What goes into a translation: lessons learned from a Visiting Arts translation workshop

For UK based Persian to English translator Shahab Vaezzadeh, fiction translation is a rarity. It’s something a little bit different from his day-to-day commercial translation work. Translating literature is more collaborative and as language is generally freer in literature than British Council briefings its translation can throw up different problems to commercial works, i.e. what should be done with the longer sentences, higher frequency of adjectives and tendency towards onomatopoeic words that are far more common in Persian than English? Shahab addressed all these issues at the Contemporary Iranian Literature, Translation and Performance Workshop, put on by Visiting Arts. As well as other issues that are relevant to the publishing of translated literature.

Visiting Arts, organised the event alongside Comma Press and the Edinburgh Iranian Festival, as a means to a means to promote Iranian literature and translation in the UK, which they’ve been doing for the last ten years. The event included a workshop on live translation as performance art taken by Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh, an alumnus of the Visiting Arts’ National Centre for Arts residency programme. Nazli also gave a reading of some of her recent writing. Ra Page, CEO of Comma Press, attended the workshop in order to discuss the role of the publisher in works of translation, and Shahab Skyped in and talked about his life as a translator and experience of working with Ra on The Book of Tehran, Comma Press’ new title.

In the morning, the event kicked-off with Nazli’s reading. It was a section, of her not yet finished, feminist reinterpretation of the Ancient Greek story of Media. Nazli wanted the events’ attendees (predominantly University of Edinburgh Persian students) to listen to her reading with the notions of time, body and space in mind. It was interesting hearing what everyone thought about Nazli’s story with regards to these themes because there were multiple interpretations, which highlights how language – in the sense of spoken word – leaves much unsaid. When writing prose, authors communicate time, body and space through their words, so maybe even the act of writing in itself is a form of translation. But, that’s an issue for another day.

Nazli then took the attendees through performance and live translation exercises. One of which involved the University students walking around the room live translating the text written by Nazli from English to Persian, changing direction each time they hit a section particularly emotive to them. As a spectator, it was wild to see people translating two substantially different languages so fast. It was also interesting to hear how different each students version of the text was; they were each changing direction at different times, emphasising different words and delivering different scripts on the spot. This highlights how personal translation can be, which can throw up some problems when it comes to book publishing.

When discussing translation as a whole Persian to English translator Shahab found that the three most important things to consider are: content, purpose and audience. He recalled how when working on the short story he translated for the Book of Tehran there was an interesting dynamic between the editor, translator and author. In part because the author had a good grasp of English, so could take issue with how specific English phrases felt to him, and also because of questions from the editor, Ra, who asked about the wording of the translation and whether specific language quirks in the translation were relevant to the original or aspects of Iranian culture that can’t translate into English in an attempt to find how it could be translated into its truest version, faithful to the original and understandable in English. There are so many variables at play.

One of the main things to take away from this workshop is the sheer number of dilemmas faced when translating anything as personal as literature. Nazlim’s performance-based exercises and emphasis on time, body and space highlighted that ultimately everything is up for interpretation; someone’s wink is somebody else’s twitch and nobody knows the author intent apart from them. When you bring into that Shahab’s main considerations for translation: content, purpose and audience, as well as the publisher’s consideration of readability and again audience (is it the same audience as the translators?) Where does that leave us? Authors may not even write with an audience in consideration, so when that work is translated who is it for. Translation is a team effort and this Visiting Arts workshop highlighted that.

I think that translation is all the more interesting because of the work that goes into a book behind the scenes. While it is jarring to think that some of the books I love, and some of the sentences in those books, may misrepresent the original intent or meaning of the author, it doesn’t mean that the joy I’ve taken from the books and sentences isn’t real. The difference is it’s not just the author’s name on the cover that matters because a work of translation is a product created by a team: an author; a translator; and an editor.

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