Our resident translation expert, writer, and jack-of-all-trades, Daniel Hahn, is back to respond to reader questions on the fine art of translation. Today’s question comes from Lin Chia Wei, a reader in Taiwan. And—don’t miss our first-ever “Ask a Translator” live event with Daniel Hahn in London on Wednesday, July 20 (RSVP at or invite your friends to the Facebook event page here).
Is there anything that is completely untranslatable, in your opinion?
Everything is untranslatable, that’s what I think.
Or alternatively, I think that nothing is.
And honestly, I’m perfectly comfortable with either of those ideas; both make sense to me. I’m not altogether comfortable, however, with the idea behind the question itself.
There are certain components to a text that are likely to present particular challenges to a translator (I talked about these in last month’s column), things that feel like absolute impossibilities. And conversely there are moments when you’re translating and a clever solution presents itself, or when a new voice you’re creating comes into focus, and the sheer rightness seems miraculous, the fact of it being so very possible feels exhilarating. But these experiences, and the question, would seem to suggest a simple binary—translatable / not translatable—which is misleading. Translation is all failure, because it’s never “perfect”; and it is all also, simultaneously, a triumph, because however imperfectly something living has been created out of the most unlikely circumstances.
Yumiko Tsumura’s translations of poems by Kazuko Shiraishi, also known as “the Allen Ginsberg of Japan,” appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. Recently Tsumura corresponded via e-mail with Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly.
Your first book of translations of Kazuko Shiraishi’s poems dates back to 2002. When did you first meet Kazuko, and how did you begin working with her?
I met Kazuko Shiraishi on September 30, 2000 in Tokyo. My co-translator, Samuel Grolmes, my late husband, and I had been working on a translation of Ryuichi Tamura’s poetry, ever since he was the first guest to the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa established by Paul Engle. I was working on my MFA in poetry and translation and Sam was an assistant director to Paul Engle, and we started translating Tamura’s poetry during his stay at the IWP.
Tamura’s “The World Without Words” was published [in] New Directions Annual 22. When our book Tamura Ryuichi Poems: 1946-1998 was published early September 2000, Shichosha, the publisher of modern poetry, held a symposium in Tokyo called “How to Surpass Tamura” on September 30, 2000. Kazuko Shiraishi was a great admirer of Tamura’s poetry and one of the panelists. During that meeting she came to ask Sam and me to translate her poetry. READ MORE…
Our literary translator on the street, award-winning writer and editor Daniel Hahn, is back with another installment of “Ask a Translator,” the monthly column responding to readers’ deepest questions about the day-to-day practice of literary translation. This time around, Asymptote reader Mandy Doll from Singapore asked the following:
Is there a code of ethics when it comes to translation?
This is how the world looks today, according to the evening news:
• Militant groups kill dozens in Brussels bombings!
• Britain’s campaign to split from the E.U. heats up!
• Trump and G.O.P. rivals escalate anti-immigrant rhetoric!
These are stories of division.
They are stories of a failure of empathy, a failure of imagination. Stories of willful misunderstanding. Stories that tell us how the powerful capitalise on failed media and failed education systems to persuade the powerless that the only thing that really matters is how people are different, not how they are the same.
Every assumption that underpins the translator’s work is in opposition to this. Translation is optimistic. Translation is generous. Translation assumes that—however unlikely—mutual understanding is possible. Translation says, Listen—see that guy over there? Give him a chance, ’cause what he’s saying is worth hearing. Translation assumes that my story can mean something to you, that her concerns way over there are not fundamentally different to his worries over here. Come to that, doesn’t all literature make that assumption? READ MORE…