Thomas Teal: Literary Translation

01 April 2016 Thomas

Thomas Teal was the 2015 winner of the Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from the Swedish. He has translated many works by Swedish author Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins, including this year's award winning book The Listener (Sort of Books).

Thomas lives in Somerville, USA and has won the Rochester Best Translated Book Award and also received the Bernard Shaw Prize in 2009 for other translations of Tove Jansson’s work.

I’ve been translating books for fifty years, and I have to say that it sounds really easy, even to me.

If you know two languages, then what could be simpler than to absorb the meaning of a sentence in one of them and reproduce it in the other, especially if the other is your own mother tongue? Especially if you can take your time doing it. I’m not talking about simultaneous interpreting, which could hardly sound less easy. (A friend of mine swears that he once watched a man at the UN render a Russian speech into French while reading the sports pages in a German newspaper. I don’t think you have to believe this. I certainly don’t. He was just illustrating what he said was a professional secret—that interpreters avoid focusing on what they’re doing, that thinking about it makes it impossible to do. I’m not sure we have to believe that either, but it has a plausible ring to it. Like riding a bike or running for President of the United States, you just stop thinking and let your animal brain take over.)

No, what I’m talking about is ordinary literary translation, which does require thought. And yet why should it? You have a text in front of you. All you have to do is say the same thing using different words. Child’s play. Or so you’d think. So I always think when I take on a new book. This will be quick and effortless, I tell myself. And then it always turns out to be just the opposite—vexed, tortuous, intricate, with painful choices to be made on every page, sometimes in every other sentence. 

Everyone knows that a translation is never quite the same book as the original. How could it be?

The trouble is, there are rules. The first rule is that you must be accurate, which is very limiting. But the second rule is that the translation should flow as smoothly as if it had been written in English to begin with, which can be insidiously liberating.

Several years ago, at a translators’ conference at Stanford, a woman with a lot of published translations to her credit self-confidently insisted that her translations were better than the originals. There was a stunned silence followed by a firestorm of outrage. I remember coming down firmly on both sides of the argument. 

It’s clearly not the translator’s job to improve the book. That’s axiomatic. The translator’s job is to reproduce the original in a different language, making compromises only where absolutely necessary. 

Of course it may sometimes be necessary to alter word order or sentence structure or even to translate rather loosely for the sake of the sound or the trope or the joke or the association or because the word or phrase has no direct equivalent in English, and if this happens to make the sentence or the paragraph more felicitous than it was in the original, well, that’s just a happy accident, not an intentional effort to improve the author’s work.

In most cases, no one ever reads a book as closely as the translator

And if the author’s syntax is awkward or she contradicts herself, well, that could be deliberate, but if it’s a mistake, you can fix it. (If you suppose the foreign 'editor' will already have queried such anomalies and dealt with them, then suppose again. Some book editors do little real editing even in the English-speaking world. In many other countries, they do none at all). In most cases, no one ever reads a book as closely as the translator, often not even the author. Or so it seems. When a passage is impenetrable, and the author is alive, you can ask, sometimes only to hear that he’s as mystified as you are. If the author is dead, then you can either render the original Gibberish into English, carefully preserving its failure to make sense (which may after all be intentional), or you can shoulder the responsibility and make repairs. And if there are some small loose ends to a story, you can always ask a living author if she wouldn’t like to tie them up. 

So no, you’re not allowed to improve the author’s original—except where it’s necessary. Or unavoidable. Or it’s what the author wants. Or it makes the book more readable. Or comprehensible. 

Everyone knows that a translation is never quite the same book as the original. How could it be? It’s in a different language using different words chosen by a different person. Translators try to be true to the original with regard to content, message, mood, style, prosody, emphasis, flow, energy, taste, readability, effect on the reader, and more, but they cannot possibly do it all. They wind up instead with a book that’s both a little better and not quite as good as the one the author wrote. Where they often do succeed is in making it look as easy as it sounds.


Further reading

Thomas Teal's translation of Tove Jansson's The Listener (Sort of Books) won the latest Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from the Swedish.

Judges Karin Altenberg and B J Epstein praised the book:

With the empathy and insight of a true listener, Thomas Teal lets his translation follow the subtle grace and silences of Jansson's prose. This beautiful translation guides us through the skerries of the Finnish archipelago and brings us as close to Jansson's world as we can ever hope to get.


Thomas Teal | New York Review of Books