Writers and Readers 2012
The Art of Translation: Jenny Erpenbeck, Michael Hulse, Karen Leeder, Marco Sonzogni
Reviewed by Bill Nelson
At one point Marco Sonzogni waives a question away and responds to Michael Hulse’s answer to a previous question. Hulse said that translating something like a legal document can be taught, but translating literature is a different beast altogether, inherently unteachable. You can almost see the hairs on Sonzogni’s neck prick up. He rises to what he sees as a challenge, valiantly defending the art of translation. He mentioned earlier that he continually battles the notion that translation isn’t a real academic pursuit, even from his colleagues at Victoria University.
His view is that it can be taught and that a translator is like a ‘musical instrument’ who’s job it is to play the melody of the original text as best they can. It was a stirring argument and met with murmurs of approval. Translation is writing after all, he says, and reading and writing can be taught.
Hulse fell into translation he says, when he was asked one day to translate a German writer (his mother is German) and it went from there until he was translating Sebald and the like. He believes that the modern desire of accuracy and fidelity has stripped some of the ‘writing’ away from translation, the invention. He talks about Coleridge as the most ‘cavalier’ of translators, who would basically write his own poem that barely referenced the original.
Sonzogni grew up with Latin, Greek and local Italian dialects in his everyday life. ‘It happened before I realised’ he says, ‘it’s still happening without me realising.’ He is passionately a translator, he once spent six months translating a two stanza Paul Muldoon poem into Italian and expects to be translating Seamus Heaney’s Collected Poems for years.
And then there is Jenny Erpenbeck, the odd one out it seems. She sits quietly and answers innocently when asked to speak. Her experience at being translated by others is never being able to read the finished product. She doesn’t speak ‘Korean or Japanese’ and trusts advisors who tell her if it’s a good translation or not. She says she wants the translators to take the ‘atmosphere of the book’ and then make their own work out of it. Generous. She talks about her mother who translated Arabic books into German and asked at age eight for her opinion on how to translate a particular sentence. She was thrilled by that.
They make quite a trio, the two angular arguments of the ‘academy’ translator vs. the ‘celebrity’ translator and then Erpenbeck in the middle, down-to-earth, not seeming to have a concrete opinion either way, just happy that her books are translated at all. A finely judged panel that bought out some great jousting. They all seem to share the view that translating is an art, that the translated work is a new work, but that it is always tied to the original. Sonzogni calls it ‘keeping the channel alive.’
My favourite moment was right at the end when someone, in a long rambling question, asked Erpenbeck what she thought of the translations of her sinuous German sentences. Erpenbeck’s limited grasp of English struggled to follow what the woman was saying. She turned to Hulse with a plea for help. He leant over and whispered in her ear. It was just loud enough for me to tell he was speaking English and not German. Playing the same melody I suppose but with the distortion pedal turned off.