite passages now that she feels she knows the author so much more thoroughly.

Tolstoy's use of the Russian language is very simple but his sentences are very complex. Ivan Bunin said of him that he has a "complete lack of belletristic decoration, of trite devices and conventions". However, he does have a habit of making up words which are very difficult to translate concisely and another trick is to repeat the same adjective up to four times in a short paragraph.  This poses the question of how literal should a translator be? Should she retain and reflect the Russian syntax and grammar or write in idiomatic English and choose a variety of adjectives? Ms Bartlett takes the view that it is important to adhere to the original style. Russian uses one word to convey a range of emotions whereas English has lots of words with subtle nuances. The nuances in Russian are conveyed by the context of the piece and it is the translator's job to interpret this for the foreign reader.

What is Bartlett trying to achieve that is different from the many previous translations of Tolstoy's work? Her aim is to find language that is timeless. Previous translations need updating but it is not enough to make the translation contemporary for this, too, in time will date.  One considerable challenge is conveying Russian dialect. The translator has to bear in mind that the work is not going to be read only by British readers but also by readers of other variants of our language. It would therefore not be appropriate, for example, to have peasants speaking with a rendition of a British dialect so Bartlett's aim is to keep the language in these situations clean, neutral and simple.

The internet is a huge help to Bartlett as she demonstrated in a passage of the text concerning 19th century bee-keeping practices. Previous translators had struggled to convey a couple of words accurately and in one or two cases the words had been entirely lost in translation as they crumbled in the face of the task before them. With vast resources at her disposal Bartlett is able to research the necessary specialist glossaries to find the precise (and highly obscure) terminology required.  Such research can involve huge swathes of time and may sometimes mean that rather than translating a chapter in a day her output is reduced to a couple of paragraphs.

Rosamund Bartlett, clearly an expert in her field, conveyed a sense of humility about her work. She confessed unashamedly to drawing on other translations of Tolstoy's work and acknowledged the huge debt she owes to them. In having studied Tolstoy so carefully in writing about him as a man and translating his work, she was aware that she was still learning and still trying to understand him. We, the readers of Tolstoy, can only be grateful that she has devoted so much of her life to this task as most of us will not have the ability or time to achieve a standard of Russian to read his work in the original.

New Year Reading List

I once heard that a 40-year old man worked out that if he lived to the age of 70, he would have time to read only another 360 books at his current rate of one per month.  It does not sound like an awful lot of books so with that in mind one has to be discerning about what one selects. There is no time to waste on the wrong kind of book - whatever you might deem that to be.

Two books that I have come across recently are definitely on my reading list and are likely to appeal to almost all readers of this blog.

The first is The Etymologicon by Mark Foster which is a fascinating stroll through the highways and byways of the English language during which he demonstrates the links between words. See if you agree with his sweeping claim that "almost every word in the English language derives from shah"!

Never dusty, always entertaining and I can recommend it as un-put-downable. (I've had to hide my copy from myself (!) to make sure I concentrate on a project I'm currently doing!!)

51SSrCHF6KL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA160_.jpg(If you want to look inside, you'll have to visit the Amazon website. I obtained my copy from the wonderful Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath - a hugely satisfying "real world" experience).

Another book I cannot wait to start looking at is already causing a buzz in the translation world.  Most translators will be already familiar with Mox's blog - and now the hilarious cartoon strips of the world of freelance translation have been collected into book form by Mox's creator, Alejandro Moreno-Ramos. Follow this link to find out more about Mox. Illustrated Guide to Freelance Translation.


Vienna City of Dreams on the Danube

News from TrànslationWörks, Bath

I am particularly happy to announce on International Translators' Day that a book I translated earlier in the year has now been published. Entitled Vienna - City of Dreams on the Danube - it is beautifully produced with lots of colour photographs of Austria's capital city. I am particularly fond of this town having lived there for a year as a student and so I was delighted to be invited to translate this book.  It is of course also available in German.

It is an ideal introduction to the city for those who do not know Vienna as well as being a lovely souvenir for those who have enjoyed visiting.


The book is published by, and can be ordered from, Vitalis Verlag

Another book, for which I did the proofreading, is also available on their website: The Best Imperial Recipes. I haven't tried to make any of the recipes myself yet, but they sound delicious!


Another experience of interpreting


Recently, I wrote about a radio interview with an interpreter broadcast on the BBC World Service. This post concerns a very different experience of interpreting by a tribesman in Sudan. Despite the title of the book, strictly speaking, he is actually an interpreter, not a translator but do not allow that detail to put you off!

The Translator: a tribesman's memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari is a fascinating but harrowing read.

Daoud Hari relates the background to the unrest in Darfur. He paints a picture of peaceful village life where everyone knows everyone else - not only in their own village but also in villages across the desert. Respect is shown to the elders and life appears to be relatively harmonious until Sudanese government-backed militia come to murder, rape and burn.

Hari had led an "unconventional" life in his youth and 20s but as he says himself , "Poverty generously provides every man a colourful past."

His schooling and his unconventional life have taught him English and, when he escapes to Chad as a refugee, he volunteers as an interpreter and guide for TV crews and journalists travelling over the border to Sudan. It is on one of these missions that he is arrested for being a spy.

I was particularly struck by this man's generous world view - which may or may not be typically African, I don't know enough to decide. He sees all his tribespeople, whether he actually knows them personally or not, as his family and mourns for their pain as much as for that of his immediate family. He gives an insight into how conflicts between tribes were dealt with - away from villages and the vulnerable - and in a way that no one publicly lost face.

It is a moving and elegaic account of a way of life which, due to the genocide, is passing into history. In some ways, this book could be considered its epitaph.

Prize for Literary Translation

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There is a saying that things come along in threes - and this latest sequence of blog posts is no exception. It also seems that my wish for translators to be credited for their translations has been heard. An acknowledgment in the shape of a prize, no less!

I have just learned of the Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize and thought I should let budding translators know about it immediately as time is of the essence. The deadline for entries is 31st July 2010.

Harvill Secker, part of The Random House Group, launched the prize on April 19th in conjunction with Waterstone's, to celebrate 100 years of publishing quality international writing. This annual Young Translators' Prize will be presented to a translator at the start of their career and will focus on a different language each year.

In 2010 - the inaugural year - the chosen language is Spanish and entrants are asked to translate 'El hachazo', a short story by the Argentine writer Matías Néspolo.

The short story and details on how to enter can be found here.

The prize is open to anyone between the ages of 16 and 34, with no restriction on country of residence.

The winner's name will be announced at the FreeWord Centre during a special evening event on International Translators' Day, 30 September 2010. The winning translator will receive £1000, a selection of Harvill Secker titles and Waterstone's books vouchers.

One of the judges, Margaret Jull Costa (herself an award-winning translator), commented 'There are very few prizes open to the young, unpublished translator, who is either trying to get a toehold in the world of literary translation or who simply loves translating. All praise to Harvill Secker, then, for instigating this Young Translators' Prize.'

What a pity Spanish is not one of my languages - but let us know if you have entered. Good luck!

Credit where credit is due

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When drafting my previous post, I was quite shocked to discover that there was no mention of the name of the translator of Penguin Popular Classics' 1997 edition of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

This is an illustration of the curious way that translators are perceived.  When I meet people for the first time, they seem to be rather impressed that I speak a couple of foreign languages and that I earn my living from translation. Their reaction usually includes a regretful recitation of why they abandoned their language studies at an early age.

In the English-speaking world, particularly, we have become used to "everything" being in English and when we read a text in translation, it is usually done so perfectly that it is not possible to discern the language in which it was originally written.

Translators, in contrast to interpreters, are usually unseen by the general public and, as their profile is not public, their contribution can often be overlooked - as is the case of the translator of 430 pages of Dostoyevsky's Russian classic.  Without his or her hard work, I, as a non-Russian speaker, would not have been able to read this novel.

I hope in the future all publishers will acknowledge their translators!

As a New Year's Resolution, I challenged myself to read one World Classic in translation every month.  Something I did not appreciate at the outset was how huge a task this actually is. World Classics tend to be mighty tomes and so far I have found that I am behind on my quota!

However, my quest has not been entirely in vain, for, when reading Fyodor Doestoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, I came across this passage which is a perfect illustration of one reason to use a professionally trained and qualified translator and not to believe that by using a student you will obtain a product of equal quality.

In this short scene Razoumikhin meets his friend Raskolnikoff in the street.  "Stop a minute, Mr Chimney Sweep! You are positively out of your mind! I am giving no lessons myself, either. I am at present doing translations for a publisher. I had counted on you as being useful to me. My orthography is rather bad and I am very weak in German - indeed, I only undertook the work with the hope of its leading to something better. Look here, he will pay three roubles for translating these German pages, and you may do them if you like. Here!"

Raskolnikoff is not tempted by the handsome sum on offer and refuses the translations and payment. He has weightier matters on his mind - namely the premeditated murders he has just committed for little material gain. His mental anguish is such that he is unable to function properly and has made himself ill.

Now, I am not suggesting that students are known for committing murder but it is clear here that Razoumikhin realises that he has bitten off more than he can chew. He admits that he cannot spell and that his German is not up to the standard required. His inexperience and eagerness have caught up with him.

Professional translators will know their limitations; for example, I know that I do not know anything about nuclear physics and so will not attempt such a text. Conversely, translators do know which texts they can tackle to make a difference and make the language sparkle. Recently, I was asked three times by a project manager to work on texts concerning railway engineering. Each time I reiterated that he would be better advised to ask someone qualified to undertake the work. I did not omit to mention that would be happy to help him if he required translations of texts in my specialist areas of marketing and advertising, travel and tourism, education, human resources and cookery!

[Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dosteyevsky. Penguin Popular Classics 1997]

Summer's End

For many in the UK today's Late Summer Bank Holiday marks the end of summer (not in Scotland where the holiday is a couple of weeks earlier).  Schools start back this week and the rhythm of life resumes a familiar pattern. The long light evenings are drawing in and will soon be a distant memory.

Sommerboken written in Swedish by the Finnish writer, Tove Jansson, and translated into English by Thomas Teal with the title The Summer Book is a delightful depiction of a young girl, Sophia aged 6, and her elderly grandmother, living on a tiny island for a summer.

Summer Book.jpg

For months, they live an idyllic life, pottering around their small kingdom, planting seeds, watching the sea and the weather, and doing very little that they do not wish to do. Each is at the stage of life where the days are endless in a positive way: for Sophia the long, long school-free days stretch ahead and for her grandmother the days of diurnal duties and drudgery are over and she can more or less please herself how she spends the time she has left.

Grandmother is a bit of a free spirit, unconstrained by convention, and often happy to indulge in childlike pursuits. Sophia is wise beyond her years, thinking of her grandmother's constraints of age (her walking stick and dizzy spells) and together they pass the days seemingly without one eye on the clock, or worrying about what should be achieved.

By August, the days are drawing in and they make preparations to leave the island and start to put things away for the winter. Grandmother worries that people might land on the island and not know where essential things are kept. "A little later, she started worrying about the stovepipe and put up a sign: "Don't close the damper. It might rust shut. If it doesn't draw, there may be a bird's nest in the chimney - later on in the spring, that is."

This epitomises the innocence and generosity that run through the story evoking all that is perfect about summer.  It evokes that yearning in all of us that we seek to find on our summer holidays - the endless days of lightness and freedom.

Although I have been translating professionally for nearly 10 years now, I sometimes still take translation of literature for granted.  Had it not been for Thomas Teal's expertise in Swedish and English, this novel would have been a delight I would never have enjoyed. It is a charming read and perhaps one I may revisit in depths of winter to remind me of what is to come next year.