Our Think in Translation project has been made possible thanks to The Space and Creative Scotland.


Episode Three: Naked Thoughts, Strangely Dressed

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In this episode Latvian writer Pauls Bankovskis explores the delightful strangeness one can find in translated works. He also discusses the author-translator relationship, and what it's like to read his own novels in translation – including the feeling he gets when a translation is right (even if he can't read in the target language).

Since 1993 Pauls has published prolifically in various genres. His focus tends to shift from Latvia’s history, myths and legends to the realities of the recent Soviet past to the possibilities of the future. His novel 18 was published by Vagabond Voices in 2017, and his writing also appears in Comma Press's Book of Riga (2018).

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 episode we’re joined by Pauls Bankovskis, a Latvian author whose novel 18 is a rich idiosyncratic vision of a momentous time in Latvia’s history. Pauls talks about how translations inspire learning, Latvian folk songs, and the best thing about seeing your work translated into another language.

My name is Pauls Bankovskis, I’m a Latvian writer. It’s really hard to pinpoint just one work of translation which is my favourite, because it changes all the time. In one sense I can say that my favourite work of translation is the first Bible translation, conducted by German priest who translated the Latvian Bible for the first time. That was quite a venture because many terms he needed to use for the first time in Latvian written language, was not used before, so he needed to invent them. How to name, let’s say Egyptian priests or Egyptian kings, for the first time in Latvian; how to name the elephant for the first time in Latvian etc.

It was quite a venture for him, and in many senses that’s my favourite work of translation, even though this translation of Bible is considered nowadays like an old-school and there are a couple of others which is broadly used, but in the sense of feeling of language, I feel it’s really important because in Latvian we have a very nice expression about writing and even speaking or, let’s say also translation: we say we “dress up our thoughts”, because our thoughts are considered to be naked, and in order to express them, you need them to be dressed up in the words. Considering translation it’s like wearing different clothes, but the body underneath is the same.

This similarity can go even to the dreams, because we all know that we do not remember our dreams except if we tell them to somebody or if we write them down, so that’s the process of dressing them up and the same process goes when we need to express our thoughts or feelings to some other person or to translate them or to write them down.

When I look upon my work translated, I can almost instantly feel if this translation is right or wrong, even though sometimes this translation is into the language I do not know – like let’s say Finnish or Slovenian. But there is this strange feeling that instantly you can kind of let it go or you feel there is something fishy about that.

I think it’s somehow related to the personality of translator, and this connection between me myself and the translator. I don’t know how it works if author is already died and translator needs to translate his or her work, and there’s no connection possible. That’s a total unknowable position for me because I’m still alive. But from my point of view, it’s always very important, this connection between author and translator, and very personal connection. That’s important.

It’s not just because a translator can always write me an email and ask some questions about the particular details I have in my work – which was just the point a few minutes ago. Some translator just wrote me, “Is that sentence right or is there some kind of misunderstanding about that and etc.?” It’s always nice to have such particularities, but it’s also some kind of connection in the level of understanding which is not in such a particular way as just understanding words or sentences.

I think it’s a question of initial understanding and also of understanding both languages, and that’s a really important point because I think to be a good translator, you need to be good not only the language you are fluent and born into; you need to be fluent in both languages: from which you translate and to which you can translate, and it’s really important to be familiar with and born into both languages – or even some more languages – otherwise that’s kind of a one-way direction and with perhaps some not so good results.

You can tell that almost instantly, that somebody who’s trying to translate you is either not so good at the source language or the language he or she translates to. You can get that feeling almost instantly, if you have the sense of language yourself.

It’s really important. It certainly is possible to translate a work without any direct connection to the author, otherwise there wouldn’t be possible translations of works by Plato or Augustine or many other authors who are not still alive. There is no way to ask any particular questions even to Umberto Eco. He’s passed away.

But if the author is still alive, I suppose it’s always nice to have him around, and have this opportunity to ask particular questions concerning his or her writing: Was this or that right? Is this word the right word you meant to be? I think it’s nice to have a relationship with the author during the translation process.

I’m not pushy in that sense and I’m not trying to change translator’s mind, but I love translators to ask the questions. It’s better to ask hundred questions – even about self-evident things, you thought they are self-evident in your work – than just let them pass and let them go as they are. But probably, in your language these are kind of concepts which can be kind of just a millimetre this or that way, and perhaps for that reason they make sense. So it’s better always ask.

The best thing I can speak about translation of my work is of course in cases when I can read the translation and understand the translated text as well, otherwise if it’s translated into Finnish or Croatian or Slovenian... It’s most important if you can understand this translated work, and if you can instantly feel, “Yes, that’s my writing. That’s my text. I can feel it, and that’s mine.” Even though it’s translated in different language, and that’s amazing feeling. Of course it’s kind of alien quality to it, but at the same time it’s this familiarity – this brings some very special feelings about that.

There are things which can be untranslatable. A very special case of such things are Latvian folk songs. We have millions of them, so for every inhabitant of Latvia there are couple of Latvian folk songs at least. And they are very short verses – just four lines every verse. And they are so tightly packed – with meaning also, and not only just in form – that it’s almost impossible to translate them in any language of the world, except you spend the whole A4-format page in order to explain what is meant in those four lines.

So for every four-line verse, you need A4 page for explaining. If you tried to translate it, it would be either nonsense or huge explanatory work. So in that sense I can say that of course there are things which are almost untranslatable, but you can always try.

In some cases translation can be an inspiration to learn some language. I’m not so sure that it works like that with contemporary languages, but I’m pretty certain that it works like that with ancient Greek or Latin or even Hebrew languages. If you start dealing with all those ancient texts, at one point I’m pretty certain you start to feel temptation to learn more not only about meaning of what’s expressed in those languages, but about languages itself.

So following this recipe, let’s say it so, I think it can work the same way also with contemporary languages. Let’s say I read the latest novel by Karl Ove Knausgård, and suddenly I feel kind of sudden temptation to learn a bit of Norwegian. Why not? I think that would be nice.

Why do we need to translate any fiction in any other language? This is question about translation itself. Not only about fiction or poetry. It’s about why do we need to translate anything in any other language? And I have a really really strong memory about my first time I read the novel by Danish author called Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and I read it in English translation of course because I cannot read Danish. And that was completely different experience I can get in my own language and that’s I think the most important thing about any translation: you can get even more stranger experiences than in your language, but they are put in your language and that fills the gap between you and other people. That’s most important thing I think.

I think the most important next frontier for translation is frontier of machine translation. That’s the line I think it shouldn’t be crossed if we talk about translation of fiction or poetry. We should keep it for ourselves, for humans, because otherwise that’d be too easy for us.

As I told you before, translation is art of asking questions – even if your author of the original is already dead. Anyway, you need to ask questions. Luckily if the author is still alive and you can send an email. Anyway, you ask always plenty of questions. And you need those answers. And I’m not so sure that it will work like that with machines taking over the work of translators.

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 and his Quintet.

The show is produced and edited by Alex Blott.