A translator’s life: chasing black cats in a black room in pursuit of the art of losses

Translators are the unsung heroes of literature and poetry – so what are the secrets of the trade?


Without translation, we would never have been gripped by the story of Anna Karenina, been influenced by Greek myths, read Anne Frank’s diary, or brought a trio of thrillers about a female Swedish computer genius with us on holidays .

Last week, Trinity officially marked the launch of its new Centre for Literary Translation, with a public reading by poet Séamus Heaney and some of his translators.

At the end of last year, Ireland Literature Exchange (ILE) – the national agency for the promotion of Irish literature abroad – moved to new offices in Trinity.

The Centre for Literary Translation is a three-way partnership between the university, the ILE and Dalkey Archive Press.

Among the translators in Dublin last week for the launch of the centre was Hungarian András Imreh, Russian Grigory Kruzhkov, and Italians Anna Ravano and Francesca Romana Paci. They all translate from English into their own language. So what language do they think in?

“I would not dare to think in any other language than Hungarian,” Imreh says. “I think in other languages for a time. But I suddenly get to a point where things are complicated enough to get back to my own language.”

“When I’m in an English-speaking environment, I think in English, rather than Italian,” Ravano says, while Romana Paci says she dreams in English.

“I definitely think in Russian,” says Kruzhkov.

They are all agreed that, as translators, they are the closest readers of a poet’s work. “We read more closely than critics. We have to take into account every word, every comma, every colon,” Romana Paci says. “Critics can skip lines.”

All four have worked on Heaney’s poems. “I almost envy future translators of Heaney, because they will now have Dennis O’Driscoll’s wonderful source book about him, Stepping Stones ,” Kruzhkov says.

They talk about understanding the cultural context of where the original work has come from. “I had never been to any bog, because there are none in Hungary,” Imreh says. “I was taken to one here. I don’t remember any concrete words or individual metaphors that were solved as a result of the visit, but seeing the bog gave me a wall to put my back to.”

“It was most helpful for me to see Northern Ireland,” Romana Paci says.

While it’s possible to put a query to a living author via phone or email, those puzzles can’t be solved when the author is dead. Kruzhkov alone has translated poetry by Donne, Keats, Tennyson, Yeats and Frost.

“You can still have a relationship with the poet,” he insists. “It’s like having a conversation with someone who is very alive to you, and continues to live on.”

They talk about the process. “I maybe start with a line,” Romana Paci explains. “It can be anywhere in the book. It will haunt me for a couple of days. That goes on, poem by poem. It’s like creating a leopard skin: the spots here and there are images.”

“I start with a poem I like,” Imreh says. “I like to see something solid; that I am making at least half a house, if you like, in what I am building. Your mind can grab it too hard and you have to leave it then, and come back to it later.”

Ravano does a rough translation first, focusing on meaning. “I go through the book poem by poem, with the intention of going back to the beginning again. Later poems cast light on earlier ones.”

Kruzhkov describes starting a translation as “trying to catch the black cat in the black room.”

Got to pick a poet or two

Kruzhkov, Imreh and Romana Paci are all poets themselves. Does it help with translating poetry when you are a poet

? “By translating, you are always loitering around the workshop of another poet and by this it is easier to steal,” Imreh says.

“The temptation is there to steal but you also have the anxiety of influence,” says Kruzhkov.

What makes a good translation? “It allows you to look at the work through another window,” suggests Romana Paci. “It’s both familiar and new. There is an old saying that says it is all about ‘the inter-traffic of the minds’.”

“It’s a piece that originated from the original, but stands out on its own merits," says Imreh.

They all mention the importance of capturing the voice of the original writer. “You have to get the register; the voice,” Romana Paci stresses. “That’s what makes us know it’s Seamus Heaney in any language.”

Like writers, translators can feel they are never fully done with the work. “You are almost never finished with a translation,” Ravano says. “Every now and then you’d like to go back and change things,” agrees Romana Paci.

“With a good translation, you are not only following the ideas of a genius, but you follow the thoughts of a second person, by looking at the decisions he has made,” suggests Kruzhkov. “Translation is the art of losses, you always have to lose something.”

There is little consensus on how often classic texts need to be updated. “Languages move and change,” Romana Paci points out. “You update, but it can’t be too modern,” says Ravano. “Jane Austen can’t sound like Sophie Kinsella.”

“I beg to argue with all of you,” says Kruzhkov. “They say every two generations, texts should be translated. But with poetry, I don’t agree. If they are little jewels, they are little jewels. They stand over time.”

Towards the end of the conversation, Kruzhkov recalls something he bought the first time he visited Ireland. It was a print in a market, with these well-known lines on it:

“God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.”

It’s now on his wall at home.

“That’s the wisdom that a translator must have,” he declares, and the others laugh in recognition.