The translator is an extremely interesting figure, especially in the realm of world literature. Indeed, the translator is perhaps the last vestige of a medieval European sense of literature – that is to say, they are today’s anonymous figures of literature.
Sergio Waisman gets it right when he says, “translating a text is a thoroughly odd experience: you produce an entire text that is yours, you write it, you put it down on paper, you undertake your stylistic and syntactic decisions – but when you are done, you sign someone else’s name to it instead of your own.” Translation is an act of creation, just as surely as is the penning of any other kind of manuscript, but the translator “disappears” below the name of the author. There is, then, need for a corrective.
Like Waisman, I don’t think translators simply substitute one linguistic code for another – the event of literature operates in more ways than such an account of substitution assumes. Isn’t it for this reason that we all lament the Naoki Yanases of this world, those who take on the “untranslatable” works – such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake – and end up creating a new language within the established?
Why submerge such an effort under the name of Joyce? From nearly every perspective, nearly every vantage point, Naoki Yanase wrote Finnegan’s Wake. No, that’s not quite right – Yanase wrote “Finnegan” Shinkoki.
The similarity between the texts – Finnegan’s Wake and “Finnegan” Shinkoki – compel us to make comparison, but these are different books that have been written by different people. Under such conditions, it is no longer possible to talk of the translation of any text as a derivative of another. The “translation” is its own text, its own presence, and it owes only as much of its life to that other incarnation – that other text – as all texts do to those that have gone before them (so says Julia Kristeva).
The result? Well, the result is that those books we read in translation are properly the work of “the translator” and not “the author,” as we might think of that function. At the very least, we should begin to recognize the effort of the translator in the way we talk and write about texts. Surely it is more accurate than not to talk of Season of Migration to the North by Salih-Johnson Davis; The Return of the Water Spirit by Pepetela-Mitras…