Category Archives: Translation

Literary Translation, a Labyrinthine Activity

If you are familiar with the Labyrinth as a spiritual growth tool (, you will understand why I use it here as a metaphor for literary translation. The Labyrinth leads the walkers to its centre through a number of turns. Translation also guides the translator through a series of turns from the source text to the target text. I will mention only three of these necessary turns here.

Of course, translation requires the knowledge of two languages, not only a verbal, but also, and most importantly, a writing knowledge, especially of the target language. For example, it is very common in verbal English to neglect the relative pronoun that : “I think I will go with you.” This would be qualified as informal English. Formal English, and in general written English, requires the pronoun: “I think that I will go with you.” The translator would not do well to write the target text in a verbal style, unless, evidently, the source text adopted that style. And even then, the translator has to know the specifics of both verbal and written styles to create a target text as faithful as possible to the source text.

Any writing is rooted in the culture it was created in. The same story written in England, let’s say, will not have the same tone as if it had been written in Australia, or Canada. They are all English speaking countries, but each has its specific culture that the writing will reflect. The translator needs to be sensitive to the characteristic cultural traits showing in the source text. And then the translator needs to be familiar with the culture of the language he is writing in. Consider French for example. The culture in France differs greatly from that in Canada or Haiti. A French text will certainly hint to those different cultures. The translator needs to catch those hints and let them show in the target text.

This is very close to culture but factoring in the time when the text was written. A language is not the same from one century to another, or even from one decade to another. Think of the various words that become very popular for a few years and then practically disappear from use: cool, awesome, bad (in the sense of good), etc. The translator needs to be knowledgeable of the specific meaning of those particular words at different times. Only then can the translator produce a target text respecting the special traits of the source text.

The Passion of the Translator

“What is my passion?” For those who have a clear knowledge and experience of their passion, this question will seem rather strange. For those who have yet to identify what their passion is or who have lived without ever thinking about passion, the question might either go unnoticed or, on the opposite, strike a painful chord, like the echo of something beautiful intuited but never really encountered.

I suspect that this second alternative is rather rare for a translator for the simple reason that translation is rarely presented to a child, teen, or young adult as a wonderful exciting career like that of an athlete, or a firefighter, or a tiger tamer. For one to discover translation as a passion, it has to be natural. Still, it might take longer for someone to find that translation is a passion simply because so many other choices for a passion are presented to them.

I will admit that such is probably my case. After a teaching and a counseling career, towards which I was highly encouraged because “you have the talent,” though writing has always been an attraction all those years, it is only recently that I discovered the kind of energy that made me finally give translation all my attention. And in my opinion this qualifies as a definition for the word passion. Yes, I find joy in giving translation all my attention.

I am aware also that the word passion is rooted in the Greek pathos, meaning suffering. To feel passion for something or someone often wakens some type of suffering, not the type that one needs to find a cure for, but rather that one needs to embrace because it adds tremendous value to the object of passion. The suffering confirms the passion.

This allusion to suffering as the complement of the energetic and joyful aspect of translation will most probably evoke, for the passionate translator, long hours of solitude to learn a second or third language, to get acquainted with a new software program, or simply to read yet another article on the value of a faithful translation. It is the price to pay, small or big depending on each translator, for the opportunity to incarnate one’s true passion, which inevitably leads to the discovery of still higher levels of joy.