Finding a Voice: With Ros Schwartz

The day began with us bustling in, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

It was all very exciting. We had been told that Ms Ros Schwartz was coming in to speak with us.

[Ms Schwartz is an award-winning literary translator who works particularly with Francophone writers. She has translated over 60 works of fiction and non-fiction. She was Chair of the European Council of Literary Translators Associations (CEATL) from 2000–2009 and is currently Chair of English PEN’s Writers in Translation Programme. She was made a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2009.]

An extremely affable woman, who was soon firing at us a lifetime’s worth of experience—giving us much to think about and much to ask.

She spoke about all the different considerations one has to keep in mind while translating.

A translator is almost a ventriloquist—finding the author a voice in a different language and then presenting that to the reader. A very long process indeed; during this time a translator becomes inhabited by the book.

She explained that the translator controls the style and as such he/she has a responsibility to the author and to the reader to do it knowledgeably and responsibly.

This is not easy, because when translating we draw on the subconscious pools of language that have been formed through our life experience. That is what influences the text and its style. When we hijacked Ms Schwartz during the coffee break she told us about some real tongue twisters she dealt with, while translating The Little Prince, and how her real-life experiences influenced the decisions she took, to overcome these problems.

Language, she said, is also about music, especially in the case of literary fiction. While translating, say from texts on law, one has to adhere strictly to a strict word-for-word translation scheme, but when dealing with things like poetry we have to keep the rhythm, the musicality of the language and the thought, in mind. It’s the translator’s objective to let the audience understand the depth and scope of the text without losing the author’s language—this is no easy task.

Translating, it seems is an ongoing process, for if we want people to know the work, we have to translate it into a language that is presently readable.

A translator is a bridge between the source culture and the target audience.

We also discussed the problems of over-translation and faulty translation. Ms Schwartz told us that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s early translations are very different from his current ones. This is because Dostoevsky’s writing was very crude; however the early translators gave him an elevated literary voice.

So what should we do? Let the author’s voice shine through or our own? Should we transform the language so the target audience welcomes it? Or should we maintain all its original aspects? This is especially difficult to figure out if you are not working with a living author, someone who you can consult, before taking any decision that has posed a challenge.

In the second half of the session we were visited by Fredrick M. Smith, Professor of Sanskrit and Classical Indian Literature, University of Iowa. He is a scholar of Sanskrit and South Asia. Presently, Prof. Smith is translating a part of the Mahabharata for a critical edition to be published by the University of Chicago Press.

He spoke about the difficulties of translating from a dead language, where there are numerous authors and broken texts. He spoke to us about the register of language and the particular difficulties of maintaining the register when translating from ancient languages.

These talks left my brain tingling with thought; always a good sign!

Antara Guha


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