Do translators dream in their mother tongue?

19/04/2013 | Hayley

When a person can speak two languages, what language do they think in? This was a question put to a group of translators at a recent art event in Ireland.

Trinity College in Dublin, along with the Ireland Literature Exchange and Dalkey Archive Press, recently launched the Centre for Literary Translation and marked the event by inviting poet, playwright and translator Seamus Heaney to read some of his poetry. The aim of the new centre is to support the art of literary translation and promote the skill.

Six of Heaney’s longest-serving translators joined him at the reading and were on hand to read aloud his poems in their native languages, which included Polish, Italian, Spanish and Russian. Meanwhile, Heaney read his own translation of An Bonnán Buí by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna, which is written in Irish.

Rosita Boland covered the event for the Irish Times and asked the assembled translators whether they thought in their mother tongue or in English, the language they all translate from.

Grigory Kruzhkov said: “I definitely think in Russian,” but Romana Paci revealed: “When I’m in an English-speaking environment, I think in English, rather than Italian.” She added that she also dreams in English.

András Imreh, a Hungarian translator, said he would only ever think in his mother tongue as thought processes could be complicated enough without having them in a different language.

The Centre for Literary Translation will support translators by combining the expertise of publishing, editing and marketing professionals with good translation theory and best practice. The Ireland Literature Exchange will work alongside the centre to ensure readers around the world have access to some of the most renowned works of Irish literature.

Over the years, the exchange has been involved in translating 1,500 famous Irish publications into 51 languages. However, Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College Dublin Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin said: “The work of the literary translator often goes unseen and unacknowledged.” Without these individuals, she noted that the number of books people were able to read today would be dramatically lower. When a book is translated into another language, it helps to build a bridge between countries and cultures, she explained.

Attending the event, the translators agreed that it had been useful visiting Northern Ireland as it helped bring some of Heaney’s poems to life. Each of the translators who work on his poems admits they have a different process to approaching them, with some starting with a particular line, others the poem that most stands out to them and others simply going poem by poem through the book. Some of the translators are also poets, and Romana Paci explained the key to getting it right is to make the translation feel both familiar and new.

One of the most important steps to take when translating literature or poetry is to find the writer’s voice and ensure this is carried through faithfully. It is this that allows the reader to recognise the author of the work they are reading, no matter what language it is written in.

Kruzhkov summed up the art of translation by saying it is an acceptance that something is always lost. He added that the process is rather like “trying to catch the black cat in the black room”.

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