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A Snapshot of Literary Translation and its Practitioners

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Peter Hodges photoIt has sometimes been said that “the translation of literary works is considered by many [to be] one of the highest forms of translation as it involves so much more than simply translating text.”[1] It has also been said that “the very concept of translation tends to be restricted to literary translation in comparison with other types of translation and other texts.”[2] The concept of different types of translation is directly related to Katherina Weiss’ functional approach on a textual level, which calls for a different translation strategy to be employed for different text types and the situation in which they will be used. Before moving on to discuss features of literary translation, let us briefly review some of the other types of translation practice that exist in today’s global society.

·         General translation is perhaps the simplest and most common type. It involves ordinary, everyday language, it is not subject-specific, and it does not require the understanding of specialized terminologies. Examples may include letters, e-mails, magazine and newspaper articles.

·         Legal translation is one of the more complex professional translation types. Since law is administered differently in different countries, an understanding of both source and target politico-legal and socio-cultural contexts is required. This is important because an established term or expression in one culture may have different connotative meanings or no meaning at all in another culture. The English “homicide-suicide” and “involuntary manslaughter” for example, have no legal equivalent in the Brazilian system.[3]  Because of the demands, legal translators usually need to be subjected to a rigorous screening procedure, as in Australia where NAATI[4] accreditation is required for the validation of legal documents.

·         Administrative translation involves the translation of common administrative texts within business, corporations and government. Knowledge of management procedure is a distinct advantage when translating proposals, orders, invoices, quotes and contracts.

·         Commercial or business translation may exist alongside legal translation, so knowledge of both commercial and legal terminology may be required. The Live Babel Phone website reveals that commercial translation for this company involves the promotion of products and services, such as leaflets, pamphlets and flyers that have been adapted to the culture of a target market.[5]

·         Economic translation tends to be more academic in nature, so the translator may need knowledge of economic theory, including micro and macroeconomics. There is no room for creativity or experimentation in terms of format and terminology[6], with access to re-occurring words and expressions available through Kudoz.[7] Chris Translation Service, which specializes in economic translation, lists reports, financial statements, press releases and bank articles amongst its services.[8]

·         Financial translation is closely related to the last two types, but more specifically deals with asset management, stocks, investment and the allocation of resources. 

·         Technical translation, which deals with manuals, instruction books, software and help files is perhaps the most in-demand type of translation service today. Because consistent terminology is required to help cope with constant change, the highly formulaic and repetitive nature of the language means that computer assisted translation (CAT) and terminology databases like SDL Trados and SYSTRAN are often used. According to Clifford Landers, “Style is not a consideration [in technical translation] so long as the informational content makes its way unaltered from SL to TL.”[9]

·         Medical translation perhaps best exemplifies the problems associated with scientific translation in general. Because procedures are constantly changing, there needs to be the consistent use of words and expressions to facilitate the incorporation of new words into the jargon. The repercussions of mistranslation in the medical sphere can be severe, and as such some medical translation agencies say that “all Medical Translators and Translation Editors must have education, training and work experience in the areas of medicine matching the subject matter they translate”[10], while other medical agencies such as Applied Language Solutions have even more stringent controls, employing only trained medical practitioners with language degrees.[11]

While the approach to these demanding types of translation could be considered to be somewhat prescriptive and formulaic, the same cannot be said for literary translation, which allows the translator to share in the creative process. With the emphasis firmly on the mode of expression, and with the ultimate aim being that of publication[12], the translator must demonstrate “an appreciation of and feeling for different styles, tones and nuances in both the source and target languages, thus recreating the mood of the original.”[13] Literary translation is more than simply changing words from one language to another, “it involves the intricate task of expressing the words of the writer in a way that express the original intention.”[14] In other words, the translator should leave the same impression on the target text reader as the original author did on the source text reader. Clifford Landers supports and clarifies this statement: “all facets of the work, ideally, are reproduced in such a manner as to create in the TL reader the same emotional and psychological effect experienced by the original SL reader.”[15] Literary translators must therefore consider the aesthetic aspects of the text, its beauty and style, as well as the lexical, grammatical and phonological marks. “It requires artistic skills besides language ones.”[16]

This view is not new, however, for according to Holman and Boase-Beier, creative manipulation of the source language can be found as far back as the translation of the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic versions of the Bible, and in the Roman translation of the Classics, in order to facilitate the target audiences’ reception of foreign thought.[17]

It would seem fairly evident that a creative literary translator must possess good language skills in order to ideally render the meaning, feeling and style of a work written in the second (or third) language into the first or native language. Once again, according to Clifford Landers, “in addition to a thorough mastery of the source language, the literary translator must possess a profound knowledge of the target language. In reality, being in love with one or both languages, if not an absolute necessity, is a trait frequently found among the best and most successful literary translators.”[18] However, language and creativity may only be a part of the repertoire of a good literary translator. Phyllis Gaffney believes that “a highly receptive ear, an exceptional sensitivity to words, their origins, connotations and contexts, and finally an intuitive sixth sense which leaves the creative mind open to the subconscious”[19] are further characteristics that separate a good literary translator from a great one. “A highly receptive ear” is certainly a prerequisite for the literary translator who is able to transcend the words on the page to hear the “voice” of the source text. For Jeremy Munday, a great literary translator is one who is able to recreate the voice, the rhythm, singing and musicality of the original in the target text.[20]

As in legal translation, “one of the most difficult problems in translating literary texts is found in the differences between cultures.”[21] In fact, all of the sources consulted in this study emphasize the importance of cultural knowledge in literary translation as a means of rapprochement. Rainer Schulte, the co-founder of the American Translator’s Association says “Literary translation bridges the delicate emotional connections between cultures and languages and furthers the understanding of human beings across national borders.”[22] Others approach the importance of culture from a slightly different perspective. Landers tells us that the literary translator needs “extensive exposure to another culture to become conversant enough with it to translate its literature with confidence and accuracy”[23], which is reinforced by the following: “Literary translators need in-depth understanding of the social, historical and cultural context of the original piece of text for accurate semantic translation of the literary text.”[24] This last statement in particular is of great importance because it justifies any research that may need to be undertaken in the determination of authorial intent.

If literary translation is “the highest form of translation”, then there seems to be some inconsistency in the fact that it is perhaps the least financially rewarded and that there is very little agency work. This last point could be explained by the fact that many authors and publishing companies tend to work with a preferred translator. Nevertheless, there seems to be no shortage of translators willing to pursue the dream of having their work published. There may be many reasons for this, some of them altruistic, some of them less so. Some literary translators perceive their work to be “making a contribution, however small, to greater understanding between cultures”[25], while others persevere “out of love for literature.”[26] However, there is something intellectually challenging and intrinsically satisfying in toiling long and hard to find a solution to a puzzle, and it is rewarding and it may be considered prestigious to see one’s name associated with that of a well-known author. Whatever the reasons for deciding to become a literary translator, Landers tells us that “translation should be enjoyable, not something we look upon as a chore”[27], and that “perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of good literary translators is their sense of dedication.”[28]

In helping to decide upon a translation strategy in relation to almost any author and literary translation, the following comment by Harry Aveling is particularly relevant: “literary translation is fun, a performance art, and literary translators are performers, artists”[29], whose tools are passion, worldly knowledge, language skills beyond established databases, and creativity, albeit tempered by textual constraints and language conventions.



[1] <http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/translation/articles/types.html>

[2] Esmail Zare-Behtash, “Culture-Specific Items in Literary Translation”,


[3] Luciana Carvalho Fonseca Corrêa Pinto, “Two Legal Systems and the Term Homicide” <https://www.translationdirectory.com/article1052.htm>

[4] National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters.

[5] <http://www.babelphone.com/en/en/services/translation/commercial>

[6] <http://www.in-slovo.ru/en/types/economic-translation>

[7] <http://www.translatortips.net/ubb/Forum1/HTML/000009.html>

[8] <http://www.chris-translation.com/english/service/financial/index.html>

[9] Clifford E. Landers, Literary Translation: A Practical Guide (New Jersey: Multilingual Matters, 2001), p.7.

[10] <http://www.ricintl.com/medical-translation-services.html>

[11] <http://www.appliedlanguage.com/medical_translation.html>

[12] Ian Finlay, Teach Yourself Books: Translating (London:English Universities Press, 1971), p.45.

[13] Ibid. p.4.

[14] “How to Become a Literary Translator”<http://www.ehow.com/how_4392970_become-literary-translator.html>

[15] Clifford E. Landers, p.27.

[16] “Literary Translation.” <http://www.translationblog.trustedtranslation.com/literary-translation-2010-02-03.html>

[17] Michael Holman and Jean Boase-Beier, “Writing, Rewriting and Translation Through Constraint to Creativity”, The Practices of Literary Translation: Constraints and Creativity, (Manchester: St Jerome, 1999), pp.15-16

[18] Clifford E. Landers, p.7.

[19] Phyllis Gaffney, “The achieve of, the mastery of the thing! Pierre Legris’s Verse Translations of Gerard Manley Hopkins,” The Practices of Literary Translation: Constraints and Creativity, p.58.

[20] Jeremy Munday 3rd IATIS Conference, Pre-conference workshop, Monash University, July 7th 2009.

[21] Esmail Zare-Behtash, “Culture-Specific Items in Literary Translation.”

[22] <http://www.utdallas.edu/alta/about/literary-translation>

[23] Clifford E. Landers, p.13.

[24] <http://www.translationhub.com/types-translation/literary-translation.html>

[25] Clifford E. Landers, p.29.

[26] Jeremy Munday, IATIS Pre-conference workshop, July 7th 2009.

[27] Clifford E. Landers, p.35.

[28] Ibid., p.29.

[29] Harry Aveling IATIS Pre-conference workshop, July 7th 2009.

Published - July 2011

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