The necessary perils of literary translation

With World Book Day having been marked earlier this week and the first edition of the Campus Book Festival having started on Monday, the ‘internationalisation’ of local literature appears to be ripe for discussion

In fact, the challenges of translating Maltese literary works will be tackled during the Festival, organised by the Ghaqda tal-Malti and the National Book Council, and taking place around the University of Malta campus until 30 April.

Entitled ‘The translator as a privileged reader’, a discussion headed by Prof. Anthony Aquilina will open the festival tomorrow at 9am, and ask ‘what is it a translator does? How loyal should translators be to the text they are working on? Are translators really privileged? And are they privileged as readers, authors, or both?’

Speaking to MaltaToday, Aquilina – an Associate Professor within the Department of Translation, Terminology and Interpreting Studies Faculty of Arts, at the University of Malta – singles out “reading strategies and language analysis” as the fundamental tools necessary for any translator.

“Translation is really a combination of skills and this is what makes good translators authors in their own right. They definitely need a nigh-perfect command of both Source and Target languages, a good ear for the best distribution possible of word clusters and enough translation theory to see you through when the going gets tough.

“Each language has its peculiarities and therefore juggling with the various translation tools at one’s disposal, such as shifts, transpositions, change of polarity, expansion and reduction, to mention but a few, becomes the order of the day,” Aquilina said.

Asked whether Malta is equipped to translate literary works, Aquilina expressed confidence in the way the Department of Translation, Terminology and Interpreting Studies has developed over the past decade, and that it has “provided the means to cultivate the necessary skills”.

“Not only has it succeeded to cater for the needs of the translation market, created thanks to Maltese becoming an official language of the EU, but it has also contributed, through various publications, to demonstrate how well theory can be put into practice with regard to literary translations.”

Aquilina also emphasised that translation should value structural technique over the individual languages in question – particularly when, in the case of Malta, we are in fact not as bilingual as we may like to think.

“The faster we shed this myth the better, because only then can literary translators feel free to admit the enormous effort and research it takes to produce a good translation and lay claim on a just reward for their work,” Aquilina said.

There appears to be unanimous agreement on the question of ‘faithfulness’ to a source text, with writers and academics conceding to the fact that a translated text should read well first and foremost, rather than serving as a literal translation. But the need for Maltese literature to be translated is also being felt, particularly now. Author Immanuel Mifsud – whose work has been translated into English, French and Slovene – frames this need in a historical context.

“To start with I think that more than in any other time contemporary Maltese writers feel the need to have their literature read abroad,” Mifsud said.

“I don’t think that Maltese writers in the early 20th century felt this need: in their collective unconscious maybe Malta was large enough, and anyway they had a different mission altogether: they had to launch a Maltese literature, not to mention that those were different times altogether. Once writers noticed how small the country was and then, thanks to our recent EU membership, they began believing they are part of a large entity, their hopes and expectations broadened,” Mifsud said, adding that unlike other comparatively small countries like Liechtenstein and Cyprus – whose language allows them to penetrate other markets – Maltese is truly limited in its reach.

“So basically our language is our worst obstacle.”

Both Mifsud and Merlin Publishers Director of Publishing Chris Gruppetta agree that, while it may be natural to assume that English should be the first port of call for local writers, an English-language translation of a Maltese work may be met with a hostile reception abroad, particularly in the UK/US markets.

“My impression is that the French are more open to translating and publishing foreign work and that is also a huge market. The same holds true for the Italian; one wonders why there has been so little Maltese literature translated into Italian, given our geographical and cultural proximity and I think we should do something about this,” Mifsud said.

However, Gruppetta concedes that having an English translation out there in the first place can serve as a crucial stepping-stone for Maltese works to be translated into other languages

“If there’s one thing I’m proudest of, from my three year stay on the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts, it’s having pushed for and set up Spreading Words, the literary translation strand of the Malta Arts Fund, that enables authors to apply for funding for professional literary translations of their work,” Gruppetta added.