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06 April 2008


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John Simmons

I've been thinking a lot about translation recently but from a different angle. I'm currently writing a new book that involves rewriting/translating a piece of business writing using different constraints. Two of the constraints are inspired by recent translations.

The first has Georges Perec's novel La Dispaition as its starting point. This was translated into English by Gilbert Adair. The thing about the book, whether in the original French or the English translation, is that none of the words contain the vowel 'e'. It's an extraordinary feat, particularly in translation. Try it, it's hard, and it does strange things to your mind and language.

The second constraint is all to do with alliteration and was spurred by Simon Armitage's new version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. From rugged Middle English into rugged Yorkshire, but playful too. Similarly there is Seamus Heaney's Beowulf, a wonderful translation. When you read these you seem to get closer to an authentic English voice - or the voice of the English language. Certainly better (at least in my case) than struggling through the originals with literal translations.

Jonathan Holt

Is the idea that these constraints will help liberate the writer in some way?

I've been wondering whether with translated books the mere knowledge that the book has been through a process of translation liberates the reader in some interesting ways. Not that a translated book should be hard to read (just the opposite), but maybe knowing in the backs of our minds that the words we're reading aren't quite what was originally intended makes us more receptive to a story's essence, partly by making us more sensitive to the subtleties underneath the words (while giving us license to skim happily over them if they just make no sense at all).

A bit like: hearing someone speak with an unfamiliar accent forces us to listen far more carefully than usual, opening up the senses.

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