Key West Literary Seminar: Translating A Life With Judith Thurman

Jan 12, 2013

Those of us who speak more than one language are aware of the power and issues related to translation.  For many of us it is a constant internal dialog, full of traps and the dangers of double entendres.  The anxiety that the process brings about is the very reason why skillful translators are so valued.
In it's essence, the act of translating is a multi thronged process.  There is the literal, and then there is the intangible, the true root that translation attempts to illuminate.  In the end the translation inevitably fails to some degree to reach this ultimate goal.

One might say this goal is more spiritual, rather than concrete.

During her lecture titled 'Translating a Life' at the Key West Literary Seminar, author Judith Thurman spoke of the obvious pitfalls of the translation process, and of some of the skills needed to do so effectively and truthfully.  Truth, as Thurman perceives it, is that which is 'untranslatable'.  It is within this obscure and fleeting word where the writer's dilemma lies.  And worst of all is that of the translator.

If words are meant to put meaning and symbolism to the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual, then how can one truthfully translate something two steps removed from the actual?  How to convey the meaning of an idiom in another language?

Thurman presents the answer as a hard lesson, and something that they definitely don't teach in school.  In order for the writer to communicate effectively, there must be some mark of himself on the page, even if it may be a translation.  It serves as a mark of humility and authenticity, and brings the translation process one step closer to the truth.  Not to do so is not putting your best foot forward.

For while the words themselves are being translated two steps removed, the interpretation comes directly from the gut of the translator, and herein lies a truth of its own.

At one point during her talk, Thurman noted that a translator who is fluent in seven different languages might be coveted in the marketplace, but this person might be terrible at the job. More important is that this individual feels entirely at home in one of them.

This 'gut' language is as close to the truth as one can get.  It is the language which you cry in.  It is the difference between saying 'ow' and 'ay' when something pinches you.  It is the language that is ingrained into your actions.

Without this foundation, it might come across as dishonest or inaccurate, or both.

“Translation is an exalted form of entertaining,” Thurman said.  When done properly, the guests will forget you, and you can slip off and listen to the their enjoyment from a distance.  Whether they notice it or not, you must try your hardest to be charming.

Charm, perhaps, is the only writing skill that they cannot teach in school.  It is also something which is utterly untranslatable, and true to the bone.

Writers and translators, therefore, must learn to smile through the page.