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Newsletter no. 11 – The agonies of translation
by Sven Erik Täckmark
In the literary journal Metamorfos (no 3 1989) edited by the legendary Halvdan Renling, Sven Erik Täckmark wrote a brief reflection upon the art of translation, which we reprint here, partly as a reminder of the ongoing work with The Autobiography.
THE AGONIES OF TRANSLATION
Only at a few occasions have I translated poetry. I have, however, translated around 30 books from English, German, and Danish (some of them in cooperation with good friends), both non-fiction and fiction. It is some-times claimed that the most important thing for a translator is to master his own language. This is a doubtful truth indeed! In fact you have to be very familiar with the language you are translating from. And yet: so often a translator falls short in his work with the rhythms of the foreign language, its changing personal tone and idiom. The English language e. g. with its wealth of words, its countless idiomatic expressions, proverbs, puns, slang and vulgarisms, and its for us strange names for objects and phenomena. And how often – too often – it happens that the dictionaries – even the best ones – leave us in the lurch! And how often it happens that the translator faces problems of one kind or another. It can be questions concerning national and local historical, political, literary allusions, folklore, myths, legends. And unfortunately you sometimes have to deal with words and expression that simply cannot be translated.
One of the most difficult, yes, sometimes even untranslatable, books I have dealt with, is the Autobiography (1934) by English-Welsh novelist and philosopher John Cowper Powys. Now and then I felt utter powerlessness before its endless rows of classical, philosophical, historical and poetical allusions, not the least the ones connected to events and characters in the works by among others Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Rabelais, Charles Dickens, Walter Scott, Henry James, Dostoievsky, Thomas Hardy. When I in 1975 translated Powys’s great breakthrough novel Wolf Solent from 1929 with all its philosophical and psychological plunges I was forced to go into the worlds of Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Hegel – among others. Oh, how I pestered my English friends with questions concerning everything when I worked with these two books.
My old English teacher, Charleston, at Stockholm University College, once wrote in the mar-gins to one of my translation exercises: ”Stay as close to the origin as possible, but also keep away from it far enough.” That is a paradox, but no serious translator can escape it. One thing is especially important, really important, I would claim; no one can complete a translation if he does not feel himself congenial with the artist behind the work. It is true that you have to give the book a decent Swedish linguistic vestiture, but at the end of the day it is the voice of the writer that must be heard and felt, his style, his atmosphere, his originality must be reproduced as true as possible in the mirroring that a translation always is, no matter how exceptionally good it can seem to be.
This page updated 4 April 2012.