Translation Gymnastics at Auckland Writers Festival 2015 – Review

Auckland Writers Festival


Last weekend’s Writers Festival in Auckland was a great excuse to activate my out-of-office message on a Friday morning and head to Auckland to enjoy some prose and verse from New Zealand and beyond. (I had to make up for it on Sunday, but on days like these, I appreciate the freedom I have as freelancer.) The main reason why I went to the festival was that there was one event on translation: Translation Gymnastics, with Daniel Mendelsohn and Anna Jackson. Since I am not a literary translator, I was intrigued to find out how someone, who is not primarily a translator and who works in the literary field, would approach a translation project. As it turned out, not so differently – only that none of my clients would probably have the patience to wait 12 years for the delivery!

David Mendelsohn is a critic, scholar and translator specialising in Greek Classics. His translation of the poet Cavafy’s complete works (published in 2009) received glowing reviews and earned him international praise. Anna Jackson is a writer, scholar and poet who also lectures at Wellington University. Here, her poem collection I, Clodia, and Other Portraits was discussed. In these poems, she lets Clodia, who is assumed to have been the woman referred to as Lesbia in Catullus’s love poems, speak about her love affair with Catullus. In doing so, she relied on previous English translations of Catullus’s love poetry.

The session was chaired by Tom Bishop. The discussion started of with the different voices shining through in those two works and Anna Jackson mentioned that Mendelsohn’s translation is so great as the reader doesn’t have to be too focused on the text itself to “hear the voice” behind the text, the voice of the original author.

Daniel Mendelsohn was asked how he felt as a translator of pre-translated texts as he needs to respond in his translation not only to the original, but also to the existing translations. Anna Jackson didn’t have to respond to the other translators to the same extent as her appropriation was relying on them. Mendelson’s motivation for translating Cavafy was that the first English translation (when he started, there was 1; by the time he had finished, there were 7) didn’t pay particular attention to the formality in Cavafy’s poems – an element which he thought to be important. He mentioned that he started out with a “corrective” approach of the previous translations, but as time passed  he turned his hybris into admiration for those translators. Anna Jackson had already published Catullus for children and wanted to return to the “real” Catullus. Although her work is not a translation, both a translator and adaptor essentially put words in other people’s mouth. She remained true to the original by trying to incorporate the “witty turn” that Catullus’s work has into her poems.

There are some universalisms that apply to both literary and non-literary translations, for example, that there is no perfect translation, that it is “much easier to translate mediocre poems” (or texts) than it is to translate truly great ones and that literary translators also use parallel texts/poems. However, as someone who mainly translates texts that are very much matter of fact, I would disagree, in my case, with Mendelsohn saying that, outside of marriage, one will never be as intimate with anybody as with the person one translates.

Translation Gymnastics was a very interesting event at the Writers Festival as it provided insight into an area of translation that requires a very different skill set (in some parts) to my daily translation work. I look forward to next year’s festival and hope that there will be another session on translation!

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