When I first examined the issue of translating fiction, the literary genre that most interests me, as opposed to creating fiction, I conceptualized it as: “Why literary translators don’t write their own novels.” In other words, I thought of it not as an interrogation, but as an exposition, for I could think of a number of reasons why translators don’t write novels, and I’ll list those shortly. But first I needed to ensure that my assumption was correct, that translators, almost by definition, do not write novels. Proving that, of course, leads us to the black swan theory. So I’ll hedge my bet by stating that I do not know any translators of fiction—and I know quite a few of them—who write their own novels and stories. Does that mean that the two categories of artists are always and can only be mutually exclusive, that one is either a writer or a translator, never both? Of course not. There are, in fact, any number of writers who also translate. The names Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, and Vladimir Nabokov spring to mind. But, let’s face it, no matter how involved they are/were, they are known to all as writers, not translators, despite the fact that Auster is often cited for his translations of French writers, or that Nabokov’s view of a translator’s obligation to the original is well known and quite controversial (I, for one, reject it).
At this point, we need to ask the question: Who writes, and who translates? Let’s start with the latter. Mostly, I think, it is people who love “language” more than they love “literature” (strictly a matter of degree!). Academics in the many national literatures, who seem to fit that definition, are among the most prevalent translators of literary texts, sometimes in support of scholarly work, sometimes to make foreign literatures available to students who do not know the foreign language well, and sometimes to add to the corpus of world literature in translation. Then why don’t they also write, since they must, in addition to being proficient in at least two languages, love literature and take great joy in reading and working on it? There are a number of possible reasons.
I suspect that most translators, academic or not, love what they do. The satisfaction garnered in working closely with a foreign text and, through the judicious and often inspired search for the mot juste, rendering it into a new work as fine as the original, is palpable. Most translators would not find this fulfillment less valuable than writing creative works of their own. In fact, they take pride in precisely what it is they do. Why, they might ask, write a bad novel when I can translate a good one? To them it is a high calling. Many writers, I’m afraid, would not subscribe to this claim, wanting their work to reach the widest possible audience, yet seldom approving of translated versions of their work. But there are exceptions: Goethe is on record as defining literary translation “one of the most important and dignified enterprises in the general commerce of the world.” Pushkin has called the translator “a courier of the human spirit,” and Borges has written: “Perhaps . . . the translator’s work is more subtle, more civilized than that of the writer: the translator clearly comes after the writer. Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization.” (Thanks to Robert Wechsler for these.)