My Work as a Translator “Spotlighted” on Intralingo

Lisa Carter has been running a series on her blog, Intralingo, in which she spotlights literary translators, and she’s just posted mine. Here’s an excerpt from my answer to her question What do you love most and least about [translating]?

[W]hat I have been enjoying most about [translation] is the feeling of making something. I have always liked e. e. cummings’ statement—though I am paraphrasing here—that a poet is someone who is in love with making things not with made things; and building my translations brings me tremendous satisfaction in that regard. I am also gratified by the sense that I am building bridges between two cultures that very much need to talk to each other.

Through this series, Lisa is providing a wonderful service to literary translators, who rarely get the credit (not to mention compensation) they deserve. I hope you’ll click on over to read the whole thing, and I hope you’ll check out some of her other posts as well.

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7 Responses to My Work as a Translator “Spotlighted” on Intralingo

  1. 1
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    RJN, two “about your career: questions if you’re willing to answer them:

    1) How did you start being a translator of Iranian poetry? Were you a poet first, an speaker of Persian first, interested in translation first….? I’m asking out of fascination, not with an intent to pry.

    2) Do you ever translate in the other direction? If not, why not?

  2. G&W: This is cut and pasted from the “spotlight.” If you read it and the point of your question was that you wanted to know more than this, I’m happy to answer:

    RJN: I became a translator almost entirely by accident. A friend of a friend, Mr. Mehdi Faridzadeh, the executive director of an organization called the International Society for Iranian Culture, was looking for a native-English speaking poet to produce book-length translations of selections from a number of masterpieces from the Persian canon. Frankly, when I was first introduced to Mr. Faridzadeh and he explained to me what he wanted me to do, I said no. Not only was I—and am I—not literate and not fluent in Persian, though I speak and understand at an advanced beginner level, but I also knew absolutely nothing about the literature he wanted me to translate. I just did not feel qualified.

    After speaking with Mr. Faridzadeh, however, I began to feel differently. He explained that he would provide me with accurate, if outdated, English renderings of the works he wanted me to translate and that he wanted me to use those to make translations that would stand on their own as American English poems. I thought about my son, who is Iranian-American, and his cousins, and of all the other Iranian-Americans who will never know Persian well enough to read these works, which are part of their heritage, in the original. Surely, I thought, they deserve versions of these masterpieces that will speak to them as a living literature in American English and so straddle the same two cultures that they do.

    I agreed to do some samples, which he liked and which I enjoyed producing. More than that, though, as I began to research to history of the translation of classical Persian literature into English, I became intrigued by how important an influence that literature has been, and the idea of reintroducing it to an American audience appealed to me—perhaps especially now, when the political situation between the United States and Iran, and the stereotypical portrayal of that country and its people in our media, demands that we learn as much as we can about its history, its culture and its people.

    As to your second question: I don’t translate from English into Persian simply because I don’t know Persian well enough even to make the attempt.

  3. 3
    Varusz says:

    I have read this through a few times, and still can’t believe what I read – maybe you can clarify.

    You translate older, stilted English into English? Because your Persian is at an “advanced beginner level”?

    If that’s the case, I don’t think “translator” is the right word. Maybe “editor”.

  4. Varusz,

    You ask a fair question that deserves a more lengthy answer than I can provide right now. For now, I will say just this: There is a long tradition of poets translating work from languages in which they are not literate. They rely on accurate versions (that are not poetry) produced by people (often scholars) and use those to make poems in the “target” language. In this instance, the process of translation is extended over two (or more) people, instead of only one bilingual person, but it is still a translation nonetheless. In my published books, the people who produced the trots I work with at acknowledged as such.

    To explain how the work I do differs from editing will take more time than I have now. Maybe I will do a separate post about it.

  5. 5
    Varusz says:

    A translator knows the feel of the source language and the idioms, subtle connotations of words, background of phrases etc. … the true meaning of what is being written in the source language. Plays on words, historical references, references to the culture and common sayings figure into that. All of that is brought across as faithfully as possible into the target language.

    Sorry to be blunt about it, but you are not doing any of that. You have no feel at all for Persian, whether you know a few words or not. You are not rendering the meaning into English. Someone else has translated the Persian into English, and you would have no way to check the faithfulness of the translation. You are simply cleaning up someone else’s (possibly not even accurate – you wouldn’t know) translation. In other words, editing.

    I know this field very well, and I am just stunned that someone could assert what you are asserting.

  6. Varusz,

    First, I am curious, what kind of translation do you do?

    Second, you are making several unstated (and unfounded) assumptions about the nature of my work. I’m not going to argue with you about whether or not I have a “feel for Persian,” since there is really no way for me to prove that in a blog post comment. I will therefore simply report to you—and you can take this for what it’s worth (which I am guessing that, for you, might not be a lot)—that the Iranians I know, both those who are part of my personal life and those whom I know professionally and academically through the work I have done, would disagree with you. This is not to deny that my “feel” is limited by my limited command of the language (and I know quite a bit more than “a few words”); nor is it to deny that I would almost certainly be producing very different translations were I fluent and literate in the language.

    Second, you assume that neither the trots I use nor the work I produce are/have been vetted for precisely the kind of native-speaker “feel,” background knowledge, etc. you rightly to point out that I don’t have. It is true that I have to rely on the judgments of others in many cases, but why would you assume those others are not qualified to make that kind of judgment.

    Third, regarding this:

    You are simply cleaning up someone else’s (possibly not even accurate – you wouldn’t know) translation. In other words, editing.

    What I do bears very little resemblance to “cleaning up someone else’s” translation, and you would know that if you were actually to compare the trots I work with with the work I produce. And that is something I will perhaps write a separate post on. You still might not accept them as, strictly speaking, translations, since I am not the one doing the original work of translation, and that’s okay, you would not be the only one to take that position. I’ve heard it more than a few times. Probably you know, since you say you know the field well, that there are others who would disagree with you. I am, however, less interested in fighting a turf war over the label that is used for what I do than I am in the quality of the work itself. In other words, it matters less to me that you, or anyone, recognize what I do as translation, and me therefore as a translator, than that the translations I help produce do justice both to the original and the place my work claims for them in contemporary American poetry.

  7. 7
    translator says:

    A good translator is not the one who can translate vice versa. Translating is not only transferring the message from source language but also producing appropriate words into the target language. And sometimes when translators produce the target language, they have to be unfaithful so they can keep the same meaning and acceptable sentences (depends on purpose/segment of the target language and also what kind of text is being translated) in one package. So, because we are talking about literary translation, the translator must have the skill in producing target text with the feel and taste of the poetry even the style and the culture of the poet.

    I myself choose to translate only into my mother language because producing a fine translation needs more than a language skill you get from schools, you have to practice the language(s) itself in your daily life.

    If Varusz can translate from english to persian and the other way around, I bet he has been living for many years in the countries where both languages are spoken.