Dr James Hadley, Director of Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation
Though literature is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s greatest exports to the world, there are few Irish authors who have become literary sensations as quickly as Sally Rooney in recent years. So, having already been translated into as many as 47 languages so far, her three novels, Conversations with Friends, Normal People and Beautiful World, Where Are You, give us a special chance to ask on World Translation Day (September 30th) what goes into translating great Irish literature for the world.
Last night Sally Rooney was joined by three of her translators at an event in Trinity College Dublin to celebrate literature in translation. A collaboration between the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation and EUNIC Ireland (European Union National Institutes for Culture), the event featured a discussion between Rooney and three of her translators on the interplay of their work in bringing great literature to the world.
Translators Vesna Velkovrh Bukilica (Slovene), Inga Pellisa (Spanish) and Mihaela Buruiană (Romanian) discussed the delicate and complicated art of translating Sally Rooney for readers of other languages, while Rooney described her reaction to seeing her work in translation.
It was a rare and special occasion to hear Rooney and her translators speaking publicly about their work. Literary translation is one of those arts that most frequently goes unnoticed, especially if it is done well. But that doesn’t mean it is an easy task. How to juggle everything from an author’s voice to the particularly Irish elements appearing in their novels, can be challenges that occupy the minds of translators for weeks as they work.
The Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation aims to demystify the often hidden world of literary translation through training, networking with the industry and public outreach. It is home to Literature Ireland, the national agency for the promotion of Irish literature abroad, as well as the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association, the only professional association representing the interests of practising translators and interpreters in Ireland.
In its mission to bring the best of Irish literature to the world and the best of world literature to readers in Ireland, the centre works closely with bodies like EUNIC Ireland, a network of 18 cultural institutes and embassies working to build trust and understanding in the post-crisis society of Europe and the world through cultural engagement.
These international collaborations and events allow translators from around the world to have their voices heard, often for the first time, about the art of translating literature into different languages.
Sinéad Mac Aodha, Director of Literature Ireland
Sally Rooney’s writing has struck a chord across the world, with readers clamouring to have access to her latest works in their own languages. Literature Ireland has supported the translation of all three Rooney titles, with 38 editions in 21 languages supported to date.
The powerful images portrayed in Rooney’s books of life in Ireland, whether on a boisterous GAA playing field in Sligo or in the lively lecture halls in Trinity, connect people emotionally and imaginatively with this country. The development of an international readership for Irish literature in translation, which captures the colour and culture of the country, is a powerful way to make friends for Ireland - Rooney’s books do that. More seriously, her depiction of the psychological challenges that young people often experience nowadays has resonated with readers from Stockholm to Bucharest, presenting valuable opportunities for discussion.
Her writing has captured something to which not just Irish readers respond. All three of Rooney’s books have been published in Ukraine, with the latest, Beautiful World, Where Are You, printed and distributed by The Old Lion Publishing House since the war began. We are astounded by these publishers’ resilience. Most unusually, Normal People is one of the few books to have been translated into Basque, Galician, Catalan and Spanish.
We are conscious that while publishers may make money from these titles, translations are often risky undertakings. But if publishers make money from these books, capitalising on their celebrity status, that may enable them to take risks with other Irish titles. There appears to be a greater receptivity to Irish women’s writing now - the Rooney phenomenon has helped open international doors.
We look forward to what Rooney and this generation of fine and diverse contemporary Irish writers do next, and Literature Ireland will be there to ensure they are read in many different languages.
Translating Sally Rooney: Reflections of translators Mihaela Buruiană, Inga Pellisa and Vesna Velkovrh Bukilica
Mihaela Buruiană translates work by Rooney, Maggie O’Farrell, Naoise Dolan, Kevin Barry and many others into Romanian:
A few years ago, I was going through a reading slump. So I asked a fellow book enthusiast to suggest something that would help me out of it. She offered me Sally Rooney’s Normal People. It was late on a cold afternoon. So I snuggled up with a cup of tea and this new book that seemed promising. A few hours later, well into the night, I finally put it down. I had finished it in one go. The next morning, I wrote a few excited words about the novel on my Facebook page. An editor contacted me within minutes and asked if I’d like to translate it into Romanian.
Reading it was one thing, but translating it offered me a whole new perspective. I suddenly became aware of potential difficulties. How could I render the apparently simple, matter-of-fact style, so as to keep it natural and nicely-flowing? How could I avoid overusing words while still keeping it clear who was doing what? And what about the accent, and the specifically Irish words which add so much to the texture of the work?
Mihaela’s experience of working on a text she finds hard to put down is not unusual for literary translators, whose work may not be handsomely rewarded in financial terms nor in terms of publicity, but can offer a rare opportunity to get under the skin of their favourite works of literature. Forensically dissecting every sentence of a novel and reflecting it in another language inevitably brings translators closer to their source authors than almost any other reader. And many develop a deep sense of responsibility to represent their authors’ work stylistically, ideologically and politically.
Inga Pellisa has published over 60 translations of the work of authors including George Orwell and Patricia Lockwood. For her, Rooney’s identity is an important factor in the translation of the work:
I don’t know exactly how. It just happened without me realizing. Over the years, I’ve ended up translating a good number of first and second works by women writers, mostly novels and short fiction.
Their works are, of course, all pretty different — how could they not be? But they do have some common traits which I feel responsible to convey. They’re ambitious. They’re serious about literature. They are charged with energy. And they stick to their own aims and rules, even if they get labelled before they’ve made it off the press. The gender and age of the writers are not what make the works similar. But those factors can lead the works to be read with certain preconceptions in mind. So I do what I can to challenge those.
In the case of Sally Rooney I also felt a new kind of responsibility, because when I started translating her works, the Spanish translation of Conversations with Friends had already been published and widely read. And I could almost physically feel the weight of expectation around her second novel while I was working on it.
Not all authors are equally popular in every language. But as Pellisa points out, if an author proves popular in translation, the pressure on translators to make sure that their next works also do well can mount. But the same can be true when a book has already proven popular elsewhere by the time a translator is asked to bring the same success to their language.
Vesna Velkovrh Bukilica specialises in translating novels from Spanish and English into Slovene, with her authors including Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges and Arundhati Roy. For Vesna, Rooney’s writing style is both an appeal and a challenge of the work:
Sally Rooney entered my life by way of delightful serendipity. Two different publishing houses had bought the rights for her first two novels, and when it came to choosing the translator, they both thought of me. So I was offered both Conversations with Friends and Normal People at almost the same time, in early January 2019.
My work translating the two novels partly overlapped. Obviously, by the time I started my translation of the second novel I was already very familiar with Rooney’s unique voice – restrained and at the same time so acutely observant, so attuned to the subtleties of the unsaid, of the under-said, of people’s doing and undoing. And yet, the second novel was a greater challenge to me. It is written entirely in the present tense – which is highly unusual for the Slovene language. So I wasn’t sure that it would work. Both novels have gone on to be popular. So I may have underestimated the actual narrative flexibility of our living language.
Eventually, I was also offered the third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. I make it a point never to read the whole text before starting a translation. So having already translated two of Rooney’s books, this one came as a surprise. I was suddenly confronted with new stylistic nuances with stunningly evocative effects. Of all three books, this one has been the greatest challenge for me. It may also be the one that proves most definitively that Sally Rooney’s work can, and does, speak to any generation, though they address the specific concerns “millennials” face. The fundamental human yearnings – and vulnerabilities – seem to remain constant throughout the ages, even as technology changes.
In a world of instant communication, it can be all too easy to take for granted the work of literary translators, who connect people around the world across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Automatic forms of translation have changed the way that many non-literary translators work today. But it is challenges like the sensitivity to style, the sense of respect for an author’s work, and the engagement with the human experience that makes the translation of literature a uniquely human endeavour.