Monday, 5 September 2016

Monolingual translators...?!

There has been a recent (and very welcome) surge in the popularity of translated verse. This is excellent in terms of finding Anglo-Saxon readers for non-Anglo-Saxon verse. However, it's not without its pitfalls.

Certain creative writing specialists seem to believe in the figure of the monolingual translator, which might be fine as a classroom exercise but is now finding its way into published translations, even prize-winning ones. This leads to multiple complications, ranging from heightened dangers of accusations of plagiarism, as monolingual translators work from previous translations instead of the original text, while a form of the game Chinese Whispers is also played out at times, with the result that the final translation edges ever further from the original.

Moreover, my own argument is that translations of poetry for publication should only be undertaken by people who have an intimate knowledge of both languages. That probably sounds exclusive, but I've seen far too many aberrations to believe otherwise.

One instance of top-notch translating is Anna Crowe's work with the likes of Pedro Serrano. Now there's someone who gets to grips with the original, syllable by syllable, and who chips away until creating a piece of art that's new yet faithful to its point of departure.


  1. I have such mixed feelings about this. On one hand I like the idea that there are many ways to play with and approach translation. Looking at the history of literature and poetry, we'll find that "versions" as well as close translations have advanced the course of the art. However, I think it's absolutely imperative to be honest about what you're doing. If a poem is a loose "version" rather than a close, accurate-as-possible translation, that should be clearly signalled.

    1. Hi Clarissa,

      Thanks for commenting. You're right, of course, in underlining the difference between translations and versions. Moreover, as you say, poets themselves are often guilty of not clarifying the issue.

      I very much agree that all these arguments about translations are rendered somewhat irrelevant once a poem becomes a version.