Recently, I’ve been reading… translators in fiction (part one)

A recent article in The New Yorker on Katie Kitamura’s upcoming novel A Separation reveals that the narrator “is a literary translator, a job that appeals to her because of its ‘potential for passivity.’ She could just as well have been a medium, she says.”


Naturally, this raised a few eyebrows amongst professional translators on social media, though in an interview with Jezebel, Kitamura goes deeper, explaining: “I think translation is such a funny thing. One of my translators said to me, ‘I’m looking forward to writing your book in French,’ which is incredibly accurate. I think that’s what translation is; it’s writing a book, translators are co-authors on any book.”

Well, that acknowledgement that should go at least some of the way towards making up for any perceived slight against translators, eh?

Not so fast though, as Kitamura continues “[s]ometimes the authority of authorship is something translators don’t always claim and, I think, that’s something about the way [the narrator] tells her story. She doesn’t necessarily claim responsibility for that authority but, at the same time, she’s definitely wielding it and using it: she’s an unreliable narrator, she’s manipulating the story, she says things that are untrue, she conceals information, reveals information when she wants to, she does things that are morally questionable.”

Now, before we all grab our pitchforks in outrage at the suggestion that translators are manipulative, unreliable and morally questionable, it’s worth bearing in mind that Kitamura’s narrator is far from the first character in a novel who has worked as a translator. And after all, no detail as important as a character’s profession in any serious work of literature is decided “just because” – it’s a carefully selected piece of background information that informs how the reader thinks and feels about the character. Perhaps taking a look at some other fictional translators could be revealing about the way translators are perceived?


Recently, I’ve been reading… translators in fiction (part one):

(Note, this is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather just some examples that I’ve come across in my own reading. Cath Cellier-Smart has published a very comprehensive list including some non-English language books)

1. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky


(Quote above taken from the new English translation by Oliver Ready, which I wholeheartedly recommend over other, older translations)

If you thought Kitamura’s depiction of translators as passive and untrustworthy was bad, then perhaps you ought to stay away from this classic of Russian literature, as it is revealed that, while not attempting to avoid the clutches of the law or suffering from existential angst, down-on-his-luck protagonist and archetypal anti-hero Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov occasionally takes translation jobs to earn a little money.

Shortly after Raskolnikov has committed the titular crime, he arrives – seemingly by accident – at the home of his friend, the similarly impoverished Dmitri Razumikhin. Razumikhin reveals that he is currently working on some translations and generously offers Raskolnikov some money and a portion of the work, for which he has been paid up front.

Razumikhin is an amiable, kind-hearted character, but he is also hustling to work his way out of his poverty and as such is willing to commit some morally questionable deeds to make some money. For the translator Razumikhin, these morally questionable deeds include lining up pointless, self-evident texts which he admits are “low-grade quackery” for translation and publication, flagrantly inflating the page count of his translations so that he can charge more to the public, and accepting jobs that he is not really qualified for. In fact, he seems to see it as a stroke of luck that Raskolnikov has stumbled in, as he can take the German translation off his hands, admitting “for one thing, my spelling’s poor, and, for another, my German’s diabolical.”

The already uneasy Raskolnikov seems to find the whole thing a touch distasteful, and refuses the work. Bear in mind that the morally questionable deeds he is prepared to commit for money include robbing and murdering an elderly pawnbroker and her sister with an axe. Yikes.

There is, of course, something more at work here: the offer of translation work blows one of Raskolnikov’s rationales for having turned to murder and robbery out of the water. It was not the only way for him to have made some money, a desperate last resort – Razumikhin is proof that there are all sorts of ways for educated individuals (who are willing to bend their morals a little) to make some quick cash.

And so his guilt-driven existential crisis grows worse. Throughout Crime and Punishment, Razumikhin is held up as a foil to Raskolnikov, and this translation episode serves to show us, by contrast to Razumikhin, Raskolnikov’s lethargy and the duality of his character: he is constantly asserting his own Napoleonic genius, but shies away from actually applying his intellect when a job is offered to him.

The idea of doubles and duality recurs throughout Dostoyevsky’s work (see also Notes from the Underground and, naturally, The Double), and perhaps here he uses bilingualism and translation to mirror Raskolnikov’s cognitive dissonance. In Crime and Punishment, the profession translator is yet another way for Raskolnikov to be two things at once: his ability to speak more than one language another signpost of his duality – after all, there are studies that suggest bilingual people have different personalities when speaking each language and that our morals (which are at the very heart of the novel) may even shift from one language to another.

2. Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson


Doubling also seems to be a concern for the unnamed narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Here, though, the sense is less of internal struggle, but rather of ambiguity or even a kind of androgyny.

You see, the narrator (who is a translator by trade) never reveals their own gender, offering only suggestions that point one way as incidental details, which are later refuted by details that suggest the opposite. This is particularly surprising in a novel that is so focused on the corporeal and the body: specifically, the body of the narrator’s lover Louise.

As well as serving as a signpost of this sense of doubling, the narrator’s work as a translator is also relevant to their main goal in the novel. Translators take something which they understand intimately and put it into words as faithfully as they can in a language that others can understand, sharing that intimate knowledge with a wider audience. And this is exactly what the narrator seeks to do throughout, attempting to ‘translate’ Louise’s body to the page, right down to a molecular level.

It is a remarkable piece of work, and sometimes an uncomfortable read, particularly when the line between passionate study and obsession seems to blur.

Unmissable for any translator, though, is the hilarious library scene, which will sound at least slightly familiar to anyone who has ever had to take extreme measures to meet a deadline. Translating in an age before the internet and CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tools, the narrator heads to the British Library in London, where they are tethered to a desk using handcuffs, asking their neighbour to only let them go once their work is done. Unfortunately, he disappears with the key, and the hapless narrator is banned from their main place of work for causing wilful (though they change the form to read “accidental”) damage to library property.

3. The Translator – Leila Aboulela


I’m sure the above description will also ring true for plenty of translators too. That Aboulela mentions her protagonist’s struggles of dealing with less than perfect source texts is typical of the quietly observant nature and gentle consideration that characterises The Translator.

Protagonist Sammar is a Sudanese Muslim living in Scotland, a young widow living on a different continent from her young son. She works as an Arabic translator at the University of Aberdeen, in a department headed by Rae Isles, a British professor of Eastern Studies and Islam. Here, the role of a translator is not to contain a duality, but rather to form one half of a bridge between two distant cultures: Sammar spanning from East to West while Rae spans from West to East. The Translator is about the tenderness with which they meet in the middle.

Though first published in 1999, The Translator is almost uncannily prescient about the ongoing situation of the Middle East and Western interventionism which is so inescapable in 2017. In fact, Rae, speaking about the extremists who have been captured and held in Egypt, who Sammar will eventually be sent to interpret for, mentions that “they have no realistic policies, no clear idea of how to implement what they vaguely call ‘Islamic economics’ or an ‘Islamic state’.”

What is striking about The Translator is the gentle lyricism of Aboulela’s prose, and its gossamer-light touch in depicting the development of Sammar and Rae’s relationship, and of the clash of East and West. In times like these, it could hardly be more relevant reading.

Stay tuned for part two, where we’ll take a look at some translators in the works of Paul Auster, Umberto Eco and Kurt Vonnegut. Got a favourite translator character? Let me know in the comments or over on Twitter!

Quotes taken from:

  • Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Oliver Ready translation), Penguin, 2014
  • Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson, Vintage, 1993
  • The Translator – Leila Aboulela, Polygon, 1999

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