In the summer of 2023, writer and translator Yilin Wang took to then-Twitter to demand that the British Museum credit her and pay her for her translations into English of poems by Chinese poet Qiu Jin, which the museum had been using in a major exhibition without Wang’s consent. Someone replied to Wang’s Twitter post asking, “how do you know it was your translation?” That preposterous question revealed utter ignorance about the nature of literary translation.
The person who asked that question may have mistaken machine translation for human translation. In machine translation, you input A and get output B. The machine’s language model will look only for the most likely translation of a word or phrase and ignore most artistic qualities of a text. Most if not all machine translations will look alike. Human translation, especially literary translation, as in the case of Yilin Wang’s work, is an act of artistic interpretation. Every translation bears the imprint of its translator. No two translators will translate the same poem—or any literary text—the same way.
I thought about a way to describe literary translation to those who may think there is only way to translate a text and that a translator cannot be sure that what they are reading is their own translation or someone else’s. I came up with an analogy that might help: literary translation as akin to painting.
Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash
If you place two artists side by side in front of a landscape like the one above and ask them to paint it, the resulting paintings will not be identical. They will reflect each artist’s unique approach to painting, which itself is a result of a lifetime of experiences and influences along with mastery of technique and personal style. Even if the artists didn’t sign their paintings, they would recognize the shapes of their drawings, their strokes, their choice of colors—their interpretation of the landscape. And so it is with literary translation. The text written in the target language is an artistic recreation of the text written in the source language.
Of course Yilin Wang recognized her own writing. She had chosen the words that recreated those poems in English—the words that conveyed the meaning, the emotion, and musicality of each poem in her own unique way. Her translation reflected her own views on translation, her skills in the source and target language, her writing style, her own sensibilities as a writer. Yes, a literary translator is a creative writer. Another translator would have brought different qualities to their translation, would have made different choices, and would have come up with a different translated text. This is why from time to time we have new translations of classic writings. We get new perspectives and interpretations of a text, and readers get to compare different translations of that same text. The reading experience becomes, or has the potential to become, richer.
And what happened to Wang’s demand that the British Museum acknowledge her work and pay for its use in the exhibition? After stating via email her requests to the British Museum and receiving no reassurance that it would take actions to right its wrongs, Yilin Wang fought hard for her right to be recognized and remunerated for her work. It took raising funds to hire a lawyer through a gofundme campaign and going to court to have the British Museum do the right thing. Wang and the British Museum reached a settlement, and Wang received exactly what she had requested from the start. The British Museum apologized for its actions, acknowledged Wang as the translator of the poems, and provided compensation for her work. This page on Yilin Wang's website documents in detail her months-long experience with the British Museum as she fought for her rights as a translator.
You can share your thoughts on this or any of my blog posts by going to the contact section on this site. And you can read more about my take on AI and literary translation in my response to the literary magazine Hopscotch on its 2023 Summer Forum prompt: AI & I.