In this section we publish short essays on the art and craft of literary translation, on translation theory, on reading literature in translation, or reports from events on literary translation. Our goal is to introduce new ideas or reflect on old ones, to create a dialogue around issues in literary translation, and to keep you informed about happenings in the world of literary translation.
Last year I read Elena Ferrante’s new novel The Lying Life of Adults (La vita bugiarda degli adulti) in Bulgarian, in Ivo Yonkov’s translation. It was September 2020, it had just been released by Ferrante’s Bulgarian publisher, Colibri, and I was in Bulgaria myself. I went to Helikon, the largest bookshop in my home town Burgas, and asked for Ferrante’s new novel. The saleswoman quickly showed it to me on the shelf and recommended, since I was interested in Ferrante, that I also buy Nora Roberts’s (or was it Danielle Steel’s?) latest novel. I didn’t argue with her – I just picked up The Lying Life of Adults, paid for it and left. I refrained from telling her that Ferrante’s book was not a romance novel and the bookstore should reconsider its classification. I didn’t tell her that I was a Ferrante expert, that my book Elena Ferrante as World Literature was coming out in a few months, that it was the first scholarly monograph on Ferrante written in English, and by a Bulgarian at that.
It all began with youthful audacity. When someone asked me one day, “What are you reading?” the answer was War and Peace. There was a pause, a faint flicker of confusion in the face hovering above my own, and then a slower, more tentative second question: “Why . . . are you reading that?”
I, at seventeen, sitting propped up against my locker in the hallway, didn’t really have an answer. The plain grey hardcover teetering against my knees looked as thick and heavy as a brick (he said), and why would anyone want to read some novel about the . . . Russians . . . during the – what was it, again? The Napoleonic Wars? What was the point?
I shrugged with adolescent nonchalance. “I don’t know. It’s interesting.”
Translation is a gnarly business. Even more so when you’re doing it the wrong way around.
In Bulgarian, which I translate from, translating into a language that’s not your native tongue is colloquially known as obraten prevod, which literally means “reverse translation.” As an adjective, obraten carries the negative connotation of something abnormal or backward, something that goes against the grain, or something that simply isn’t right.
The translator’s sin is that of breaching the mythology which surrounds the individual authorial voice. The literary world erases the translator in order to preserve the liberal ideal of individual genius. And yet this erasure is not a distinctive problem of translation, but rather an expression of the worker’s alienation from the product of their labor. It is in fact the narrative of authorship which is unusual, in that literature is one of the few commodities which, rather than being conceptually distanced from the workers who produce it, is viewed as an extension of that worker’s self. By arguing that translation is art, translation theory abandons the possibility of fighting alienation writ large, and instead pursues for translators the unusual forms of acknowledgement which writers receive.