How does one attempt to translate literary giants? In a previous post, I had urged fellow translators to do what they can in trying to fill in the many literary gaps that are left in the translated canon of literature of their languages, Tigrinya in my case. It shouldn’t be a haphazard affair, however, and I should stress that no one should attempt the classics if they don’t feel they are adequately up to the task. For those that do venture into the unknown — those of you born with that special gene — there remains a set of numerous difficult decisions to be made before, during and after the work.

As a translator — and hobbyist lexicographer — I often peruse translations of world literature in my mother tongue to look for ways in which they differ from their originals, what neologisms they transpose, words they coin themselves, and the occasionally overbearing portmanteaus they invent in a final, desperate attempt to convey meaning. This is often the case due to the lack of adequate or standardized sources. Sometimes though, they go in the complete opposite direction and omit the ‘untranslatable’ altogether. Let me illustrate what I mean.

I came across a translation of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens recently in my native Tigrinya, translated by ‘Tegadalay’ (‘Fighter’) Temesgen Abraham. It is indeed an abridged version, although one could also describe it as a ‘skeletal version’ consisting only of the bare minimum required to tell the same story in another language. My very compact edition of a Dickens collection tells the story in 300 hundred pages, with two columns to every page. The translation does so in 58. The 64 chapters of the original are also reduced into 23. Some might say Tigrinya takes two words where it takes english 10, due to its nature of combining verbs, nouns and sometimes prepositions in the same word. Even considering the compactness of the language, however, there is definitely a chunky lacuna here that bears examining.

Here’s an almost literal translation of a passage from the first paragraph of chapter 1:

“I was born on a Friday at midnight. And when the big clock sounded the midnight bells, my first cries were heard. Some of the older women would talk of me, considering the time and day of my birth, saying I was not a lucky child at all. I was a fatherless child. My father had been deprived the light of this world six months before I opened my eyes” — (My own translation)

The novel more or less continues in this manner till the end. Anyone who’s read the original chapter in English can attest that it takes four paragraphs before the Father is mentioned, but in this case, the translator does it in four sentences. I wondered for a while and looked for a single reason behind the style and abridgement of this translation, but now I think it’s more likely that it’s a combination of or all of the following three reasons.

Literary Age of a Language

Tigrinya is a younger language in terms of written literature (as opposed to oral). Literary rates were not as high as they are now, especially in the early days of the independence of Eritrea, a country where Tigrinya is a majority language. Even for the learnéd class however — who are usually educated in a foreign or colonial language — it is still difficult to read long passages in Tigrinya, even if your language of education was Amharic, which one could argue is significantly closer to Tigrinya, at least more than English or Italian. Having been confined to the clergy for most of its life, the written language is only recently producing novels of great length that can vie with world classics. Therefore, you wouldn’t have any readership if you translated a lengthy novel word for word.

Perceived Audience

It was made for popular consumption and not meant to be a definitive edition. I think the context will give us more evidence for this. The translator is a revolutionary soldier, and he is addressed as such, even though this book was published in June of 1993, almost exactly 2 years after independence. The small, one sentence preface on the first page reads “When I put together this translation, it was to lead-by-example and encourage all of my fellow fighters — especially those comrades who have the willingness and ability to do so — to stave off of waiting for others and help themselves and their comrades by doing the same.” His aim was not in the main to contribute to the as-yet-underdeveloped canon of Tigrinya literature, therefore he had an alibi or a perfect excuse for his abridgement. The themes of the Eritrean Independence have always been some version of “we’ll do it ourselves,” and he captures this sentiment both in the content and brevity of his preface.

Translation Style

The aim was to tell an inspiring tale without literary flourishes, embellishments, or extra bits of word-fluff. There’s strong evidence for this in the way the novel unfolds in the translation. There’s no effort made (as shown by the result, not the backstory) of trying to replicate the structure, the Victorian or Dickensian flavour, or the depth of detail and imagery of the original text. From the passage above, one can see what has been omitted.

What about when aiming to do the opposite of the above? When translating becomes aimed at creating a similar experience of reading the work in its original tongue? When the word-fluff and flourish is an integral part of the greatness of a literary work?

Salman Rushdie once hinted in an interview how important word choice is. In a small literary disagreement with Arundhati Roy, a great Indian writer, he said “…I would’ve thought that, the most serious writers have a linguistic project, that is to say, that you have to find a language for your work”, whereas Roy was explaining the fact that she’s not aware — perhaps in a hyper-conscious way — of the use of English versus any of the other Indian languages she speaks when telling a story. I take it to mean that the story would be the same in any language it is told. But I dare say that it takes translators of extraordinary skill and talent to make the veneer of language invisible in retelling the story in a different language. In any case, I would urge any translator to heed the former, and not so much the latter. Great works of literature are not merely marked by the stories they tell, but also by the methods they employ to tell those tales. If Joseph Campbell is right, all stories are essentially one story — that of change over time — and there may be many tropes and archetypes of Story that bind the whole human experience into a tapestry of essential experiences, or variations thereof. Thus what is most important, at least to us as translators, must be the use of language, and the slippery nature of meaning, context and history.

Let’s take a writer who was keenly aware of this in her writing. Toni Morrison was known to me primarily through her lectures and talks, before I read her books. She has often mentioned how she was asked, as an African American writer, when she was going to write about white people, or by inference, a novel in which the white majority takes prominence or at least a central role. This is partly what she calls “the white gaze” and it’s something that she worked hard to extricate from or avoid altogether in her books, the other part being that her books ought to be written with a white-audience in mind. Briefly described, it is the phenomenon whereby any literary work not centering ‘white’ people’s lives — ‘white’ itself being a construction — in other words, a work revolving around or seen through the eyes of minorities, is deemed marginal, not as important or as worthy of praise.

However, I would add that this is not just an African American issue. It’s an issue where a majority culture imperializes, overwhelms, or subjects, any other minority language and/or culture which exists in the same realm, whether that should be a country, a region, a city; anywhere a person tries to make his way of life the norm at the expense of another’s disappearing. This is what the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls the imperial mindset: “in order for me to be, you must cease to be”. In such works as Morrison’s, we can see a determined effort to use language in a very particular and well-crafted way, to reflect a linguistically heterogeneous society and to record a way of being within that society in all its beauty and its flaws, its different flavours, its pinch and its punch, its violence and its romance.

How would I translate someone like Morrison without having this understanding? Or Dickens’s without the social and linguistic context behind his greatest works? Adequately I suppose, but surely not as good as I would with it in mind. The work that goes into this type of research could even compete with that of the original work. This is what makes literary translation a difficult and time-consuming work, and what I think the layperson may not understand about it. Like Rushdie suggested earlier, almost all the writers we know of take their craft seriously and are engaged in a linguistic project to a significant degree. Any capable translator can translate any work of literature, even fiction, where the bounds of word choice are not so limited by the facts of real events, but by the breadth of the writer’s imagination. The sleepless nights are reserved for those translators who not only honour the author’s work by choosing to translate it, but to translate it well. We at least owe ourselves and our authors this, that as much effort must go into translating a work, as went into it in its creation. The world would be all the better for it.

Minab W. Yetbarek is a Tigrinya Translator, hailing from Eritrea. He lives and works in British Columbia, and volunteers with many refugee & immigrant translation / interpretation organizations. He has translated Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat in the past. His current interests include translating the Milton opus « Paradise Lost » & the Swedish Epic poem « Aniara » into Tigrinya, and the so-called Great Novel in a Small Language, « D’kuan Tiberih /Tiberih’s Shop » (2003) into English. He also translates short stories.