Thursday, 8 November 2012

Literary Translation

We are heading into the darkest time of the year. Here in Rutland, the trees are starting to lose their bright autumn leaves, the fields have been ploughed up and sown with winter crops, and now there is not too much left to do outside but wait out the cold season until the days start lengthening once more. But the colder and darker it is outside, the cheerier it is indoors. I love strolling through the village at dusk and seeing all the cottage windows lit up – and perhaps even the odd Jack O’Lantern – before returning to my warm house for a hot cup of tea!

Literary translation

This has been a busy autumn for me, and I’ve been lucky enough to attend a number of interesting professional events. One of my favourites was a literary translation workshop organised by the London Review of Books to celebrate Translation Day at the end of September. The German workshop was led by the renowned Anthea Bell (one of the few translators who has her own entry on Wikipedia!). I don’t usually do literary translation (academic and cultural texts being my areas of specialism), but I’ve always been interested in it and thought this would be a fun way of finding out more.

The text Anthea had selected for us was one of Grimm’s fairy tales, “Bruder Lustig”, one of a number of tales about (ex-)soldiers (you can find the German version here and an English version here). We were asked to translate roughly a page in advance and send it in for her to look at. I am a great lover of fairy tales (in fact, some years ago I was lucky enough to be involved in translating a book about fairy tales!) and so this choice was right up my street. Simple as they seem at first glance, I soon found that translating this little tale posed several challenges.

Illustration © C. A. Hiley

Perhaps the greatest challenge was also the first one – was how to render the title. “Bruder Lustig” translates literally as “Brother Jolly”. However, it is (or was) also used as a generic expression referring to a “jolly fellow”. Although older translations into English simply rendered this name “Brother Lustig”, treating “Lustig” as a personal name, I thought this missed out on its symbolic or more generic dimension. In the end, I settled for “John Jolly”, as “John” seemed a fairly generic name (as in “John Doe”) and “Jolly” provided a nice alliteration. Anthea liked “John Jolly”, although she did say that it made her think of a “Jolly Jack Tar” more than a soldier! Other participants went for the more literal “Brother Merry” or “Brother Jolly”. For me, it was simply fascinating to see how much debate and discussion could go into this one small issue – and how important a factor association is in the rendering of literary names. Ultimately, it seemed that any solution we came up with would represent a compromise of sorts; one of my favourite quotes of the day was Anthea’s statement: “I hate compromise, but unfortunately it is something you have to do quite a lot in translation.” Our discussions continued over several other challenging aspects – for example, the difficulty of rendering the difference between the familiar “Du” and the (archaic) formal “Ihr” – although for nearly all we found a compromise that satisfied the group.

After an exhilarating morning and a very pleasant lunch with other participants at the British Museum, I boarded the train back to Rutland and mulled over what I had learnt on this first foray into literary translation. One thing was the sheer amount of time it could take to find a satisfactory translation for even a fairly simple story such as “Bruder Lustig”, which made me think that translation rates for literary translation by rights should be significantly higher than for other kinds of text, rather than the other way around as is more frequently the case. Related to this was the range of factors that needed to be taken into account – cultural and historical connotations, associations, and traditions – for more than with any other kind of text, translating literature truly means translating one culture into another. But on the workshop I had also gained a sense of why literary translation for so many remains the Holy Grail, if you like, of translation – working on a text that is itself a work of art, and finding ways of transferring it into another tongue so that it actually works, is both pleasurable and incredibly satisfying. So I think I may well take up opportunities to learn more about and gain more experience in literary translation! For those who are interested in finding out more themselves, I have provided some useful links below.
What are your own experiences of literary translation? Do you enjoy translating literary texts, and what do you think are the challenges? Have you any other points or resources you’d like to share with readers? I’d love to hear your thoughts – please post them below!

Wishing you all a warm, cosy autumn with lots of time to think about and explore new avenues,

P.S. Many thanks to Megan Onions of Speechmarks Translation – a seasoned blogger! – for reading through a draft of this post!

Useful literary translation resources:
The British Centre for Literary Translation – online resources, talks, workshops, training, networking…the place to get started!
New Books in German – promotes, as the title says, newly published German literary works by providing translations of extracts. Information on translation rights and funding for translation projects, and training for emerging literary translators.
The Translator's Association – the translating branch of the Society of Authors. Professional support and advice, networking, resources and more!
First Steps in Literary Translation – an online course offered by award-winning literary translator Lisa Carter. Lisa’s blog is also an excellent source of information on literary translation.


  1. As a student I used to love literary translation, but I was always getting marked down for being "too imaginative" with my English versions! A sign of things to come perhaps.

    The cultural translation aspect of it fascinates me too. I've read a few books in translation, the most recent being Johanna Sinisalo's Not Before Sundown, and they always make me wish I could read the original because however good the translation is it just never quite seems to sing the right way. I guess it's that old devil compromise again.

    1. Hi Felix, nice to see you here! I've read both translations where even without knowing the original language, the text doesn't seem to flow, and others where you would never guess the text was translated. Some translators choose to leave a certain "foreignness" in the language to better convey the culture represented - some readers (myself included) like this, others hate it! I guess there is no way of pleasing everybody, only - as you say - compromise...

  2. "Perhaps the greatest challenge was also the first one – was how to render the title."

    I love questions like this, although I've never done any translation and would never want to do it full-time. The artistry of finding the best balance for the situation between different connotations of the word is lovely, and I like to give my pedantry full reign to say "ah, but that's missing one of the other connotations" while inherently recognising that I want to get as much information as possible into the title, and then stop, not expecting there to be (as some people seem to do) a target language phrase with a one-to-one relationship with the source language phrase.

    I imagine it similar in spirit to translating a book to a film: you can't always just be accurate, sometimes you can't capture everything, but you can more than make up for it by capturing things that are only implicit in the original. Admittedly, you're very very lucky if you get to do that, since it's as much work as writing a book again, and needs close cooperation from the author.

    I quite like "Brother Lustig", just because it sounds nice and will be immediately recognisable if you're exposed to the other language version. But though I think "lustig" sounds nice, and maybe a bit lusty, it doesn't really sound jolly.

    Which is more relevant to the original story, the genericity or the jollity? Is it important he's a soldier or just ex-military? Jack Tar seems to have many of the appropriate connotations of ex-soldier, even though out-of-work soldiers are probably more traditional than out-of-work sailors.

    Is "brother" actually appropriate, or just an appropriate salutation to a fellow travellor who's an ex-soldier? Would an English equivalent be something else you'd call someone in that situation?

    1. Hi Jack, thanks for posting! A lot of interesting questions. Bruder Lustig is, in fact, a bit of a trickster - you might even be able to call him a joker rather than "jolly"! The more generic name means he is less of a "personal" character than (just as an example) Hansel or Gretel, and I think there are certain implications of a kind of Everyman nature. I don't think you could get away with turning him into a sailor, given the story's context (though not time-specific, it does deal with the aftermath of one of the continental wars). We did actually discuss using "comrade" rather than "brother", but then decided that nowadays that word was too heavily coloured by its association with socialism. What would "Comrade Jolly/Merry/Lustig" look like, I wonder?

  3. Lovely blog, Margaret! I've added you to my RSS reader and look forward to your future musings.

    Literary translation involves an endless series of decisions and, as you discovered, we will all have different solutions to the thorny problems we come across. That's what makes this such a creative profession: I will see it one way, you another, and both solutions are often possible.

    1. Dear Lisa, thanks so much for your comments! I'm chuffed you like the blog! During the workshop, Anthea herself touched on the issue you mention, saying "No two translators will ever translate any one thing the same way!"

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