Episode Four: Finding the Rhythm
What exactly does a translator do? Despite the Man Booker International literary prize and other initiatives acknowledging the important role translators play in bringing foreign literature to readers, there’s still little understanding of what's actually involved in the craft of translation.
In this episode, Matthew Hyde, who translates from Russian and Estonian, details how he went from being a government translator in the UK to a literary translator in Estonia. He also tackles the misconception that translation is simply swapping words. In addition to his translation work, Matthew is a jazz musician who plays double bass, and draws some interesting parallels between music and writing.
The Think in Translation podcast is a literary podcast series featuring international authors, translators, publishers and booksellers, with the aim of making translated books accessible to all readers.
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You’re listening to Think in Translation, a literary podcast from Vagabond Voices in Glasgow. The series is made up of conversations with international authors, translators, publishers, and booksellers, with the aim of making translated books more accessible. Episodes air every second Thursday.
This week's guest is Matthew Hyde. He is a translator of Estonian and Russian literature, and he’s had an interesting journey to literary translation, which he’s going to talk about a little bit here. He also discusses what is overlooked when we think about translation, and the links between translating fiction and creating music.
My name’s Matthew Hyde and I’m a translator from Estonian and Russian. I’ve been doing that now for about four years – that is I’ve been doing literary translation for about four years. And, I’ve translated one book already for Vagabond Voices, which was Rein Raud’s Death of the Perfect Sentence. That was from Estonian. I'm now working on a book from Russian, by a writer called Andrei Ivanov. The book’s called Hanuman’s Journey to Lolland, and that’s also going to be published by Vagabond Voices this year.
I started as a translator a long time ago, but it wasn’t literary translation. I had studied Russian at university in the early nineties – the first half of the nineties – and after graduating I wanted a way to use my Russian but I also wanted to be able to earn myself a living and start a career in the UK, so I actually started working for GCHQ, and the kind of translation I was doing there was obviously not very literary, it was quite technical, quite related to military-industrial topics, but I can’t obviously go into too much detail about that.
I only actually lasted there two years, and then my career took me in a different direction. I joined the foreign office, I became a diplomat, and I worked in London, Moscow and Estonia. And it wasn’t until actually I left that job, which was five years ago now, that I started learning Estonian, and then I started translating Estonian literature really as a way of learning more about this country which has become my new homeland.
It’s a while since I’ve read myself anything that’s been translated. There’s a couple of reasons for that. One, obviously if you’re a native speaker of English and also if you speak Russian, that gives you a huge amount that you can actually read in the original without it being translated. But the other thing, I’ve found that since I’ve been a literary translator is that, when I start reading something that’s translated, I find it hard not to read it with a slightly critical eye, and kind of find ways in which slight improvements could be made or something because, you know the cliché is that a translation is never finished, so even when something’s been published, there might still be some kind of tiny wrinkles in English which could have been smoothed out.
I’m going to mention a book which actually wasn’t translated, but it could have been translated, and the reason is, is that it was written by a guy called Aleksandar Hemon, who is a writer originally from Bosnia, but he moved to the States in the early nineties, and he started writing in English. So he’s writing in English which isn’t his mother tongue. Why it’s interesting to a translator is that it actually gives you an idea of how flexible English can be, and also, even if the English contains ... sounds slightly foreign in places actually, it shows you as a translator, that perhaps a little bit of foreignness is acceptable in your finished product – in the English, even though, one of our main objectives is to produce a translation which sounds like it could have been written in English. Still, if you see a writer who’s writing in English and it’s not their native language, that can really open up your perspective as to the flexibility of English. And the writer, Aleksandar Hemon, is absolutely wonderful, because you get a feeling of him actually playing with the language and almost discovering the language in the process of writing – actually taking some sort of delight from exploring it.
We want to produce translations which sound like they could almost have been written in English in the original, but that’s actually... You know... In a sense it’s an impossible task, because, the reader’s always going to know they’re reading a translation. You know, they’re going to see the writer came from a different country, has got a foreign name etc. And there’s always going to be an element of foreignness, still, within the translation. And if you can bring something new, perhaps something colourful, something slightly different, to English – you know import something into English from a foreign language, in a way which still will lead to a smooth English which isn’t going to bother the reader too much, I think that’s really a powerful thing that you can do as a translator.
Obviously, the language can benefit but in general our culture as well. If you look at the way in which English literature has developed, English writers have always been influenced by foreign writers, many of whom they’ve read in translation, not in the original. Because if you only read literature in the original then you’re generally going to be quite limited, you know, to who you can read than if you’re kind of a polyglot. So yeah, our writers, our literary culture in the UK, has been very much influenced by literature in translation.
Obviously Estonian and English are very different languages. For example, Estonian doesn’t have a future tense in the same way that English does. It’ll often use like the present continuous instead. That can lead to some kind of ambiguity. But I think these problems come up with all languages, and always come up with translation. And, I mean that’s the task of the translator, to find a way around these differences. I mean, there’s always been this debate about, is it the case that some things are not translatable. I think literature is always translatable. You’ve just got to find the right way of doing it.
I think translation is very important as a means of learning about the rest of the world, and about other countries and other peoples, and I think, in the age we’re living in now, with the Brexit referendum in the UK, and Trump in the US, it does tend to be... There does seem to be a tendency for countries to become more insular and turn in on themselves, and a tendency to perhaps view the foreigner, the outsider, as a threat in some way or to be blamed in some way for our domestic problems, in a way in which the EU has been blamed. And translation is obviously vital in this environment, so that people can continue to learn about other countries, other people around the world, and discover that, you know, they are different in some ways, but ultimately very similar as well.
It’s hard maybe for me to say because I haven’t been involved in literary translation for that long. Only the last four years really, but it’s good to see that there are now these literary awards where the prize is being given jointly to the author and the translator as in the case of the Man Booker International, and also the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development literary award, where the prize is shared again between the translator and the writer. So there does seem to be recognition at quite a high level that the translator plays a very important role.
The other side though to this is that I get the feeling that still there isn’t really much understanding of what translators actually do. Not just amongst, you know, as it were, lay people, but even amongst people in the UK, for example, who have studied languages or who read literature or even who read literature in translation. They don’t really have much idea of what a translator does, and I think there’s been a failure on the part of translators to really talk about themselves. I’d like to see more articles in newspapers or literary journals where translators are perhaps explaining what they do a bit more. There seems to be a lot of ignorance about it.
I do think that people tend to see translation as basically just swapping words around. You know, you’re basically just like a dictionary, and every word in one language has a direct equivalent in the other language, and that’s just not the case. You know, languages are very different to one another, and there’s always going to be very many different ways of translating just one sentence. You know, if you give a piece of text to ten different literary translators, you’ll get ten different translations.
And really what the translator has to do, he has to inhabit the mental world of the writer to fully understand what the writer was trying to achieve in the original language, what he was trying to express, what he was feeling, what he was seeing, and then to put that into English ¬– to express that in English, you know, in a language which is very different to the original language, which gives you different possibilities for creative expression. So there’s far more going on there than what people might realise from the outside.
I mean I think people like to think when they read literature in translation that they have a kind of direct, unmediated route to the original and to the writer, but that’s not the case. What you’re reading is actually the text, the English that’s been written by the translator. Even though obviously it’s based very very closely on what the original writer has written, it’s still the translator’s text. You’re experiencing the language that the translator has written.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is that, in the UK in particular, translators tend to be, you know, obviously people with language degrees – primarily linguists who’ve studied languages. It seems to me that often literary translators haven’t actually studied literature, formally, and speaking for myself, the more I translate, the more I realise actually I should be reading a lot more in English – you know, English literature – because that gives you a much deeper insight into the possibilities of your own language, which you’re not really going to be able to explore as well otherwise.
Ultimately, as a literary translator, you do have to be able to write. You have to understand the original – that’s very very important, and you couldn’t do it without that – but then you have to actually be able to turn that into literary English. The kind of English which a writer would write in English. And you know, to do that you really have to read a lot of English literature in the original. I think it seems that that sometimes has been neglected when we’re looking at the way in which literary translators are trained. There’s more focus on language studies.
I don’t want to speak too generally. I don’t know that many other literary translators, but I just have the feeling that sometimes there’s been more focus in terms of their educational background on learning languages, rather than on reading literature, studying literature, and writing in English.
You know, people are talking about machine translation quite a lot and Google translate, and in some ways actually I find it quite heartening that I’m involved in a profession or creative practice that actually still seems fairly immune to automisation because, at least in terms of literary translation, I don’t think that Google translate and other machine translation tools are really anywhere near being ready to do that... yet. And I think the reason for that – I mean obviously it’s quite a large subject ¬– but the reason for that is that ultimately literature, literary style is quite unpredictable. Obviously writers are always finding new ways of expressing themselves and new ways to use language.
Now computers when they translate tend to... The system they use is to compare the texts they’re translating against databases of similar texts or similar words and phrases that have already been translated, so they’re always going to be – computers are always going to be – tripped up by ways in which the writer has used the language in original and unexpected ways. So I can’t see computers being used to do literary translation for some time yet, even though I’d never say never. It might eventually happen.
Humans aren’t binary like computers, and human expression is far more subtle and complex than that. And ultimately the language, literature, is a very human thing, which I think computers aren’t gonna... Computers aren’t actually able to understand it or feel it, because, you know, they’re not human.
It is about five years ago that I left my job in the foreign office. I was working in the embassy here in Tallinn. That’s when I started properly learning Estonian, and when I started properly studying the double bass and practising, and these two things have kind of developed side by side. So when I started writing jazz music, then it seemed natural that the titles of the compositions, for example, were Estonian. They just seemed to kind of spring up from my life in Estonia, and I found it actually quite hard to give them English titles.
I mean there certainly are very many similarities between music and language – it’s maybe quite a big subject to get into now. But I think one thing I’ve noticed is this question of rhythm and pace when you’re writing – that’s very important in literature, I think, and that’s something which obviously is really central to music as well.
I think one of the things that excites me about translation is giving a voice to other people, to other cultures, that maybe otherwise wouldn’t be noticed in the English-speaking world. And as far as Estonia is concerned, then you know, to be honest, not that many people outside of Estonia, or in the UK in particular, actually know that much about Estonia, about its history, and its culture, and so you’re involved in an important form of cultural diplomacy really that helps to tell the rest of the world about this country.
But that actually raises an interesting question is you know, as a translator, what do you choose to tell, or what stories do you choose to bring across, and which writers do you translate, and which parts of the culture, the history, do you want to highlight? And there can be a tendency for there perhaps to be a kind of accepted mainstream view of what Estonia is – maybe it’s connected to this idea of kind of country branding and how the country wants to project itself to the outside world. But within Estonia there may be other hidden stories that people aren’t going to know about.
One interesting thing about Estonia is that there’s a Russian minority here, and one of the writers I’m translating – Andrei Ivanov – is a Russian-Estonian, and in a mainstream Estonian culture perhaps there isn’t so much known about that side of Estonian culture. So I think you can have a role as a translator to bring these stories into the open and help to communicate them to the rest of the world.
Thanks for listening to Think in Translation. This show is made possible by the support of The Space and Creative Scotland. For more information about Vagabond Voices and Think in Translation, including blog posts exploring translation from various angles, visit vagabondvoices.co.uk.
Our music, “Puid Metsa”, is written and performed by Matthew Hyde (yes, that Matthew Hyde) and his Quintet.
The show is produced and edited by Alex Blott.