Language. Mobility. Environment.

Literary Translation Workshop with Richard Dixon, Chantal Wright and Mila Milani

Literary Translation Workshop with Richard Dixon, Chantal Wright and Mila Milani

Originally published on The Migration, Identity and Translation Network blog.

5 May 2016

How does translation work? Is it ‘a royal robe with ample folds’ that envelops the source text, or is it just a new skin? And, by the way, how does one become a translator?

These are only a few questions of the many that animated last Thursday’s collective exploration of the mechanisms behind the practice of translation. The event was part of the on-going Italian Research Seminar Series, beautifully organized by Cecilia Muratori and Alessandra Aloisi and kindly sponsored by the HRC. Standard seminar room, round table of roughly twenty people: teachers, researchers, graduate and undergraduate students. ‘How do you become a translator?’ Do not expect a conclusive answer, just plenty of food for thought.

Everyone’s story is different, after all.

Richard Dixon is a trained barrister and translator of big names such as Leopardi, Eco and Calasso. Chantal Wright is an academic and a trained translator herself, working from German, French and Spanish. Mila Milani is senior teaching fellow, with a remarkable background in the publishing industry. What ultimately counts, is ‘understanding how a language works’, Dixon says. In all its nuances. The flexibility of language was largely discussed in parallel with the specific cultural aspects that inevitably feed into the patterns of the publishing market. Milani notes: the reception of certain modes of expression, of certain figures of speech are perceived differently, depending on the target publisher. Chantal Wright looks, for example, at the translation process of German children’s books in the US, and explores how two different receptive sensitivities are at play. To what extent are we losing the original text? And to what extent are we creating a new one?

Dixon looks at sounds: the voicing of the author is crucial (‘if you are lucky enough to be working with authors that are still alive’): the challenge is not negligible – how do you render someone’s voice in a different language? (You can’t dream of someone speaking a language other than the one they normally speak, can you?). Read. Translate. Read again. A translator is a ‘really good reader’, Wright suggests. Translation is just reading, after all – a very close kind of reading, of course.

In the very last session of the workshop, Richard Dixon led his audience to the backstage of his translation performance, granting a unique opportunity to peek into his current translation project of Carlo Emilio Gadda’s La Cognizione del Dolore (not exactly the easiest literary prose in Italian to understand, let alone translate) – how can you translate ‘scaricabarilistico’? Well, I am afraid non-Italian speakers will just have to look past this word for now, because I certainly do not have a clue. But, after all, these are the challenges that make translation a fascinating process, a dynamism that enables the transfer of meaning across languages, a dynamism whose structure, and framework, determine its reception. Last Thursday, translator and audience played with language together, de- and re-constructed in a productive exchange of ideas. Those who were there will perhaps leaf through the Richard Dixon’s English published translation of La Cognizione del Dolore, and then spot that crucial word, that ground-breaking phrase or that essential sound everyone discussed about to then say: ‘I was there’. Does this sound a bit too pretentious? Never underestimate the power of translation!

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