Found in Translation

Was the title of an engaging conversation between two translators at this year’s Bendigo Writers’ Festival and I came away with some new insights about the transformative powers of translation.

From George Pell to Kerry O’Brien to the story of sludge from gold mining in the 19th century – there were a great deal of thought-provoking topics to choose from.

Last year one of my highlights of the Writers’ Festival was about Bendigo’s Chinese community and what a special place it holds in the hearts of Bendigo residents as we see every year with the Bendigo Easter Festival – a way the local Chinese pay tribute to Bendigo for their embrace of Chinese culture.  Keep in mind next year celebrates 150 years of Bendigo Easter festivals.

The year I was eager to hear what Meredith McKinney and Simon Patten (Japanese and Chinese translators of literature respectively) had to say and it was both illuminating and thought provoking about our art and why it’s important. So I thought I’d share some of the conversation with you.

To start with, learning a language is like “building a world for yourself – there is a point where you leave your own language behind and see it in a new way – like a secret world”, McKinney says, ”it moves from opaque to seeing it clearly, while translators, on the other hand, remain invisible.”

McKinney enlightens that learning another language sheds a lot of light on your own native tongue and you become more conscious of the devices and resources of your own language: “Translation drags it [your text] back into the terms of your own language.” And that is an important point – a translation needs to be framed for the reader.

Simon Patten asked McKinney how she deals with criticism, after all “Finding a mistake in someone else’s translation is one of the great pleasures of translation!” We all have to deal with it from time to time.  “Breathing down your neck is the ‘bilingual scholar’ who spoils all of your creativity by saying ‘you got it wrong!’” But you have to remember that the translation is for English readers, not the scholars so it needs to ‘sing’ to that audience.

McKinney has even tackled new translations of Japanese classics which is a brave thing to do.  The publisher determines that a new version is due and, interestingly, she strictly does not refer to the previous translation in order to put a new lens on the work. Changing language means that a new translation opens up a whole new readership and perspective.

Translating contemporary Japanese literature is one of the more challenging tasks, especially for an author who has ‘a bit of English’ and it can be hazardous, she said, when they want to ’improve’ your translation. We mustn’t forget too that translators can and frequently do correct the source language and the writer is always very grateful to have a fact corrected – some publishers wait for a translation before printing the source text, because no one scrutinises a work more than a translator.

McKinney and Patten concurred that translation can be a very lonely profession: “You leave one home to be in another and end up belonging to neither,” she said. Nevertheless, where would we all be without translation?  It gives us access to all the worlds that are not us – an expansion of the human ‘otherness’, something google will never do.

To work as a translator of literature is a work of love.  So ends another Bendigo Writers’ Festival with the observation that we all should take away – translators are writers too and without us, the world would be a stranger place.

Meredith McKinney, translator of Sei Shonagon, the Pillow Book, Penguin Books


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