She knows too much: “Bridge Translations,” “Literal Translations,” and Long-Term Harm

Jen Calleja and Sophie Collins

One hardly knows where to begin with this tangle. Here we have poets who have “translated” each other’s work, despite largely not knowing each other’s languages. This is done grâce à people mysteriously labelled “bilingual specialists,” who put together something called “literal translations, including several options for words that have multiple meanings.” That is to say: they translate the poems. So why are these “bilingual specialists” not the “translators”?
—Eleanor Goodman, “Wrestling with the Text,” China Channel

It’s an exciting time for translated literature and for the politics of literary translation. Contemporary writing in translation is being bought and read more than ever before in the UK and, crucially, it is being acknowledged as such. In 2016, the Man Booker International Prize decided to dedicate itself to fiction in translation and to split its prize money equally between author and translator, thus recognising the latter as an active participant in the creation of the text rather than a passive conduit simply contracted to replace one word for another. Similarly encouraging is the fact that books about translation are being bought, read, and celebrated—so much so as to generate public debate. A case in point was the reception of Kate Briggs’s This Little Art (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016), a collection of loosely linked essays and fragments which challenges or undermines the notion of a “correct” translation via a nuanced discussion of “standards.” A recent strawman review of Briggs’s book in The New York Times elicited multiple indignant responses from a range of readers, including eminent voices in literature and translation.

As readers and writers, we are coming to understand the translator as a collaborator—someone whose task goes far beyond the administrative, whose rendering of the source text can never be deemed “objective,” who makes pivotal choices from the first draft to the last, and who brings their knowledge of the source and target cultures and literatures to their work. We are also realising that the terms and metaphors we use to describe the practice of translation not only reveal how we conceive of it in the present but will have a continuing, long-term effect on how translators are figured and treated within literary culture as a whole.

This point has been made previously. In The Translator’s Invisibility (1995), Lawrence Venuti linked the chronic marginalisation and mistreatment of translators to the ways in which translations have tended to be read and evaluated through notions of “fluency” and “fidelity,” largely unexamined terms which often erase the question of translation altogether. Lori Chamberlain and Sherry Simon, in “Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation” (1988) and Gender in Translation (1996) respectively, identified the inherent sexism of many dominant metaphors for translation and the ways in which their consolidation of capitalist beliefs act to reinforce creative hierarchies. These critiques remain highly relevant, but there are now additional terms and metaphors that warrant our attention.

At a time when literary translation carries increasing cultural cachet, writers and readers of poetry are more careful than ever to credit the translator in reviews and social media posts, and curious poets—whether they read and write in another language or not—are keen to practise translation in some way. This represents an exciting opportunity to involve, via collaborations, those without any prior translating experience as well as those who speak only one language. Such collaborations can create multiple versions of a source poem that explore the various ways we read; they are also routes into the world of translation for literary practitioners who might not have previously considered it a viable path. In the UK, these collaborations are taking place more and more in the form of online and in-person workshops, sometimes with the aim of producing poetry books in translation for publication. The websites for these projects and the organisations facilitating them are illustrated with images of people conversing animatedly around conference tables and whiteboards. Published poets from the contemporary UK poetry scene are frequently called upon to join either as part of a group or in partnership with a translator in order to work on pieces by a specific source poet. In terms of logistics, the workshops function in a variety of ways: they might consist of the published UK poet and a group of participants, some of whom are monolingual and some of whom also know the source language; the source poet, a translator, and a UK poet who only speaks English (which is the target language, in this instance); a translator and a UK poet who only speaks English; or some combination of the above.

As great as these opportunities are—both for the partnerships that they form and for the possibilities for publication that they bring to writers, some of whom would not otherwise be translated into English—drawbacks have emerged in the ways these collaborations are presented to the world. Troublingly, they often seem to reaffirm the idea that literary translators are not creative enough to translate the source texts alone, with the assigned poets frequently being credited as the “translators” (sometimes “end” or “final translator”) or featured more prominently in write-ups of the collaboration than any other participant.

The term that is often used to describe the translator in such collaborations is “bridge translator,” with their translation of the source text dubbed the “bridge translation.” This is invoked more and more as an alternative to “literal translation,” but not because “literal translation” suggests a transparency that elides the question of subjectivity in the translation process—which it undoubtedly does. Indeed, the term “literal” translation has been in question for a long time (see, for example, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s 1993 essay “Thick Translation”); many readers and translators simply understand it as a misnomer that doesn’t name anything other than its own myth. What is thought of as the “literal”—also sometimes called the “direct,” “interlinear,” “unembellished,” or “most straightforward”—translation differs significantly from translator to translator—especially when it comes to poetry. “Bridge translation” might dispel the unease that has built up around the term “literal translation” but, without examining how this compound word is deployed, it simply acts as a substitute. The wording may have changed, but the dynamic it establishes among those involved in the collaboration has not. “Bridge translation” performs precisely the same function as its predecessor by reinforcing the fantasy of transparent access to the source text, only with an added flavour of poetic abstraction that allows us to shrug off any discomfort generated by the more utilitarian-sounding “literal translation.”

The positioning of the translator as an ostensibly objective intermediary has a long history in UK poetry, where “translation” has typically been viewed as a practice consisting, on the one hand, of “literal translations” that aim to reproduce the source text word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase in the target language and, on the other, of “versions” or “adaptations” that are typically viewed as more “creative” and are often rendered by poets without knowledge of the source language, thus necessitating the use of a so-called “literal” or “bridge translation.” This two-pronged construction removes any sense of nuance from the translation process, presenting “translation proper” as a rule-based and uniquely interlingual exchange with the aim of approximate equivalence. The distinction being made between this and the “version” or “adaptation” suggests that the poet possesses creative and literary faculties that the translator—as a kind of interlingual siphon—does not.

The issue of underestimating and undervaluing literary translators in workshop collaborations like those described above occurs in many varied but equally questionable ways, all of which are influenced by this perceived gulf between the “literal” and the “version.” One example: a poetry collection in translation where an English-language poet is credited on the cover while the literary translator with the knowledge required to produce the book is not mentioned until the title page (and even there it is often underneath, where she is labelled as an “assistant” or “advisor” to the poet). Another: English-language poets crediting themselves and other English-language poets online as having co-translated a poetry collection without naming the literary translator involved (and referring to themselves as “translators” outside the context of the collaboration). And yet another: “versions” created by English-language writers using multiple existing translations being marketed as “translations” (something a literary translator absolutely could not do without being tarred a plagiarist). Examples of the latter include Don Paterson’s renderings of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems in Orpheus (Faber, 2006) and Robin Robertson’s of Tomas Tranströmer’s in The Deleted World (Enitharmon, 2006). What is curious is that, sometimes, the marginalisation of translators in the context of collaborative workshops appears to be driven not so much by an undervaluing of their expertise as by the sense that the translator’s approach to the source text will not match the more imaginative, more intuitive slant of the poet—that the translator, in other words, knows too much, and that her knowledge is an impediment to creativity within the translation process. A friend recently reported having been solicited to take part in a translation workshop. When she responded with her apologies (she had no time to give) and recommended a translator who lived nearby and who was an expert in the source language and literature, the organisation responded curtly: “We’re not looking for professionals.” A panelist at International Translation Day 2015 at the British Library suggested that translators of literature could perhaps one day work with “real writers” in order to create the best translations, much to the dismay of the literary translators present. 

The long-term effect of this distinction between “poet” or “final translator” and “translator” or “bridge translator” is enormously harmful, for it upholds damaging myths around translators and translation by undermining, or by altogether denying, their literariness and creative agency. When dubbed a “bridge translator” and framed as a “language specialist,” the translator is objectified in the same way as she would be were her work named a “literal translation.”

Although promoting literature in translation is not only admirable but vital, we find ourselves asking why—as Eleanor Goodman puts it in the epigraph—able and available literary translators aren’t entrusted with the translations. If someone calls themselves a translator, or is referred to as a translator without context, when they in fact need a translator to translate a poem, it doesn’t seem fair or accurate to say that they are a translator. We can say, however, that anyone who participates in translating a poem can claim to have collaboratively translated a poem or co-translated it. But these collaborators, including monolingual poets, are in fact closer to being editors—or post-editors.

Short of restructuring such workshops, the practice, rather than being so implicitly hierarchical, could simply be called “collaborative,” with all parties involved named and all stages of the process understood as interpretive, creative. The ultimate goal? That those interested in translation are supported as they learn the languages and the source literatures and encouraged to build long-term relationships with writers and cultures—as we translators have done and continue to do. Although it should feel like an achievable goal that is open to anyone, the job of literary translator brings with it a lot of responsibility, and since there is no easy way to become one, it is a title many are proud to have earned.

We cannot let readers and writers believe that translators are unskilled in creative interpretation, that literary translators need the help of “real writers” or that a poet with no grasp of languages or translation practice should be deemed the “final,” “main,” or “end” translator. We are not saying that collaboration between a translator and a poet to create a translation doesn’t work, nor that this process lacks importance or value. We are, however, questioning the distance it encourages between UK poets and other languages, as well as the inequitable values it assigns to those involved in the collaboration and its inevitable long-term effect on the perception and practice of translation.