Our “Translator Relay” series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. This month, Katherine Silver passed the baton to Peter Constantine, an award-winning polyglot whose honors include The PEN/Book of the Month Club Translation Prize, the Koret Jewish Book Award, and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize. He was a 2012 Ellen Maria Gorrissen Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.
What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
I translate into English from a number of European languages to which I am related in different ways. My father was British, and English is my native tongue, but I grew up in Greece – so Greek is an important language for me; German even more so, as my mother was from Austria, and we spoke German at home. In our Austrian village, in the northern borderlands, a mix of Slovak and Czech was also spoken. And then most of my classes in high school in Athens were in Russian. So I was exposed to a number of languages while I was growing up. I had intended to study either Russian literature or Central Asian languages in the former Soviet Union, and though I did not do so and have never lived in Russia, since my early teens I have felt a strong connection to Russian culture and literature. Most of my translation work has been from Russian.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslateable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
One of the recurring difficulties in translation is rendering the unfamiliar for which our language and culture might have no equivalents. Translating a text from a severely endangered European language, such as Halagfresk—now spoken only by a handful of elders on the German islands of Hooge and Langeness—one keeps coming across such untranslatable words and concepts. They exist in a culture and way of life that are entirely foreign to us. In a piece I translated by Haye Hinrichsen, a writer from Langeness, we see islanders creating fuel out of dung—the islands are cold and barren with few trees, so islanders in Hinrichsen’s time (the early 20th century) spent much of the year gathering and processing dung into patties as fuel in order to survive the bitter winters. Over the centuries a specialized dung vocabulary developed: the verb skeernutbriangan, for instance, refers to carting the dung into special dung fields and spreading it out to dry. Tribeln is the trampling of dung by women in stockinged feet, and skualeloot are the “dung districts,” or island areas allocated to specific families, where by common law all the dung was theirs. The only two ways of bringing such Halagfresk concepts into English seem to be to either footnote each term, which could lead to more footnotes than text, or to use descriptive phrases for the specialized vocabulary.
Do you have any translating rituals?
I translate every day. When I am translating a book, I don’t work in extensive drafts: in other words, I don’t begin with a rough translation of the whole book and then go over it. I generally work on a page or two, reading through it and correcting it over the course of a couple of days. With more complex texts—such as the writings of Rousseau or Tolstoy—I also record the original on an Mp3 player and then play it back as I read through my translation.
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
One often thinks of the craft of translation in terms of an actor interpreting a role, or perhaps a musician performing a piece; and yet the translator usually strives to bring as little as possible of his or her personality or self into the rendering. In that sense I see translation more as mimicry—doing as good an impression as possible of the original work in a different language.
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.
I very much enjoyed translating The Essential Rousseau, which Modern Library is bringing out in the spring of 2013—particularly working on Rousseau’s Confessions, with its many layers and nuances. Also The Essential Machiavelli, which I worked on a few years ago—Machiavelli is one of my favorite literary stylists.
Katherine Silver's question: Did you come to literature through translation or to translation through literature?
I think both. As a teenager I was fascinated by the works of Bulgakov, Nabokov, and Isaak Babel—texts that were disallowed or difficult to find in the Soviet Union. Translating the complete works of Isaac Babel, for instance, was a milestone for me. But as a translator one really comes to a work of literature in the way one cannot as a reader—regardless of how closely one reads or studies a text. The translator has to grapple with every sentence in a work, to read both the lines and between the lines, and to weigh every word. So if literature first brought me to translation, the act of translation really opened a deep understanding of literature.