Trouble for translators

I talked about translations last time, and touched on the different ways that specific phrases can be translated, transliterated, or borrowed. I also mentioned how it is important that translations try to maintain the original feeling of the text, most importantly for fiction.

The translators who are relied on to maintain the integrity of the original are often overlooked and taken for granted in the publishing world. I can’t imagine the effort it must take to essentially be a novelist yourself, and then the flipside of not being given the credit. Something I hadn’t thought of, though, is the political turmoil that translators and publishers can run into by tackling a sensitive piece of work and translating it to give it a wider audience.

Writer and translator Maureen Freely wrote in the Observer:

My first rude awakening came while I was translating the first chapters of Pamuk’s 2002 novel, Snow. A Turkish newspaper got in touch; having heard what I was up to, it wanted to know what I thought of the headscarf issue, about which Snow has a great deal to say. My innocuous answer (that a woman should be able to choose what she wears on her head) was transformed into a provocative headline (“I curse the fathers!”), following which I was bombarded with emails from an extremist Islamist newspaper. I could not help but notice that their questions were almost identical to those asked by an Islamist extremist in the chapter I’d just translated. It ends with said extremist pumping a few bullets into his interlocutor’s head.

Over the years that followed, and especially during 2005 and 2006, when Orhan Pamuk and many other writer friends of mine were subjected to hate campaigns for speaking openly about the Armenian genocide, later to be prosecuted for insulting Turkishness, there were times when I felt as if I had wandered into the book I was translating.

There were also the lesser fictions in which I featured as a süperajan (no translation needed). Many Turks who feel ambivalent about Pamuk like to attribute his international success and most especially his Nobel prize to his translators, who have, they claim, “improved his words for western consumption”. The ultranationalists who drove the hate campaign went so far as to say he had sold his country to Europe for the sake of his career.

If I were just a translator, I might not have thought it necessary to write in Orhan’s defence in the media here and elsewhere. I might not have become involved in the campaigns for free expression that went on to change my life and will doubtless carry on doing so. But this seems to be the rule for translators and not the exception.

After reading this, I get the feeling that translators get all the wrong kinds of attention. In the meantime, though, they get to enjoy the authors’ own words first hand. I guess it’s worth it!