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Translation Metaphors

Literary translators have often described their work and roles as professionals through metaphors. These are highly individualized comparisons, derived from personal experiences and opinions, which translators use to explore their thinking about literary translation as a craft.


The metaphors I will share here deal with translators, translation as a whole, or some aspect of translation. Some of the translators I mention use similes--translation is like rather than translation is. Whatever shape the comparisons take, the point is that these translators are engaging in metaphorical thinking to explore what it means to do the work they do.



The late English-to-French translator Bernard Hœpffner described his view of the translator as chameleon. The following is from an article by Hœpffner, published by Asymptote Journal: "The translator is a jocund and wanton chameleon, a pilfering, purloining, nimming, filching, and pleonasmical fool, graduated in madness and sporting on a tightrope, push-pulled into contradictory directions." As you can see, Hœpffner uses more than one metaphor in the article, but in much of it he focuses on translators as chameleons. The word chameleon comes from Greek via Latin and means "on-the-ground lion." Like chameleons, translators "change coats" as they recreate the works of various authors with their distinct voices. And like chameleons, once thought of as "dwarf lions" and believed to live on air, translators might be said to live on air, or at least "on a pittance."


Hœpffner argues, however, that translators do eat: "The abiding image of the translator is (...) of an unstable and even schizoid ouroboros, eating himself while expanding outwards, plagued by contrary urges." Yes, another metaphor: translator as ouroboros. Translators "choose books to translate, they read them, ingest them, digest them, and then egest them."


Hœpffner's spirited descriptions of the roles translators fulfill remind me we are writers in a category of our own: "If it is true that we are being transformed when reading books written in our own language, how much more when we are reading translations from other countries and other languages." Resuming the translator-as-chameleon metaphor, Hœpffner concludes: "If the author can be considered to be a lion, then the translator is a dwarf lion, however, in Robert Burton’s words, 'A Dwarfe standing on the shoulders of a Giant may see farther than a Giant himself.'"


I can see the translators whose work I admire as chameleons: resilient, versatile, hungry, perched on greatness and asserting their own with the humbleness and courage of dwarf lions.


In an interview to The Publishing Post, French- and Spanish-to-English translator Frank Wynne likens the translator's role to that of an actor or ventriloquist. He says, “[t]he most important thing about translation is voice. You need to listen for it much like you would in a piece of music or a song. Keep the brutal consonance or the purring cadence of a phrase or a piece of dialogue; listen for register – is it overweening, educated, formal, slangy, laconic? Like an actor, you need to wonder, 'Would my character say this?' Listen for rhythm; be attentive to cultural allusions. The point when you happen on that voice is like a light switch being turned on – everything is illuminated. (...) In my experience, occasional authors with a limited command of English can focus too much on trying to 're-write' the English, whereas writers who are also translators (...) understand that translation is an act of interpretation, of ventriloquism."


A similar thought occurred to me when Jesse Lee Kercheval, poet, translator and editor of Northwest Review, accepted an excerpt of Marília Arnaud's most recent novel O Pássaro Secreto (The Secret Bird) in my translation. Jesse Lee wrote to me, "Hers is such a beautiful voice." I took her comment as a terrific compliment because it confirmed that my translation had allowed Marília Arnaud's voice, not mine, to be heard. And I thought, as a translator I am a ventriloquist; I am speaking in someone else's voice.


I think acting is an apt metaphor for translation as well. Literary translators offer, as Frank Wynne says, an interpretation of the work--one of many possible interpretations--in the sense of their understanding the meaning of the work and in the sense of their performance in the telling of the story it contains.


In a post from her newsletter We Are All Translators, fiction writer and Gujarati-to-English translator Jenny Bhatt explores the idea of certain moments in the act of translation as alchemy. She draws on comments by musician Jacob Collier on his interpretation of a piece of music: "[Collier] mentions how music is, for him, a process of learning how to alchemize the forces in his life so he can create with them and transform them into something with form and structure such that it can be understood even by people who don't have the same emotional experiences."


She says that as a translator, she experiences moments when her work is akin to alchemy, when a special kind of transformation occurs in her: "I don't claim to always understand what the original writer might have intended. But, immersing myself into and inhabiting the emotions and worlds they've created catalyzes a kind of alchemy within me too. Once I feel that transformational effect for myself during the translation process, I know the reader will feel it too when they read the end result."


I am still sitting with the idea of moments of alchemy in my translation work. I find it an intriguing idea.


Robin Myers, Spanish-to-English translator, writes at length about translation and the translator's roles in a recent article in Words Without Borders. As a translator, she is in a host/guest relationship with the work she is translating and the languages she is working with: "I’m (...) compelled by the thought of translator as eternal guest. Or, at any rate, as the kind of guest-host forged by being a long-term inhabitant, an apprentice, a participant-observer in another place: an arrival that becomes an entire life."


This apprenticeship applies to her native language as well. Myers continues: "When I translate, I am not merely a guest in the Spanish language or in the culture of the poem or story or novel I’m translating; I’m also made more aware of being a guest in my own. No: not my own, because I don’t own it. I translate into English not because it’s 'mine,' my 'mother tongue,' my 'dominant' language, but because I have learned it immersively and will never stop learning it. (...) It is relentless, this learning, with my object of study neither English nor Spanish per se, but rather the material, ever-evolving relationship between the two. I am a guest in both houses."


The translator-as-host-and-guest metaphor appeals to me because it rings true to my experience and because it positions the translator in a place of possibility and complexity, where power and humbleness coexist. In Myers' words, "the allure of reciprocity isn’t so much the promise of giving and receiving in equal measure as it is the hope that both parties feel respected and treasured, able to be themselves. As translator-host, rather than bending the text to my will, I want to honor how it was made and why. As translator-guest, I want the independence to figure out both: why; how."


The translation metaphor that most often occurs to me in my work is that of tightrope walking, which Hœpffner mentions briefly in his discussion. The translator is "push-pulled" in different directions, and I believe Hœpffner means this happens in various contexts: the writing itself, the attempts at publishing, the struggles to get paid fairly and on time, and I imagine other challenges in a translator's work life. Because I have not had a book-length translation published yet, I can only speak of how translation feels to me in the process of translating a text. It does feel like a tightrope, a high-wire act even, in which a lot is at stake.


As a translator, I am on a tightrope with arms outstretched at my sides, leaning to the right and then to the left to regain balance and stay on. My desire to remain faithful to the original text pulls me in one direction, and then my desire to remain faithful to the target language pulls me in the other. To fail to capture the voice and cadence of the original or to produce a translated text that does not honor the target language would feel like falling flat and hard on my face.


In my adoption of the translation-as-tightrope metaphor, I don't mean to imply suffering at all. I quite enjoy the high-wire act, as a challenging text is so much fun to translate and yields such great rewards. But I appreciate Myers' view of the translator as guest and host especially for the beauty of her description and the joy she clearly derives from this dual role. The reciprocity she envisions and seeks conveys more effectively than my chosen metaphor the pleasure I experience in my work as a translator.


I encourage you to read the interviews and articles I mention. They are all insightful and a pleasure to read and, at the time of this posting, available on the internet.


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