The challenges of literary translation

November 10, 2020 Specific Translations

Literary translation is a translation style which poses major challenges. Like other types of translation, the texts must not be transcribed word for word. However, it is more complicated to preserve the creative and imaginative feel of a literary text while adapting it perfectly to the target language. Our article will look at the characteristics and various challenges of literary translation.   

For this article, we had the privilege to interview Robyn Bligh, a freelance literary translator. She is a British native who translates literary works from British English into French. Some of her answers will be reproduced below to add to our discussion.  

A simple yet precise definition  

Literary translation mainly involves translating fiction. The poetic function of communication is also dominant. To offer the reader this poetic quality, translators carry out extensive preparatory work, which Robyn talked to us about. She mentioned, “The questions that we ask ourselves when translating, the research that we have to do on an unfamiliar topic, on the true meaning of a word, on the usage of words and expressions…” 

Different media can be translated: novels, poetry, history books, magazines, etc. 

The requirements for producing a high-quality literary translation  

Literary translation must follow certain fundamental rules. First and foremost, a perfect command of both languages is required, in order to respect the style of the literary work. The idea, plays on words, author’s style, double meanings, stylistic devices, word choice and cultural references (a song, a festival, etc.) must all be kept in the translation.  

When starting a translation, literary translators’ aim to be faithful to the original. The quality of the final result must be flawless. Robyn adds, “Our product must be received by the target reader, and the aim is that they should not be able to guess that they are reading a translation.” 

The 5 literary translation techniques according to Amparo Hurtado Albir 

Amparo Hurtado Albir is a Spanish teacher, translator and researcher. In her book Traducción & Traductología: Introducción a la traductología (2001), she outlines the 5 following techniques:

  1. Adaptation  

It involves replacing a cultural element with another from the target culture.  

  • Linguistic amplification  

This entails adding linguistic elements to the target text. For example, periphrases to replace a word that has no equivalent.  

  • Compensation 

When using this technique, information or a stylistic effect is added somewhere else in the text when it could not be translated in the same place as in the original.  

  • Elision 

The translator may decide to omit elements that are not needed for the target text to be understood.  

  • Borrowing 

Finally, this technique keeps a word or expression from the source text in the target language.  

Literary translation must be meticulous – it is not a simple task. 

The main difficulties  

The translator must perfectly master the grammar, lexical choice and spirit of the text with perfection. However, he/she must also cope with pitfalls, cultural differences and other challenges.  

Common pitfalls  

  • Barbarism → writing a word that does not exist in a language  
  • Opposite meaning → a translation that means the opposite to what was originally written  
  • Incorrect meaning → choosing one word instead of another 
  • Omission → a refusal to translate certain elements, owing to complexity 
  • Solecism → using syntax which does not exist in a language  

There are also other types of difficulties. Robyn stresses the cultural difficulties: “I do not live in the USA and do not speak American English (I am British). This means that some terms or expressions sometimes have another meaning to the one that I am familiar with.”  

Furthermore, literary translation is incompatible with the machine translation performed by computer programmes as it has a very significant creative component (similarly to marketing translation). 

Do you have a literary work to translate? Trust our experienced literary translators and contact us for an estimate .

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