In the United States, the number of books published in translation is famously low. A popular estimate is 3% of all literary fiction and poetry. A translator’s name is usually included in small print on the title page of a printed book — rarely on the cover — and even the most prolific translators often remain in the shadows. Many people can name a favorite author, but how many of us have a favorite translator?

Yet despite having a job that, by nature, goes relatively unseen, translators wield incredible power. They are, in a sense, trusted to write anew the great works of others. Nobel prize winner José Saramago once said, “World literature is created by translators.” And the stakes are high indeed: the 1989 fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie’s death in response to the publication of The Satanic Verses led to the murder of Rushdie’s Japanese translator and the attempted assassinations of his Italian, Norwegian, and Turkish translators.

Even on the page itself, a translation can mean the difference between life and death: Constance Garnett, who was responsible for bringing Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov to English readers in the early 20th century, worked so quickly that she had a habit of skipping or changing lines that gave her trouble. A 2005 New Yorker article describes Nabokov’s reaction to a Garnett translation: “where a passage in the Garnett of ‘Anna [Karenina]’ reads, ‘Holding his head bent down before him,’ Nabokov triumphantly notes, ‘Mark that Mrs. Garnett has decapitated the man.’ ”

For translators long familiar with the paradoxical work that is literary translation, and for the rest of us to whom such travails are wholly unfamiliar, we sought to ask a wide swath of translators about their work. From those working in Icelandic to those translating from French, from those just beginning their careers to those long-established, we survey the ferrymen and women who battle the tide to bring literature to foreign shores.

For more responses to our questionnaire, click here.

* * *

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKaren Emmerich is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Oregon, where she specializes in translation studies. She is also a translator of modern Greek poetry and prose; her recent translations include books by Miltos Sachtouris, Margarita Karapanou, Amanda Michalopoulou, Ersi Sotiropoulos, and Yannis Ritsos (with Edmund Keeley).

What is the most recent problem you ran into in a translation (a sentence, a word, a phrase)? How did you solve it?

I actually have an old problem that I still can’t solve, so I’ll crowd-source it here and see if someone else has a bright idea. One of Eleni Vakalo’s long poems from the 1950s that I’m translating for Ugly Duckling Presse has the title Fitiki agogi in Greek: fitiki is an adjective referring to plants, and agogi means “upbringing” or “education,” but the phrase is also sort of pun on fisiki agogi, “physical education,” as in phys ed class in school. The poem is about plants, but plants that are anthropomorphized, plants as “perpetual revolutionaries” that grow in monstrous and mysterious and frightening ways, that can’t be hemmed in, that rise from the dead, in a way. I’ve translated the title in two different ways, and neither one is satisfactory: Plant Upbringing is too boring, and Phytical Education doesn’t make enough sense, since “phytical” reminds us of “physical” but doesn’t actually mean anything in English. So I haven’t solved the problem yet, and am utterly open to suggestion.

Translators have enormous power over a text. How do you respond to this power? Can translation ever be unethical?

I guess translators have power over a text. Do they? What does it mean to have power over a text? Do they have power over the translation, the “original,” or both? Does an author have power over her text? Is translation a form of writing with constraint, or is it a form of transfer? I certainly do think translations can be unethical, but the question of the ethical might presuppose a power structure that can actually assume all kinds of shapes. I remember reading David Melnick’s Men in Aida (a fairly queer homophonic translation of the first book of the Iliad) with my students on Cyprus when I was teaching there a few years ago, and they definitely thought it was an abuse of power, that damage was being done to Homer. But we might also see Homer as the “bully” in that situation, and Melnick’s text as the “hideous debt” laid at his feet, to quote the opening lines of that text. Homer is the Goliath to Melnick’s David — and to call his translation unethical is to reinscribe the power of Homer, and perhaps also the power of nationalizing literary ideologies.

There’s that famous Italian expression, “Traduttore, traditore” (a play on the words for “translator” and “traitor”). And the poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop writes, “Translating is not pouring wine from one bottle into another. Substance and form cannot be separated easily . . . Translation is more like wrenching a soul from its body and luring it into a different one. It means killing.” Why is it that the concept of translation can inspire such violent comparisons? To what extent does your own translation work feel like an act of destruction?

Well, translation has been subject to all kinds of metaphors: it’s been figured as a process of bridging, transfer, transposition, transcreation, recreation, decreation, preservation, damage, destruction, distortion. My brother, Michael Emmerich, a fabulous translator from Japanese, wrote a piece called “Beyond Between,” in which he tries to think beyond spatial metaphors and argue for translation (the process of translation, rather than its results) as a kind of simultaneous inhabitation of the same space, as a kind of haunting. Lori Chamberlain has an article that’s become something of a classic in the field of translation studies, “Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation,” in which she discusses the particularly gendered metaphors for translation prevalent in the classical and early modern periods. And then we have the more recent explosions of violent metaphors for translation — metaphors that in fact seem to valorize that violence, as if using the language of the original to “break open” the translating language were a good thing. Doug Robinson, one of my favorite theorists of translation, has been highly critical of that rhetorical trend. There’s no violence without a victim, Robinson says, and if we’re going to celebrate violence even rhetorically, we need to think about the ethical implications of that language.

As you can see, I’m pretty sensitive about this issue. I personally do not think of translation as a violent or destructive act at all, and I think that to speak in those terms is often disingenuous and naïve. It might be politically persuasive, and for those thinking about translation from a post-colonial perspective I can see how it might make sense: in that case there is a potential victim, a potential abusee or object of linguistic or literary colonialism. In my own practice and even as a reader of translations, I don’t see that at all. In my view, the notion of translation as damage or loss can do its own kind of damage. I see each translation as gain: you can gain a little or you can gain a lot, but every time a work of literature is translated, you end up with more, not less. Even a “bad” translation is a gain. You could certainly conceptualize my translation of Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend as a “frenemy” (to quote Gary Shteyngart’s blurb) to Amanda’s Greek text, but my English text doesn’t “kill” her text. Her text is doing just fine, sitting there on my shelf, on her shelf, on thousands of shelves across Greece. And its life might even be extended by this infusion of “new blood” — its life not just in English but in Greek, too.

The word “faithful” often comes up in discussions of translation. To whom or what is a translation faithful? Is a faithful translation good? Is a good translation faithful?

The metaphor of “faithfulness” strikes me as both gendered and religious in a way that I don’t find useful; it also often gets used to refer to “literal” translations — and “literal” is another false metaphor. There is no such thing as a literal translation; languages aren’t containers for content. I do think translators have responsibilities, though, to any number of things: to their readers, to their authors, to themselves, to the literary traditions they’re translating into and out of. Those responsibilities don’t always coincide.

When do you know that a translation is finished?

It depends on what the translation is for. If I’m translating song lyrics to share with my class, all I want to do is give them some general sense of what’s going on, to spark discussion. I’m a perfectionist, but I’m also an overworked academic — and just as I see my academic texts as small contributions to ongoing discussions that were started by others and will be continued by others, I like to see my translations as parts of conversations, too. There’s no such thing as a definitive translation, any more than there is a definitive interpretation of a text or work. I’ve seen translators return to translations and revise them even after publication, or translate things differently for different contexts and audiences. I myself have been working on the poems of Eleni Vakalo for about six years, because I keep returning to them and seeing new things, and keep feeling that there’s more pleasure to be had from a continued engagement with them. But if I did that with everything, I’d never get to share those texts with the kind of audience I hope my translations find.

What kinds of books and genres in your source language(s) are translated into English most often? What are the books, genres, styles that you would most like to have translated?

Very little gets translated from Greek, and it’s mostly poetry or fiction. More poetry in the past, and more fiction these days, though C.P. Cavafy still has a pretty big market share in the field of translations from Greece. There might be as many English translations of Cavafy in the past ten years as there have been of all other Greek poets combined in that same time. Maybe more, actually — and while I love Cavafy, and love reading new translations of his work, I’m hoping we’ve had enough for a while, and can turn our attention elsewhere.

I would love to see more drama translated from Greek, because there’s been a real blossoming of experimental theater in Greece in the past several years. But apart from the literary, I’d also like to see more political science, more philosophy, more history, more anthropology. And for Pete’s sake, more journalistic work. This is a moment when foreign impressions of Greece is really affecting what happens on the ground, and I’m tired of reading ill-informed “news” about Greece written by people who don’t have a clue what’s going on, when there are thousands of out-of-work Greek journalists struggling to keep the lines of communication open even within Greece, where the Freedom of Press Index ranking has plummeted just in the past few years.

I also think it’s important to translate materials by organizations that don’t want their materials to be translated. In the undergraduate lecture class I’m teaching right now, “Reading the Greek Crisis,” I’ve noticed that while many left-leaning organizations have websites with materials in English — both for potential consumption outside of Greece and to allow non-Greek-speakers within Greece to participate in these conversations — it’s far harder to find materials from the far right in anything but Greek. It makes sense, of course, since these are groups that are radically isolationist in their ideology. Translation doesn’t have to be a form of endorsement: at a moment when there are extremely disturbing things happening in Greece, as in so many other places, the voices of the far right need to be heard outside of those places, too.

Why do you translate?

I translate for so many reasons. I translate, first of all, because of the enormous pleasure it brings me. I translate because I read things that I want to share. I translate as a form of argumentation, and as a form of activism. I translate far more women than men, as one small gesture toward correcting the gender imbalance in the publishing world in Greece and in the U.S. I translate because I want to have certain experiences in the classroom with my students, and there are conversations that can only take place if they have access to the books or essays or song lyrics that I have access to. I translate out of friendship and out of respect. Recently I’ve been translating a lot of shorter texts out of anger and worry, too — particularly to make certain materials from the Greek far right accessible to my American students. I think the only reason I couldn’t honestly mention is translating for money: that’s never a motivating factor, because I don’t make enough from my translations for it to make a difference in my decision whether or not to take on some particular project. This, in my view, is a major problem for the field of translation.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.