A Love Letter to Translation

Today, Valentine’s Day, we wanted to take a moment to offer our affections to the art of translation. Online Translation Editor Stephanie Philp asked translators two questions about the sometimes grueling, always complicated, forever alive practice. We wanted to know: what do they love about translation?

What do you love about translation?

Megan Sungyoon: My (love of) translation was born out of my attempt to love myself as a whole. I think this would be the case for many multilinguals who have been situated in between two or more languages for a long time. As a person who has always existed in two parallel spaces and none at the same time, I moved in between languages with relative ease. When that in-betweenness is your home, translation is your home language. So I guess I love translation in a way others love their “own” language, if anyone has that.

Yardenne Greenspan: I love diving deeper into a book than I ever possibly could just by reading it. Really getting to know its heart and soul and guts. There is enormous satisfaction in slipping into a writer’s brain and living there for a while, figuring out through the act of reinventing their words on the page how their mind works, how stories weave in their psyches, and how they lead them from beginning to end. It’s like being someone else for a while, but still being able to create something that’s mine as well as theirs. 

Katrine Øgaard Jensen: I love translation because it’s the world’s greatest writing exercise. Haruki Murakami has said that he would suffocate if he didn’t translate other writers into Japanese. Translating Edgar Allan Poe into French greatly influenced Charles Baudelaire’s own writing. When Vladimir Nabokov’s translation of one of Pushkin’s masterpieces was published in the 1960’s, some critics even hailed the translation as Nabokov’s highest achievement. Lydia Davis has translated numerous authors, including Flaubert, and one of my favorite Mallarmé translations was written by Paul Auster. Some believe—and I agree—that typing up a book by one of your favorite writers can help you deconstruct how it was written; translation is the next level of that exercise. As a literary translator, you’re not just typing up a great book: you’re rewriting it.

What is your favorite translated work?

Sungyoon: I think all work is inevitably a translation. My recent fascination is with Sawako Nakayasu’s Mouth: Eats Color, which contains translation, (mis)translation, and (un)translation.

I often find a good film to be ultimately about filmmaking, even when it’s not ostensibly so––similarly, I find Mouth: Eats Color to be a good work of, and about, translation, although it might not entirely be translation in the conventional sense.

Greenspan: I don’t know about favorite, because I think there is something for me to learn from every translated work I come across. But two come to mind–Second Person Singular, by Sayed Kashua, translated from Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg, is a fantastic, painful book that challenges its readers’ perceptions of identity and animosity, and Ginsburg very fearlessly lets it do its thing, creating the same commanding voice Kashua has in Hebrew and allowing traces of Hebrew and Arabic to live harmoniously alongside the English without over-explaining things. Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, translated from Norwegian by Anne Born is just a delight to read. The impossibly sweet sadness of its final page has not left me since I read it eight years ago.

Jensen: It’s too difficult for me to pick a favorite translated work, just like I don’t have a favorite book. I actually don’t think very much about single works but rather the type of work that a writer or translator creates, and if I like their aesthetic I will follow them into the apocalypse. I guess you could say that I follow the artist rather than the work. Some of the translators whose work I follow obsessively are Karen Emmerich, Johannes Göransson, Don Mee Choi, Sawako Nakayasu and Katherine Hedeen. These days I’m also extremely inspired by Joyelle McSweeney’s poetics and writings on translation, which was recommended to me by Susan Bernofsky, a translator whose work and existence I love most of all.


About the translators:

Katrine Øgaard Jensen: Katrine Øgaard Jensen is a writer and translator from the Danish. Her translation of Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Outgoing Vessel, a sequel to the award-winning long poem Third-Millennium Heart, is forthcoming from Action Books in 2020. She teaches in the School of the Arts MFA Writing Program at Columbia University where she currently serves as Acting Director of Literary Translation at Columbia (LTAC).

Yardenne Greenspan is a writer and Hebrew translator. She has an MFA from Columbia University and is a regular blogger for Ploughshares. She has worked with authors such as Amir Gutfreund, Yirmi Pinkus, Alex Epstein, Shimon Adaf, and Etgar Keret. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Haaretz, Guernica, Literary Hub, Blunderbuss, Apogee, The Massachusetts Review, Asymptote, and Words Without Borders, among other publications.

Megan Sungyoon is a poet/translator. Currently, Sungyoon is striving to translate the poetry collection of 서정학 (Seo Jeong-Hak), 동네에서 제일 싼 프랑스 (The Cheapest France in Town), into English. 


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