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Note #22: Translator v. writer (2008.7.20)

Last Friday I returned from a three-day “translation camp.” This was part of the Translation Academy I am doing at the Korea Literature Translation Institute this summer. It turned out quite well, and there is a lot I could talk about, but I want to share one specific thought today.

One of the highlights of the camp was a “meeting the author” session. We actually had two, and during the first session we met the author of the work we are currently translating. She gave a talk for about an hour and then took questions. My students asked a few questions that had come up during the course of the program, and the author did her best to answer them.

After the session, though, my students expressed disappointment at the answers they had received. As translators, we had fretted and fussed over these issues, arguing back and forth about how a certain passage or phrase should be translated, but the author didn’t seem to think too hard about her answers. I guess what my students were expecting were answers that went as deep as we did with our questions.

Perhaps because I have experience with asking questions of authors, my students’ disappointment caught me off guard. Of course, I immediately understood what they were talking about, but if I had realized what they were expecting I could have warned them in advance that they probably weren’t going to get very deep answers.

It’s not that writers don’t fret and fuss over their writing. Of course they do. But writers and translators approach a text in very different ways. A writer relies on his or her feel for the language, perhaps writing by intuition or inspiration. A translator, on the other hand, examines every last word and tries to understand how best to convey what is contained in those words. To put it a little more simply, a writer is more of an artist, and a translator is more of a scientist.

And that, of course, is a problem in literary translation. While it is well and good for a translator to take great care with the intricacies of language and meaning, dealing with the original is only one part of the equation. I might perfectly convey the meaning of a work of Korean literature in English and it will certainly be a translation—but will it be a literary translation? Ultimately, a literary translation needs to be both a translation and literature in and of itself—and the translator needs to be both a scientist and an artist.

Which of these is the more important is a fiercely debated issue. Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese poetry in Cathay, for example, are considered excellent literature, but they suffer greatly in terms of accuracy. They are certainly literary, but are they really translations?

I want to believe that there is a middle way. I want to believe that is possible to be faithful to the original and yet still produce literary texts. But I cannot ignore the fact that I operate under two different sets of rules when I translate and when I write creatively. How can I bring these together—how can I take the translator’s care in analyzing the original and draw on the writer’s inspiration when producing literature?

I suppose if I had the answer to this question, there would be nothing left for me to learn as a literary translator. And I suspect that there is no real “answer,” or at least no single answer. But this sort of philosophizing doesn’t offer any practical help (again, the translator rears his head). The best I have been able to come up with so far has been to do my best with the first draft, let it cool for a while, and then return to it fresh and edit it without referring to the original. That last part is hard, because when I come across a phrase that doesn’t quite work in the translation I am sorely tempted to refer back to the original and see where I went wrong. But the truth is that where I went wrong has nothing to do with the original. A literary translation into English is ultimately English, not Korean, and I always have to keep this in mind.

The translation camp gave me a lot to think about, but I think that’s as far as I’ll go today.

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