E.g., 10/16/2018
E.g., 10/16/2018

The Demanding Art of Literary Translation

By: Jaroslava Ouzká, Global Sales Manager - Skrivanek Group

Joyful. Crushing. Exhilarating. Exhausting.

These are some of the words that literary translators use to describe the translation of novels, poetry, and other creative texts. Whether the work makes them frustrated or satisfied, it is often humbling to face the limitations of their own minds and those of language.

Imagine trying to convey in another language the specific-word-dependent charms of rhyme, meter, symbolic names, metaphors, or jokes. The tone of narration and dialog can also falter if the cultural context is not transliterated, and thus the personalities and deeper meaning of the plot will also be lost.

What about machine translation? Is it conceivable that a Norwegian novel could be translated by a machine into Japanese? “Don’t hold your breath,” says translator Juliet Winters Carpenter. To illustrate, she suggests, “Enter ‘Don’t hold your breath’ into Google Translate and you’ll get an injunction to not stop breathing. A human touch is needed to understand layers of meaning in context and to create something pleasurable to read.” *

Five techniques address the basic literary translation challenges: **

  1. Adaptation – replacing one cultural element with a comparable one in another culture (even if not exactly equivalent).
  2. Linguistic amplification – paraphrasing the idea of a word that has no equivalent in the target language.
  3. Compensation – moving or rearranging an element of the text when it does not work where it is when translated.
  4. Elision – Condensing irrelevant information in the original if its translation will interfere with the quality of the translation.
  5. Borrowing – retaining, without alternation, a word or phrase from the original.

Between and around these choices, there are skills and mental tasks that can’t be quantified and enumerated. The translator of Emily Dickinson’s poetry or a Dostoevsky novel must deeply understand the spirit of the time period, culture, language and text they set out to carry from the original into the world of another language. Some do so by reading the work in its entirety first, some by stepping page to page with the curiosity of any other first-time reader. If the author is still alive, the translator can consult with her/him throughout the process. Whatever their method, for a brilliant translation, profound mental capacity is required.

There are organizations and presses dedicated to translation that will make foreign voices available to the rest of the world. However, there is another problem: English is so dominant globally that there may be less literature being created in other languages in the first place. Minae Mizumura sees this in her country, Japan, and writes about the dangers of losing the special nuances and truths that each language contains.***

Carrying meaning from one language to another is a complex art that requires dedication and passion, as well as respect for the unique qualities of every language and culture.


* Absorbed in translation: the art – and fun – of literary translation, by Juliet Winters Carpenter, theconversation.com, 2015

** Translation and Translation Studies: Introduction to Translation, by Professor Amparo Hurtado Albir, as discussed at Culturesconnection.com, 2015

*** The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Minae Mizumura, Columbia University Press, 2015

Jaroslava Ouzká

Jaroslava Ouzká  is Global Sales Manager at Skrivanek Group, one of the top 50 language service companies in the world. Since Jaroslava joined Skrivanek in 2004 she has managed special projects and headed Skrivanek’s division that provides language services to major institutions such as the EU and its various bodies. She possesses a broad knowledge of translation processes, workflow optimization and Translation Management Systems. Since 2016 Jaroslava has been working as a head of the international sales department. Her role is to maximize the sales revenue through a network of international sales representatives, as well as developing direct customer accounts with existing and new customers.

Her education background includes the study of Interpersonal Communication at Saint Paul College in Minnesota, and Public Administration at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague.