Please Stop Talking About Art!

Tradurre è tradire? No, but Beppe Severgnini’s videochat from the International Book Fair in Turin was a betrayal of the translator.

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It’s happened again. Another well-meaning journalist has assembled yet another group of well-meaning translators to talk about translation and, despite everyone’s best intentions, has ended up inflicting a blow upon an already bruised profession.

The occasion was the Salone Internazionale del Libro (the International Book Fair), which ended a few days ago in Turin, Italy. Last Thursday, May 13, in one of the events associated with the Fair, popular Italian writer Beppe Severgnini hosted a videochat entitled “Tradurre è Tradire?”, broadcast live over the internet and now available (theoretically; I can’t get the video to openfn) on the site of the Corriere della Sera newspaper. Severgnini’s guests were British expat translators Giles Watson and Tim Parks (whom many may know better as a novelist, essayist, and travel writer), and the Italian translators Silvia Pareschi and Maria Carla Della Valle.

And for fifty minutes they talked about translation as though it were the sacred fire of Vesta and translators were its acolytes, forged in fire and mystery.

Let’s start with the title of the video chat: “Tradurre è Tradire?” or “Is the translator a traitor?”, a phrase that takes advantage of the assonance of the two verbs in Italian to express the well-worn commonplace that something is always lost in translation. (And that it’s the translator’s fault.)

At a certain point, Severgnini asked his guests whether they felt offended by the title that had been chosen for the transmission. “Oh, no, no, no,” they assured him. “How could we possibly be offended?”

Well, how could they possibly not? To be sure, the trouble with “Tradurre è Tradire?” isn’t so much that it’s offensive. It’s that it’s foolish, trite, reductive, meaningless, and mind-numbingly banal. Would anyone think of putting together a round-table of members of the legal profession entitled “Lawyers: Do They Really Get Paid by the Word?” Or one with paramedics: “Driving Around with the Siren On: The Best Part of the Job?”

Whether or not members of those professions would even bother to find such questions offensive, they would surely think that any journalist who posed them was unlikely to have an intelligent thought in his head about what they did for a living. (If the title wasn’t Severgnini’s idea, I offer my personal apologies to him and extend my opprobrium to the program director instead.)

The other problem with “Tradurre è Tradire?” is that it’s an invitation to air opinions about art and literature, a call to dig deep into that entire, enormous can of platitudes, clichés, catch phrases, and truisms about writing and writers that serve, in the end, an almost exclusively masturbatory purpose. And Severgnini’s videochat was no exception.

Since nothing is real nowadays unless we’re allowed to interact (the idea of simply sitting still and listening to people who know more than we do having become as old-fangled as carbon paper), viewers could send in their comments and questions even as the program was in progress. Which added a schizophrenic air to the proceedings as Severgnini tried to conduct an interview with four people (one of them on the phone and not physically present in the studio) while simultaneously chatting with the entire world.

In any case, there weren’t that many questions. Mostly people wanted to make statements: about their feelings regarding books they’d read or translations they didn’t like or about the impossibility of translation or about passione—that word came up more times than last night’s peperonata.

All of which might be a fine pastime for a book group, but it has nothing—not one single thing—to do with the daily, working realities of the translator or with the serious predicaments in which the profession finds itself.

First of all, let’s be clear: editorial (aka literary) translation constitutes no more than 10% of the entire translation market. (Luigi Muzii, longtime member of the Italian Association of Translators and Interpreters, offers an estimate of from 3% to 10%, based on figures provided by the European Union and Common Sense Advisory.)

Given that, why must we constantly spend our time talking about whether or not to translate Dan Brown’s factual errors, the imaginative challenges presented by Harry Potter, the potential failures of a new translation of The Second Sex, or whether you have to have lived in Mexico to be able to render the underworld slang in Elmer Mendoza’s latest novel?

Even Edith Grossman in her Why Translation Matters, and Richard Howard in his review of the book in the 8 April 2010 New York Times, behave as if translation and literary translation were synonyms or, worse, as if literary translation were real translation and all that other stuff—90% of what we do—were no more than a grubby, distasteful sort of piecework related in some unsavory way to money.

And not to art.

Absent from Severgnini’s interviews in every way it was possible for it to be absent was any discussion of the fact that translation is a job and that translators work for a living (the vast majority of us are small business people, to be precise). Absent was any meaningful discussion of the ways in which translators are woefully underpaid and increasingly exploited; how they’re treated like a suspect class by the tax authorities in Italy; how, as freelancers, they fork over a much more significant slice of their earnings than does virtually any other kind of worker.

Well, I’ll amend that. There was a brief discussion of rates per cartella, and gross pay, and 2000 vs. 1500. Wait, you didn’t understand that? No, and neither did anyone else in the audience who wasn’t a translator.

Why do we keep using terminology that the average person, the non-translator—who is the one who needs to be convinced—doesn’t understand? Why does no one who talks about translation to the general public have the smallest degree of media savvy?

Here’s what’s important to say: A translator working at the low end of the scale puts something like two to four euros an hour ($2.50-$5.00) in his pocket, after taxes.

Yes, less than your cleaning lady. Less than the guy or gal who pumps gas for your car. Less than the college kid flipping burgers at McDonald’s. A lot less than your plumber, dentist, or accountant.

Here’s another useful sound byte: The president of the Italian Association of Translators and Interpreters says that rates for translators in Italy are lower than in any other country in the European Union.

But that isn’t what they were talking about on “Tradurre è Tradire?”

Instead, they were contemplating such heady topics as whether “translation can really be taught.” Tim Parks opined that it couldn’t be, though he thought university translation programs might “speed up the process” for someone who already had the calling. All of which did nothing more than cast the conversation right back into the category of the “dark and mysterious art.”

I mean, really. Can we please stop talking about art?

Instead, let’s talk about skills. Skills such as the ability to write clearly and expertly in your native language; the patience required to understand what you read; the possession of a vast, highly flexible vocabulary; sensitivity to a wide range of linguistic registers; extensive knowledge of your particular sector, if you are a specialist; a broad cultural knowledge, whether you are or not; familiarity not solely with what a text “means” but with how it means; proficiency at editing; an excellent grasp of your source language.

These are not the inchoate arts of the priestesses of the Muses. They are professional skills honed through practice, experience, and hard work.

And they can all be taught.

Is everyone cut out to be a translator? No. Are some people more adept at acquiring and deploying those skills than others? Of course. Aren’t there a lot of folks running around, calling themselves translators, who don’t actually possess most of those skills? Don’t let me start.

But all that means is that translation training is no different from the training of architects or surgeons or librarians or soil scientists or auto mechanics. Some people demonstrate an aptitude and some don’t. Some are fast learners and some need to get out of the field before they hurt someone.

The fact that not everyone is cut out to be a translator doesn’t make translation mysterious; it makes it a profession.

And every conversation in which the translator is mentioned in the same breath as art, literature, and passione, or in which it’s suggested that “it’s something you’re born with” is a conversation that undermines our credibility and gives the translator that air of la vie bohème that’s helping kill the profession just as surely as it killed Mimi.

Stop it. Stop talking about the passion and mystery of translation. Stop saying that translation can’t be taught. Stop making it sound enigmatic and artsy-fartsy.

Some of us are trying to work here.

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Links of Interest

Grossman, Edith. Why Translation Matters, an excerpt presented by Words Without Borders.

Howard, Richard (8 April 2010). “Duet for Two Pens.” New York Times.

Muzii, Luigi (10 May 2010). “Sostenibilità,” from the Il Barbaro blog.

fn After publishing this post, I was informed that the archived version of the Tradurre è Tradire? videochat had returned to the Corriere‘s site and, indeed, it is here. (Look for it under Gli Appuntamenti or Severgnini’s PuntoItalians.) Significantly, the title has been changed to “Traduzioni e non solo” (Not Just Translation). As I suggest above, if the change was Severgnini’s idea, my hat’s off to him.

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Posted on 18 May 2010, in Crimes Against Translation, Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. >Fantastico. "The fact that not everyone is cut out to be a translator doesn’t make translation mysterious; it makes it a profession." Me l'appendo sul muro della mia stanzetta.

  2. >Dear Wendell,I found this so thought-provoking that I wanted to comment but ended up writing a short post to respond to it. Then it got longer… Anyway:http://smuggledwords.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/on-translation-and-art/Anyway, I quote the other Giuseppe above. As usual, simple and effective… Keep up the great work! GMB

  3. >Posted for a friend who wasn't able to use the comments feature:"La cosa che mi ha colpito di più è stata l'affermazione che il traduttore letterario è "molto, molto invidiato" per il suo rapporto privilegiato con lo scrittore (ah sì ?!;-). Secondo me, sono proprio queste convinzioni distorte a danneggiare maggiormente la categoria, perché spingono i traduttori ad accettare tariffe da fame e ad avere un rapporto servile con gli editori, pur di circondarsi dell'alone misterioso dello scrittore e dell'artista." — Anna

  4. Bravo, I am so tired of this “passion, love” and similar BS referred to a profession. This is a profession. Period.

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