March 6, 2014

The task of the translator


Jethro Soutar

Jethro Soutar

An article by Spanish and Portuguese translator Jethro Soutar in the Guardian last week has shed light on the role that literary translators sometimes find themselves playing: lifeline.

Soutar is the translator of the novel By Night the Mountain Burns, by the writer Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, who’s from Equatorial Guinea. And a few days ago, he got the news that the Equatorial Guinean government planned to arrest Ávila Laurel, who had signed a letter asking for permission to hold a sit-in protesting police brutality in the capital city of Malabo.

Soutar had consulted with Ávila Laurel on his translation, and so the two were in touch; they had, in fact, met in 2012 when Ávila Laurel was living for a period in Barcelona. They’d become, as many translators and writers do over the course of their professional relationships, friends. (Sometimes, also, the friendship comes first, and the professional relationship second.)

And now Soutar found himself worried for his friend, but also in the unusual position of being, in some way, the voice of his friend—certainly, an informed source with access to the media, and able to speak freely.

Assuming this role, though, can be challenging, and you can see that it rattles Soutar just a little. He writes, “You become a source of hope in times of crisis, and although you haven’t asked for the responsibility, and you maybe find it daunting, you respond as best you can.”

And yet, as he points out in a blogpost for PEN Atlas, it is a role that literary translators have often adopted over the years. For instance, he gives the example of Maureen Freely, Orhan Pamuk‘s translator, who, after Pamuk was charged with insulting Turkishness, “published as many articles as she could about the case in the international press.” A less well-known case is that of Boris Pasternak’s Italian translator, Pietro Zveteremich.

He withdrew his membership from the Italian Communist Party after translating Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, which was published in translation before it was ever published in Russian. The Soviet Union went to great lengths to try and prevent publication, even forcing Pasternak to sign a telegram sent to Zveteremich, asking him to withhold his translation. But Pasternak also sent Zveteremich a handwritten note saying precisely the opposite; Zveteremich licensed publication of his translation and the book was launched to great fanfare and acclaim.

I think that this depth of involvement follows on from the normal “peacetime” work of a translator; the work of literary translation demands such close attention and such inescapable syllable-to-word-to-line-to-paragraph engagement that it seems almost inevitable that it persists. How can you spend month after month as the voice of another person, and not—when the person’s under threat—take up that role again?

In the meantime, Ávila Laurel has two lifelines: he’s currently sending both Soutar and the American translator of his poetry, David Shook, regular text messages, letting them know he’s safe, for now.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.