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In Translating Literature To English, Getting “The Voice” Right Is Key

Chad Post
Chad Post
Chad Post


A world of literary tradition remains outside the grasp of many American readers because few works are translated into English. Chad Post, the publisher of the University of Rochester’s Open Letter press, works to increase access to international literature by translating and publishing ten books each year.

“There's something that makes the original work unique and makes the voice work, makes the plot work, makes everything work because there's something unique about how it's written,” Post told Suzette Grillot on KGOU’s World Views. “It's a translator's job to capture that and replicate that.”

American don’t typically read a lot of international literature. Furthermore, Post says American writers usually don’t read books from other countires. That’s not necessarily the case outside of the United States, where readers and writers alike are more likely to absorb books from other parts of the world.

“There's a lot of conversation that goes on and that influences the way that they they write and talk,” Post said.

For many writers in other languages, an English translation can open their work to many more readers.

“Until your book is translated in English, you'll have a relatively limited audience,” Post said. “But once you're in English everyone can read your book. A lot more publishers will pick up on it.”


On recency bias

During the 80s and early 90s, a lot of the publishing houses in America, what they were looking for was strict magical realism. If a book wasn't like a magical realist Latin American book in which toasters talked and grandmothers came from the dead to provide inspirational advice, then they just weren't interested. And I think that's where they started to create this pattern of, “That's what Latin American literature is. It's all this kind of magical realism stuff,” and that's not the case at all. There are a lot of people that weren't writing within that, but because the publishing industry in America only does like a small, small number of books and translations, you can you have like a sort of recency bias of what you've seen, that's what you expect it all to be.

On losing things in translation

People talk about the lost in translation thing a lot. And I feel it's almost to the point where the the term outsizes what it actually indicates. What is really lost is usually pretty minor when you're dealing with a really good translator.

There's been at points in time, there are translators like Constance Garnett who translated all these Russian books back in like the early 1900s -- all the great Russian works that we know are primarily known through her translations.I think she did like 120 books. It's a significant thing, but she translated the books into more of a Victorian sort of garden party tone. So rather than being like the original Russian writing she sort of converted them into the style of the day which was a Victorian sort of lush writing style. And in that case you can say, yes, there is something that is lost. We've lost the voice.

On getting the voice right

If the translator can find the style and represent it, then the book is getting through. [Jorge Luis] Borges, the Argentine writer, always used to say that you're not translating the words, you're translating the spirit, and what you want is that spirit. And in my classes I teach, I always use style as like the shorthand for that. That there's something that makes the original work unique and makes the voice work, makes the plot work, makes everything work because there's something unique about how it's written. And it's a translator's job to capture that and replicate that.

Are there jokes are not going to work directly? Sure. But there are things that you can gain back by finding a different sort of joke or finding a different way to approach it. But if you get that main consciousness, the style, down that book sort of works. And once you start working on it in English as an editor, you can help kind of refine it until it is its own sort of entity that’s not exactly the same.

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Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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