We are knights errant!

Friday, May 9th, 2003

In the "real world", I am a freelance translator, and my translator’s heart soared when I read this: an open letter to the press from a group of literary translators - my brothers and sisters in arms - who demand that we "knights errant of literature" receive more recognition and respect for the work that we do.

"The problem of translating is actually the very same as that of writing, and the translator is at the heart of it perhaps even more so than the author. He is asked […] to master not just a language, but everything that lies behind it, that is to say, an entire culture, an entire world, an entire way of viewing the world. […] He is asked to pull off this arduous yet impassioned effort without calling attention to himself. […] He is asked to consider the fact that the reader isn’t even aware of him his greatest triumph […] an ascetic, an essentially selfless hero, ready to give his all in exchange for very little and to disappear into the twilight, anonymous and sublime, when the epic deed is accomplished. The translator is literature’s last, true knight errant". (Fruttero & Lucentini, I ferri del mestiere (Tools of the Trade) , Einaudi, Torino 2003)

I love my job, and in general I don’t mind toiling away in solitude and anonymity (whether or not this makes me a "selfless hero" is another matter).

What I do mind is the lack of understanding that surrounds my profession. I abhor the notion that translators are really nothing more than typists transcribing things from one language into another, or that we are merely ciphers through which a text passes to spring full-fledged in all its translated glory on the other side. I am deeply insulted by the attitude that translation is somehow a lesser form of writing (along the lines of "those who can’t write, translate"), and I am driven to despair when confronted with the widespread belief that to be a good translator, all you need is a pocket dictionary and, if possible, a passing familiarity with some foreign language or other.

This open letter is a moving and eloquent appeal for understanding and acknowledgment, and I can only hope that it will go some way to enlightening publishers, editors, reviewers and the general public and encouraging them to give credit where credit is due.

"We have first and last names, behind which lie a passion for a work that is nurtured in silence, as well as a bitter dose of frustration because the world we feel we have every right to occupy, the world of words, of literature, fiction and non-fiction, all too rarely notices and remembers us."

Thanks go to Anna Milano Appel for translating the open letter into English, and to Gail Armstrong (fellow translator!) at Open Brackets for pointing the way to the letter in her blog.


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