Mince pies and the “Sweet Spot” of translating

Well, okay, mince pies aren’t really relevant here, but because we are still officially within the 12 days of Yuletide, I thought they would add a touch of seasonal interest to the title! Of course, the “sweet spot” in question has nothing to do with raisins, sugar and a good spoon of brandy butter, and instead everything to do with translation (although some might dispute that – I know translators (me for one) who would happily combine them!!)

The quote comes from an article written by Susan Bernofsky for Words without Borders. The article is a report on her work on the MFA programme at the City University of New York.  In it she writes:

“The single greatest challenge my students struggled with was this: Letting go of the original text (i.e. the details of its syntax and diction) enough to allow themselves to imagine corresponding sentences and lines in English capable of functioning aesthetically in their own right—without of course straying so far that the translation could no longer be considered a translation. When you don’t let go enough, the translation comes out sounding stilted, something no one enjoys reading; but letting go too much gets you too far from the original; the trick is to find the sweet spot in the middle where the original text speaks through the translation even as the translation is speaking with a voice of its own.”

This is such a brilliant way of encapsulating the task of translation that I thought it worth repeating, and adding my own twopenceworth.    It’s all too easy to fall into the same trap.  Take this scenario, for instance: it’s late, you’re working on an urgent job; there are still 1000 words to go, so what do you do?  Yes, you plod along, following “syntax and diction”, matching word structure, phrasing, even semantics.  Re-reading your work in the cold, rational light of day – hopefully an hour or two before the deadline for submission – you then have time to take a step back from the original, metaphorically “letting go”.  This is the space in-between I think that Bernofsky is referring to, but it can be hard to find.

Anyway, thanks for an inspiring pasage and for describing the target we (us translators, that is) are all aiming for, that magic moment when the translation speaks with a voice of its own!

(These mouth-watering mince pies are the work of Meanderings through my Cookbook – thanks for the photo)

2 Replies to “Mince pies and the “Sweet Spot” of translating”

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