Haydn Trowell: translation and creativity

Haydn Trowell is one of five translators involved in the Graphic Translation event on Thursday 23 June, where we will be exploring the art of translation through live translation of the work of Japanese anti-nuclear art collective ODZ. He spoke with us about the creativity involved with translating literary work and the challenges of cross-cultural translation.

How did you first get into translating?
I’ve always had an interest in literature, and in languages, both of which form my academic background. This developed into an interest in Japanese literature, so for me getting into translation was a natural development. I had tried my hand at some translation beforehand, but it’s thanks to my studies in Monash University’s Master of Translation Studies programme that I’ve been able to hone my skills.

How would you describe your creative process when translating? 
My creative approach involves several stages. I’ll first read a text in a general sense, then, I might do a more analytical reading, researching those aspects that need further clarification, and identifying those passages that might require more detailed consideration. Then comes the translation itself. In literary translation in particular, what’s important isn’t just what is said, but also how it’s said, and the effects of how it’s said, so it’s often justified to diverge from the literal meaning in order to convey these things, which requires an eye for style on the part of the translator. In this respect at least, literary translation is quite similar to other forms of creative writing.

How important is it to be aware of the social and political history of the languages you are translating from and in to?
It’s very important to be aware of the social and political history of the languages and cultures that one is translating. A linguistic knowledge of a language by itself isn’t enough to produce adequate translations if one is not also aware of the cultural elements that are always in the background of a text. Culture, which includes social and political history, is a lot like an iceberg: there’s the part that you can see, but then there’s a whole lot more that you can’t see. What might be assumed knowledge in one culture, and to one readership, may be completely unknown to another, and it’s the job of the translator to identify these things and find ways of dealing with them appropriately.

What are some of the challenges of cross-cultural translation, particularly surrounding the translation of traumatic content?
Most challenges that I’ve come across are the result of non-equivalence between cultures. If we think of cultures as encyclopaedias that detail collective historical, social, and expressive memory, then there will often be cases where an entry in one encyclopaedia has no corresponding entry in another, or even cases where entries may be similar at their surface levels but quite different upon closer analysis. Resolving these often requires some creative interventions.
When it comes to traumatic content, there are cases where it might be shared in a culture, and there are cases where it might be more specific to a particular work. But any text, whether its a translation or not, cannot have the same level of impact as the traumatic experience that it depicts, and so authors generally try address this kind of crisis of representation in their original works. Like with any other translation, the translator needs to be able to analyse textual features like this, and to devise their own strategies for faithfully conveying them in their translation.

What are some of the benefits of cross-cultural translation?
If I can return to my metaphor of cultures being like encyclopaedias, the benefit of translation across cultures is that it can provide a glimpse of an encyclopaedia to which another culture might not have been exposed before, and therefore open avenues to new modes of expression and thought, which can only serve to further enrich the receiving culture.

Considering speculation about the rise in technological translation tools, what are your thoughts on the future of translation as a studied art form?
While translation itself has existed by necessity since before the beginning of recorded history, Translation Studies as an academic discipline in its own right ranks among the younger areas of study, becoming recognised as such only starting in the 1950s. Which interestingly enough is around the same time that the first machine translation experiments were taking place, so one might say that translation as a studied discipline has always existed alongside technological translation tools. I don’t think that that will change any time soon. Like any tool, they are valuable to those who understand their strengths and limitations, and know how to use them to their full advantage, but a tool is after all only as useful as its user.

Who are some of your favourite translators?
A lot of people, when they read a translated work of literature, tend to ascribe its stylistic qualities solely to the author of the original text, without taking into account the role of the translator as a writer too. This kind of treating the translator as invisible has been the subject of some criticism, but I too have been guilty of this, particularly when I was first reading Japanese literature in translation. Since I’ve become proficient in the language, and become a translator myself, however, I’ve come to understand just how much many of the qualities that I like about those texts that first sparked my interest are actually the result of the translators’ efforts and abilities. So I think that some of my favourite translators would be people such as Edward Seidensticker and Donald Keene, whose works played a considerable role in sparking my interest in Japanese literature in the first place.


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Haydn Trowell is a translator from Japanese with a background in Literary Studies and Creative Writing, and is currently undertaking a Master’s Degree in Translation Studies at Monash University.

Graphic Translation is on Thursday 23 June, 6.30pm at Bella Union.