Freedom and the humanities - Freedom and literary translation.


Institutional Communication Service

23 May 2022

The interview series Reflections on Freedom. A Look at the Humanities in collaboration with the Institute of Italian Studies at USI. In this round, Fabio Pusterla, professor of Italian language and literature at USI, explores the relationship between freedom and literary translation. 


Professor Pusterla, What is literary translation in the first place?

Nowadays, we think of literary translation as a particular form of writing. The "what to write" pre-exists the writing, while the "how to write" is, precisely as in writing on one's own, a constant adventure and invention. In this challenging exercise, the poetics of the author comes into contact with the poetics of the translator, with remarkably complex effects. The text, written in its original language, carries within itself a dialogue with the tradition behind it, with the works that the author had read and cherished, with the time in which it was written. The translation will have to take these aspects into account and, at the same time, however, add new ones: because the language of translation, that is, the unique linguistic and cultural space that the original text will end up inhabiting, opens up in turn reference markers. In this way, translation is indeed an extraordinary force field and not simply, as once thought, a service operation.


To what extent are freedom and translation related?

Freedom is, or should be, to get out of the generality of a term that is often abused today, a constant dialectic between rights and duties, between boundless desire and necessary limitation. In this sense, translation presents remarkable analogies with this vision of freedom: I am free, in translating, to exercise my inventive and creative abilities to the fullest degree; but at the same time, I am bound by the need to be respectful of the original, to establish a loyal dialogue with that text. There was a time when one would have spoken of fidelity: but this is a term that risks creating too many misunderstandings. Better to settle for loyalty, which seems to open a broader and less ambiguous horizon. Loyalty, indeed, leaves a wide margin of action for translators but, at the same time, binds them to an original, profound pact.


What should the translator's activity be? Is there, for example (or should there be), a difference in approach or style between the more "technical" translator and the literary translator?

The two different figures of translators, the literary and the technical translator, obviously have something in common, but they also experience very different situations. Technical translators usually have to work fast; they are paid quite well; they translate texts that have practical utility (leaflets, advertising texts, user manuals, regulations and laws, and so on), and they usually have to be very careful about the precise meaning of words, the technical register to be used, and much less about the stylistic aspects of the text. Literary translators, on the other hand, can usually take their time to get into the text to be translated and work on it at a very leisurely pace; they are paid very little (or sometimes nothing at all), and they feel it is their overriding duty to restore the stylistic tone of the original text. Moreover, technical translators mostly do not choose what to translate: they receive an assignment or a commission and get to work. In the case of the literary translator, however, elective affinities can play an important role. For example, I do not think I would be able to translate a text that I do not like or understand.


In your opinion, can one say that the translator is a second author?

Like I suggested earlier, I think so. But, provided you understand that we do not overemphasize this aspect, we do not give this "second author" too much autonomy or freedom of action. Translators are undoubtedly authors of a sort, even when they cannot boast of a work of their own: they are so in the very act of translating. Still, at the same time, a translator is also always a servant of the original text, feeling the importance and power of the latest at every moment. Seen in this light, translators are, to borrow some very ancient imagery, simultaneously knights and squires (and for that matter, the ever-elusive Angelica of Orlando Furioso, whom we might also be tempted to identify with the poem of the text, will choose Medorus, not one of the more famous knights who pursue her throughout the poem. As if to say, continuing the metaphorical reading, the poem can offer itself as much to the translator/scholar as to the author/knight. It is not necessarily the case that the latter has more merit than the former).


In what ways do you feel connected to the original text?

In addition to what I have already said, I might add one thing to pick up on the part of the question that I overlooked. Years ago, participating as a literary translator in an assembly of technical translators, I asked some of the latter what they thought was the most challenging type of text to translate (in literature, we would say: the most formally complex and structured text, which we often identify with the poetic text). After a not-so-short consultation, they answered me: the instructions for board games are the hardest thing to translate because first you have to learn how to play, and only after that you can try to work on the text. In a way, it seems to me that something similar happens with literary translation: before I begin. I have to enter deeply into the fabric of the original text; I have to learn to inhabit it, listen to its innermost voice, and play its very serious game. And then, try to reinvent these things in another language, in another dimension.


Which things do you feel free to change and which ones do not? How do you figure out what can be done?

There are no absolute answers. If translation is "the supreme critical act, " as some have argued," it will mean that the translator will have to make some critical and painful choices. What aspect of the text I am about to translate seems to me in principle indispensable, so important that I subordinate to that aspect any losses in other areas of the text? In short, translation is always an interpretation, as we see clearly by comparing the work of different translators who have dealt with the same text. To give just one example: how to translate Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, that is, a capital work in which the dialogue between formal clarity and sulfurous semantic aspects is brought to incandescence and perfection? What should be privileged during translation: rhythm, meter, rhyme, rhetorical arrangement of the text, semantic and imaginative background? There is no single answer, let alone one correct answer. The many translators who have tackled this masterpiece have performed multiple interpretive and stylistic operations, none of which is right or wrong.


Should you give any advice to those approaching this profession?

I am not a professional translator. I have never experienced translation as a real job but as a form of exploration of language and culture, different from and supportive of the poetry writing I try to practice. Perhaps, for this reason, I could not give precise advice. Still, I could take up the beautiful and ironic words with which a poet, Aurelio Buletti, responded many years ago to a somewhat similar question: what would you recommend to a young person who intends to devote to poetry? Buletti replied, "modesty, patience and the illusion of immortality." These seem to be clear, habitable words (this, too, if I remember correctly, is an expression of Buletti's), which I could subscribe to. And suppose the first two ingredients, patience and modesty, rightly induce caution and distrust of hyperbole. In that case, the last is that breath of wind and utopia that runs through all forms of writing, including translation.