On Translation: Traversing the Path of Owning and Unowning with Tess Lewis

Translation has always been an indispensable medium of cultural intercourse, but at Seagull School I realized the depth of this domain. I admit, unabashedly, that I had never paid attention to the ‘Translator’s Note’ of a book and that I would have remained oblivious of its significance had not Tess Lewis taken us through a transformative experience of being a translator. Tess is a writer and translator of French and German, who was ‘endlessly fascinated by the plasticity of the German language’ even before it went on to shape her profession.

Being a translator is more than just perceiving and internalizing the emotional and intellectual dimension of an authorial voice. You undertake the colossal task of becoming a cultural bridge; like an opera director, you become absorbed in the consciousness of its composer, while being dissolved in the composition, you strive to preserve its essence. You have to live in a world conditioned by an author’s imagination. Translation, thus, is a task which calls for an author-translator-editor harmony. But then, reality does not always adhere to ‘what-should-be’: Tess candidly shared an instance when an author refused to approve her translation of his work because he could ‘recognize’ his voice in the translated manuscript. She also added that besides the cultural-intellectual dimension of this profession, the financial uncertainty can never be ruled out. You might be at your desk working on your translation for twenty-four hours a day, while you might have go over a year without a project at hand. Hence, securing one’s financial resources in this vocation is of pivotal importance.

A translator’s work should not be confused with transliteration. The act of translation is rooted way deep into socio-cultural folds—a translator must step in for the author, at times, when an expression is wanting for words in the target language (in other words, the language of the translation). The readers of the translation must pulsate with the same quiver of joy, pangs of pain, peals of laughter as have been infused into the original utterances of the source language. The translator must weave the bridge of words across the ‘shadow line’ of geographical borders and become the author’s medium for their new readers.

Tess further explained how translating poetry is even more challenging—the possibilities of translating a particular word or expression in poetry are narrower; moreover, much of the emotional and rhythmic quality of the original language is either lost or diluted as it filters through the translator’s consciousness. Tess also pointed out that the time invested in the work of translation depends entirely upon the nature and density of the original work, which can take from six months to two years or more! And in the end, you let go of the translated manuscript—that which you have been nurturing in your mind, like a nascent idea, now fully grown. You wait in as much anticipation to find critical appreciation and acceptance of a voice which is not yours, a gallery of characters you don’t own, an array of ideas you did not originate. And yet the translator’s task does not get any easier. It is a labour of love like that of an author or an editor. But, then again, that’s what the creative art of bookmaking is all about!

Suchandra Roy

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