July 21, 2011, by Jon McGregor

Influence & Translation, a discussion

More from the Worlds 11 conference in Norwich; this time Maureen Freely taking the lead in a discussion on influence and translation (the role of influence in translation and the influence of translation on other writing).

Maureen Freely began by describing her childhood in Istanbul, stating memorably that the best part of living or travelling abroad is the getting lost. “There are things you can only discover about a place when you get lost,” she said. “For one thing, you discover that most strangers are very kind.”

She said that, when she came to work on translation (most notably working on the novels of Orhan Pamuk), it “renewed my understanding of form; as an enactment of the thing which it sets out to try and explain.”

(Incidentally, isn’t that great? Form is an enactment of the thing which it sets out to try and explain. All the writing I love understands this concept, and has tried to do something about it.)

Jean Boase-Beier observed that Anthea Bell, one of W.G. Sebald’s translators, has said that she believes the translator should be invisible; Jean disputed that this was possible, and Maureen observed in turn that the model of the ‘invisible’ dutiful translator is very close to the model of the good wife doing invisible, thankless work.

This led, naturally, to a discussion on the credit paid to translators, and the way in which international prizes are often awarded on the basis of translations rather than original texts. George Szirtes asked Maureen whether, when Orhan Pamuk won the Noble Prize for literature, she felt that in some way she had won it.

“Well,” said Maureen, drily; “I haven’t seen the money.”

Later in the session, Alfred Birnbaum, who works in translation from Japanese to English, talked about the difficulties of cultural context, linguistic structures, and even key differences in cultural understandings of what makes for ‘good’ writing. He made strong claim for greater recognition of the work of translation when he said that “translation is creative writing with crib notes”; essentially, that the translator is tasked with producing an entirely new piece of work.

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