picture Diego Marani

Translation as a Creative Process

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In this week’s PEN Atlas piece, award-winning Italian writer and European Commission official Diego Marani considers the role of the author in the translation process

For any writer, being translated is always flattering. But it is also a delicate passage, because the translation implies a transformation of the text an author cannot control. Even with a good knowledge of the target language, no writer is able to express a pertinent judgement on the translation of his book and is in some way condemned to have a passive role in the process. Many writers are very jealous of their texts and cannot accept not to have any control on the translation. They often adopt an intrusive attitude towards the translator and pretend to interfere in his work, even when they have a very superficial knowledge of the language. They think in this way to preserve the authenticity of their text and to protect it from alterations. Alteration of the original: this is the obsession of all writers! They forget that their sacred original text is but one of the many possibilities they had, the compromise between what they felt and what they were able to say. The translation of a book should be seen in this light, as a mediation between the original and the target culture. There is no other translation possible. To translate is not to pour out from one language into another. It is a kind of chemical process where the text must be reduced to its essential components and reassembled into the target language.

For my part, I tend to have a completely different approach when one of my books is translated. I consider the translator a “second author” of my book, engaged in a creative process as deep and delicate as mine. He too must decide which of the  many possible ways best  conveys my meaning into his own language. I am ready to place my trust in him. He will have a perception of my text which I cannot have, he will see similarities between my language and his own which I cannot see.

I am very much aware that sometimes, in order to obtain the same effects and atmosphere of a text in the target language, you have to modify the original. The translator needs to recreate connections that would be lost with a rigid translation. He has to take into account the cultural background of both languages. He will be the only one, able to grasp the music of a text, and I expect him to recreate in his translation a rhythm as similar as possible to the original. We must not forget that languages are first of all spoken, only afterwards written. Even if we read in silence, there is a music in our page like in a musical stave. I attach great importance to what my page sounds like. I often recite my texts after having written them. I need to hear also the sound of the language: it must fit with the rest. The smoothness of the words, the way they stick together, the pace of narration are as important as the plot. They are one of the ingredients of my writing. What I can do in order to help the translator is not to check words in a language I do not know and presume meanings I cannot completely grasp, but rather give him the most exhaustive information on the spirit of the text, the ideas that lie behind it, my thoughts and my feelings on the matter. Then there has to be trust. Though in a different way, we are both artists. The creativity of the translator lies exactly in this, that he grasps what I mean and has the ability to extract it from my page and graft it in the living tissue of another language.

About the Author

Diego Marani was born in Ferrara in 1959. He works as a senior linguist for the European Union in Brussels.

Every week he writes a column for a Swiss newspaper about current affairs in Europanto, a language that he has invented. His collection of short stories in Europanto, Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot has been published by Dedalus.

In Italian he has published six novels, including the highly acclaimed New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs, published in the UK by Dedalus Books.

English PEN’s Writers in Translation Programme supported Diego’s latest novel The Last of the Vostyachs in 2012

Judith Landry, the translator of  New Finnish Grammar was awarded the Oxford- Weidenfeld Prize for Translation in May 2012.

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