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LitFest 2017: Found in translation - two translators are summoned to a literary duel


One of the number of strikingly original events at this year's Marlborough LitFest brings two eminent translators to debate the arts and wiles of translation - and discuss an excerpt from an English version of Garcia Marquez's much-loved novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Margaret Jull Costa Margaret Jull Costa Rosalind Harvey Rosalind Harvey Margaret Jull Costa is an award winning British translator of Portugese and Spanish fiction.  Her opponent for this duel will be Rosalind Harvey a literary translator and founding member and chair of the Emerging Translators Network.  Her translation of Juan Pablo Villalobos' novel Down the Rabbit Hole led to it winning two prestigious British literary prizes.

Seeing fair-play in this duel, will be Daniel Hahn - a writer, editor and translator whose work focuses on international writing, translation and children's literature.  

So, if two people read different translations of War and Peace will they have the same literary experience? 


Can they even discuss Tolstoy with any certainty that they each know what he meant?

As preparation for this unique duel, asked Daniel Hahn to tell us a little about the craft and art of translation into English:

Is the translator's real aim to make the reader believe they are reading a novel/short story in its original language?

"Yes, I think so. On the one hand, of course a reader knows they aren't 'really' reading the Russian or the Turkish or the ancient Greek, but there's a sort of collusion we all agree to sustain. If you ask me whether or not I've read War and Peace, I'd answer 'yes' even though the book I read had none of Tolstoy's words in it at all."

"But we agree to pretend that what we're getting as readers is unmediated access to the original - but as your question suggests, we're not, of course. So if a reader gets to the end of one of my translations and feels like they've just been reading 'the real thing', as it were, that's fine by me."

Do translators of books by living authors consult the authors or do they simply work from the text?

"Most of us who work into English certainly do, and most of our authors are very helpful. (Not all, but that's another story...) More often than not, it's really useful having their input - not to write the translation themselves - that's our job, as English-language writers - but to explain things that might be unclear, to help with occasional choices, or even to give permission when we want to do something that might seem a little radical."

"A writer who has good English - but knows its limitations - and who understands what translation is about can be a great blessing."

How difficult is it to explain and/or reflect a different or 'foreign' culture in a translated text?

"Novels create their own worlds, and my job is to create that world for my readers just as the original novelist did for his. In many cases, yes, it'll be a real world that's familiar to the novelist's readers and unfamiliar to mine, in which case I do sometimes need to help things along a bit - little cultural things the original reader would recognise and take for granted."

"But if I can do that subtly without the reader noticing that I'm doing any 'explaining', then so much the better. So for instance, if I'm translating a historical novel set in Angola which mentions a character walking through the streets and seeing 'huge posters of Agostinho Neto on every wall', an Angolan reader would know who that is and mine probably wouldn't."

"I can fix this inconspicuously by translating it as seeing 'huge posters of President Agostinho Neto on every wall'. Explaining by stealth rather than by footnote is always preferable, to my mind."

When a character is defined by his use of language in the original, how far can the translator create his own view of the character in the new language text?

"This is the impossibility at the heart of all good translation - we want ideally to create something that's just the same in every way, but we're doing this while changing all the words."


"So I have to use English as best I can to create a character identical to the original, give him/her a voice that tells you the same as his/her original voice does."

"If the voice of the character in Portuguese is quite young and urban, not very well educated but articulate, occasionally impulsive to act, quite clearly intelligent though also sometimes tentative and lacking in confidence in certain social situations, well, I need an English voice that tells you just the same. It's not easy!"

This event will be a great chance to get the inside track on how translators work. We should be very grateful for these people whose names do not always appear on front covers, but who enable us poor-at-languages English readers to have access to the rich world of modern writing - and to new versions of foreign language classics.  However, translating - while certainly 'not easy' - will almost by definition bring more than one way to let us in on those riches.   Let the LitFest duel begin!  

Translation Duel - One Hundred Years of Solitude is at St Mary's Church Hall on Saturday, 30 September at 12 noon.

You can book online - by phone 01249 701628 - or in person at the White Horse Bookshop (cash & cheques only.)  Brewin Dolphin are the lead sponsor for Marlborough LitFest 2017.


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  • IMG 8472
  • Town-Hall-2011-05-03 08-
  • IMG 9097
  • Silbury-Sunset---10-06-08-----07
  • Marlborough-2013-04-18 St Peters