Lifting the Veil on Literary Translation

By Kate Ritchie

The relationship between translator and writer is an interesting one that was explored at a Monash University inspired event: Showcasing Australian Literature in China through Translation. It was fascinating to hear from well-known Australian writers published in Chinese translation and how they work with translators, as well as their experiences in China. It was equally interesting to hear from a famous translator of Australian literature and how he crafts his work.

There are 36 Australian study centres in China – I’m guessing more than in Australia, so there is plainly a lot of interest in Australia. Some famous Chinese-English translators have been educated here and are helping to take the Aussie flavour to China, yet only 600 works have been translated to Chinese (since the late Qing Dynasty).

According to Professor Li Yao, one of the panelists who himself has translated 40 famous works, it is truly a “work of love” to be a literary translator and he loves Australian literature.

There is an imbalance in the translation stakes with less interest in English translations from Chinese in Australia, nevertheless, translations in either direction are important to help understanding and to build bridges. According to Graeme Base, a very popular author of children’s books, his beautifully illustrated works are very popular in China. He recounted an anecdote which shows how cultural adaptation is necessary.  One of his characters took off to the ‘back of beyond’ in the English version, while in Chinese, the character talks with his parents long into the night and gets their approval before heading off to the top of a mountain the next morning.

I was alarmed to hear from author of The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion, that in translating this big hit into 40 languages he received only two queries from translators. Really!?  That rings some warning bells to me, but I guess the market is the final judge. By contrast, Professor Li communicates constantly with authors about words, puns, voice, characters, and, I’m sure, lots more (Sounds like the Chin approach).

My translator ‘prize’ goes to Graeme Simsion for the effort he puts in to working with translators. Firstly he makes sure they understand autism – pretty critical in The Rosie series! Also how to convey humour with empathy – to be ‘strange but not too strange’, especially when readers in some languages reckon the main character, Don Tillman, is perfect and wonder why he can’t find a wife! You can see immediately the challenge in translation and the cultural shift required.

Simsion also has a wonderful approach working with interpreters when he is speaking at conferences, book events or during Australian Writers’ Weeks.  First of all he asks if the interpreting be consecutive or simultaneous (a great question because in consecutive mode you can only say half as much); secondly rather than supply a written text of his likely speech (surprisingly he doesn’t write one), he sends a recording of what he might say (helps with the accent too) and provides a list of important expressions, other author names he may reference and so on. That is perfect to an interpreter to have such a considerate client!

As a footnote, it is definitely not a career for the faint-hearted being a literary translator. Some arts grants are available for the profession but mostly it is incredibly poorly paid with a lack of recognition and bargaining power. Do you ever remember seeing a translator’s name on the cover of a work you have read in translation? It is worth asking the question: should the translator get equal billing with the writer?


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