2014 / Saturday

Literary Translations: Out of the Enclave and into the World

Emma Froggatt

Jane Camens calls for translators capable of translating Asian texts.

Jane Camens calls for translators capable of translating Asian texts.

The language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” He said that in German.

It sounds obvious that reading internationally opens up our world with words. Yet the market for international translations in Australia is a tough one. And for the translator, the translation process is even more political.

Julie Rose says the translator is a mediator between two foreign worlds.

Julie Rose says the translator is a mediator between two foreign worlds.

For acclaimed translator Julie Rose, the journey of open worlds and words all began in Burwood, where she had grown up and finished reading the Russian classics by the time she was 12. To date, she has translated works of Racine, Molière, Virilio, Rancière and Bourdieu as well Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, among many others.

“I grew up in a cosmopolitan community where you had Italians and Yugoslavs, White Russians and absolutely everybody. I never had the feeling of growing up in an Anglo-Saxon enclave although a lot of my friends did, and people still do.”

Immediately it resonates. Sydney, confined in cultural hubs, can indeed be constraining. This is why Julie Rose believes in literary translations. She says that reading internationally is “crucial to any educated and rich life”, particularly in Australia.

“Given that we were a British colony and are now colonised by American culture, which could corral people into a narrower view of the word, it’s important that we break out because it’s lonely and limited.”

Jane Camens, Executive Director of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translation Association, despairs for the Australian market of literary translations, particularly of Asian works. She points to Europe and Asia, which are rich with translation work and says Australia has been particularly slow off the mark.

“Now that the world’s gaze shifts increasingly towards Asia, perhaps we are waking up and realising we are missing out on having developed translators capable of translating Asian texts.”

She thinks Australians are more interested in work in international writing mediated through an Australian perspective or author. That’s why Julie Rose’s work is important.

In response to one comment that her work of translation on Les Miserables indicated “an idiomatic wit that is particularly Australian”, Julie says, “I do use a lot of Australianisms. I use a lot of my father. He was a bush poet in his own way, with his own uniquely wonderful language; and he also used a lot of Aussie slang from the thirties and forties which is magical.”

“(Victor) Hugo is very idiomatic,” she says, explaining her use of idioms such as ‘not on your nellie’, and ‘mean as catshit’ or ‘too mean to roll downhill’.

“That’s my father,” she says. “It doesn’t call attention to itself especially as an Australian idiom and I thought ‘why … not?’ All my life I’ve been reading British and American idiom and loving it, why can’t British or American audiences respond in kind? And why is that not suitable to recreating Paris in the 1830s?”

Julie Rose speaks in a forthright, eloquent manner, using expansive hand gestures to emphasise her point. She explains that her heritage goes back to the north of Italy. “I think that comes through in the genes somehow,” she says.

The voice she uses in her rendering of Victor Hugo is notable. The voice of the author sits as a political actor. “That’s what is meant by the author’s agenda,” she says. A translator is a mediator between two foreign worlds.

“My agenda with Hugo was to restore a work that I felt has been censored and tampered with beyond what is reasonable.” She regarded the Charles Wilbur original version of Les Miserables as very respectful to the original, but also very prim. The second translation, by Norman Denny in 1967 was even more prim and euphemistic.

“This is post swinging sixties London,” she says, “and he can’t translate ‘shit’!” Denny’s agenda was to unmix Hugo’s mixed metaphors and iron out the prose to make it readable. Julie Rose disagreed with this.

“I’m fueled by fury and thought … I’d turn the heat up on the idiom.”

She says that by intensifying the atmosphere, she reconnects the reader to the prose, “People say the type setters stopped setting the type because they had to stop and sob.”

She’s “restoring Hugo to Hugo”, she says. Julie Rose loves to translate works that are intrinsically political. The French theorists she translates “challenge social norms”, just as Hugo “incites activism”.

“I am very Euro-centric and I don’t apologise for it. This is part of our cultural history, too.”

When Angelo Loukakis, executive director of the Australian Society of Authors, worked as a publisher, he felt there were never enough translated works coming from Europe.

“Although there was a trickle but coming from the Pacific, there was none at all! And that sort of lag seemed like a cultural problem for Australia,” he says.

Dr Karin Speedy, who has translated Pacific works by George Baudoux and Helene Savoie, believes this may be because Australia isn’t so aware of its place is the Pacific. As a New Zealander, she says she has grown up more aware of the languages of the region: of French dialects and creoles. “There’s a pertinence to those stories for the Anglophone world. It allows an open dialogue of shared and different perspectives.”

Julie Rose agrees. “There are whole other worlds and whole other cultures that we only have real access to from travel and literature.”

The Politics of Translation
May 24, 10-11am
Sydney Dance 2
Linda Jaivin, Jacques Roubaud and Camilla Lackberg: The politics of translation, the notion of fidelity and the relationship between writer and translator.