Duelling translators

During my annual trip to Edinburgh this year I was pleased that for once the dates of my visit coincided with the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and even more pleased that I was able to attend a French Translation Duel there – my first.

Adriana Hunter, 2009

The Duel was part of the Festival’s Art of Translation series of events which this year included a Spanish Translation Duel, a look at translations of War and Peace, and a presentation of Adam Thirlwell’s Multiples – an experimental book consisting of stories (by the likes of Kierkegaard and Kafka) translated by leading authors into another language, then re-translated into English, then re-translated again and again. Unfortunately my personal schedule meant I was only free to attend the French Duel.

Ros Schwartz at a Translation Slam, Norwich, 2012

The Duel explored what happens to a story’s essence when it is translated from one language to another. Chaired by Daniel Hahn, translators Adriana Hunter and Ros Schwartz each presented their own interpretations of a short – previously untranslated – text by Haitian-Canadian author Dany Laferrière, who was also present (for once however, the author was not the “star of the show”!).

Daniel Hahn

Each audience member was given a handout containing the original French text, L’air sentait l’ilang-ilang, Ros and Adriana’s translations, and then a line-by-line comparison of the two translations. Neither translator had seen the other’s work until the start of the duel, and interestingly no two sentences were alike – even the title was different (‘The air was fragrant with ylang-ylang’ [Ros] and ‘The Air Smelled of Ylang-ylang’ [Adriana]).

Ylang-ylang in my garden

Time constraints – the event lasted an hour – meant that it wasn’t possible to study the whole text in detail, but it was interesting  to hear Ros and Adriana explain why, for example, in a given sentence, they chose to translate mère as ‘mother’ [Ros] and ‘mum’ [Adriana], or affreusement timide as ‘hopelessly shy’ and ‘horribly shy’ respectively. Sometimes a translation which I didn’t initially agree with sounded the best solution in the end after hearing the translators’ explanations (for example ‘dick’ [Ros] or ‘groin’ [Adriana] as translations for le sexe).

Dany Laferrière, Salon du livre de Paris, 2010

No blood was shed at this duel (!), and it was a fascinating public insight into the private work, research and thought processes of fellow translators – albeit literary ones. And without a doubt it proves – if proof is needed – that each translation is a creative work in its own right.

Have you ever attended a translation duel? Let me know in the comments below.

You might also like:

The Translator’s Dilemma – post about a play performed at Edinburgh Festival 2012

8 responses

  1. What a brilliant idea – translation duel. I enjoyed reading about it and I am sure I would have loved attending one. Have they published the original and the two translations anywhere? I’d love to see the two. And, by the way, who won?

  2. I love this idea! We’re hoping to have something like this in the DC area, but it can be difficult finding folks brave enough to have their work publicly critiqued. It was always fun (and informative) in my university classes, though!

  3. Pingback: International Translation Day 2013 | A Smart Translator's Reunion

  4. Pingback: Edinburgh Book Festival 2015 | A Smart Translator's Reunion

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