Saturday, 25 April 2015

The Invisibility of the Translator

In a way, the fact that people claim to have read Dostoevsky, or Proust, yet know not a word of Russian or French, is a tribute to the literary translator; the Constance Garnetts and Scott-Moncrieffs  whom most readers don’t even notice. Until recently translators, if mentioned at all, were commended for their invisibility, their blandness: if reviewers said anything at all about their work, it was likely to be ‘The translation flows smoothly’, as if a book were a gentle river and never a raging torrent, a cataract, a meandering towards an estuary, a stagnant marsh…

Things are changing, though even now people one had thought intelligent turn out to think that foreign novels get into English without human agency. Yesterday I heard of a corresponding ignorance about interpreting: I was talking with Aris Laskaratos, an Athens publisher specializing in editions in other languages of works by well- (and lesser-) known Modern Greek writers. Aris has sometimes to attend conferences which are addressed by people of various nationalities in their own languages. Off to one side there is of course a row of interpreters with headsets, busily turning the speeches into other languages — believe me, it needs a cool head, mental agility, and great skill in at least the ‘target’ language — and members of the audience too can have headphones and a little thing like a portable radio, with buttons for the language of one’s choice, relaying the voice of the relevant interpreter.

During a coffee-break (it’s always out of the conference hall that the more interesting things happen), Aris — an old hand at such dos — was approached by a less experienced (or perhaps plain stupid) colleague: ‘Tell me, Ari, where can I buy one of those little boxes? I want one for my mother: she watches lots of foreign television, but she can’t understand the words…’

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