Translation and literature – what did the author want to say

Guest post by Jordanka Mrsulja

Jordanka Mrsulja is a modern Greek language and literature researcher. After graduating from the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade, Jordanka enrolled in master’s programme ”Modern Greek Literature”, Faculty of Philosophy, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. She is passionate about literature, languages and writing. Her current occupation is translating poetry, fiction and non-literature texts in English, Greek and Serbian.

how to translate literary works

When starting an adventure of literary translation, one has to have certain sensitivity when it comes to writing, whether poetry or prose. However, the love for creating literature can be “a catch” for a translator: there is a danger that a translator himself starts to intervene into the words of the author.

That is to convert the words of the author by adding, as he considers, anything that is missing or by removing the unnecessary. A translator who corrects other’s text in fact is not a translator. Lesson learned: we never change the author’s words.

The task of a translator is to create the same text in some other language. This means that he will not only obey the words (that reflect the spirit of the text and of the era), but also the meter, the rhyme (or not) and the rhythm of the poem. Without being tormented by the question: What did the author want to say?, a translator should arouse the same aesthetic effect trough the words of some other language. Irony, humour,  joy, sadness… All these can be translated in any language, when it comes to words, of course. But when it comes to a general spirit that dominates in a poem, a translator should exploit all of his knowledge and sensitivity.

While translating prose, a translator faces other difficulties. Despite the fact that a translator doesn’t have to deal with some challenging verse, a sentence itself can be challenging. Especially when it comes to long sentences, like in the texts written by the Serbian writer Ivo Andric who was awarded the Nobel prize in literature. Than what?

If that kind of sentence translated in other language looks complicated, slattern and hard to understand than yes, we intervene (intervene, not correct); naturally, by displaying continuously not our own identity, but the author’s. This means: it  is better to split a big sentence into two or three smaller, under the condition that these sentences represent the original text on the whole.

Finally, the concern of a translator is not to pass what the author wanted to say, but the facts he said, in a way the author had expressed them.

What is your opinion about translation and literature in this context?