The complexity of literary translation

Reflecting on the complexity of literary translation raises, in principle, two questions about its peculiarities. On the one hand, why is it considered so complex and, in some cases, reserved for literary specialists? Well, literary translation cannot be based on theoretical parameters or universal guidelines applicable to other branches of translation, since the inherent heterogeneity of literature itself (in terms of aesthetic movements, genres, works, authors and contexts) requires the translator to have not only a broad linguistic but also a broad cultural background. - translation

On the other hand, it is interesting to consider why many people value literary translation as a fascinating activity, despite the difficulties it entails. Because it allows us to enter into other cultural universes and to apprehend them from the inside. Literary translation is, in essence, a means of cultural knowledge; knowing the language of another people is the first step to break the barriers of isolation and generate elements of approximation, discovering through words different ways of being and existing in the world. In this way, we can consider literary translation as an activity where the underlying intention is to investigate and discover the «other».

Literalism, faithfulness and creativity: three skills in dispute?

As a general rule, a translation cannot be based on literalism, since in no type of text can the translation be limited to a mere transposition. This applies to all forms of translation, but is most evident in the literary field. Instead of literalism, functional equivalence is sought, which is where the author’s creativity becomes relevant. This does not consist of trying to adorn or embellish a text in the target language, but rather the objective is to achieve an equivalent artistic effect through different means. Thus, the task of the literary translator will consist of unraveling those elements of the original work that allow the text to continue to function as an aesthetic object in a new cultural context. - translation

We can also observe how the concepts of faithfulness and creativity are sometimes opposed to each other. However, this antithesis is false: faithfulness and creativity are not opposed to each other, but must complement each other, in different ways, depending on the text to be translated. Faithfulness is not the same as translating a text «word for word», for that is precisely what literalism is.

In this sense, it is important to mention that the equivalences between one language and another are always approximations. In many cases, the words of an ancient language can hardly correspond to the words of a modern language, since the meanings vary with the passage of time. This difficulty, although to a lesser degree, is also present in modern languages, since the semantic value of words in one and the other current language may be different. Therefore, from a philological point of view, literalism is impossible, and even more so if we are dealing with a poetic text, since the literary function resides not only in the idea to be transmitted, but in the word itself. Therefore, the translator of poetry must necessarily be a poet.

Translatability of the work

We often wonder what makes a work translatable. Well, when undertaking a literary translation, the translator’s task is twofold: on the one hand, to be able to recognize and understand the linguistic connections existing within the original language and culture, and, on the other hand, to reconstruct these connections according to the idiosyncrasies of the target language and culture. The crux of the matter then lies in whether the translator will be able to transfer the reader to another universe, under the same nature of the original work. If this is the case, we are dealing with a communication phenomenon. - translation

The translator, therefore, is subject to the translatability of the work, and must have the necessary means and tools to cope with the complex process of translation. In this sense, it is the singularities of both the language and the work that pose the greatest challenge for the translator.

In some cases, this search for equivalence, which is the translator’s ultimate aim, is overcome by the frontiers of the impossible. Related to this, we have chosen as an example what is probably one of the most difficult to translate works of contemporary literature: Ulysses, by James Joyce. The greatest challenge posed by the translation of this novel lies in its incontrovertible idiolect. Translating Joyce’s text into another language requires reproducing the virtuosity of the original, with its linguistic struggles, its puns, the multiplicity of styles, etc. In Ulysses, the true protagonist of the work is the language itself.

Translation as a literary genre per se - translation

Translation, therefore, is the ideal vehicle for establishing a means of communication between peoples of different languages, and that is why comparative literature has in it a source of study and a very valuable working tool. This specific quality has led renowned authors, such as Ortega y Gasset, to consider translation as a literary genre in its own right:

«Ortega says: translation does not even belong to the same literary genre as that which is translated. It would be appropriate to emphasize this and affirm that translation is a separate literary genre, distinct from the others, with its own rules and purposes. For the simple reason that translation is not the work, but a path towards the work».

José Ortega y Gasset, Miseria y esplendor de la traducción (1937)


Carlos Sánchez Luis