Naomi Aldermann Talks Translation

British writer Naomi Aldermann hosted a fascinating show on Radio 4 yesterday, which you can listen to online. She spoke to three translators and four British writers about their experiences with being translators and being translated: Frank Wynne, Adriana Hunter and Daniel Hahn, plus AS Byatt, Ian McEwan, Ali Smith and David Baddiel. And she even had a go at translating for herself.

The writers made me very scared. Baddiel in particular seems to have an entrenched distrust of translation, based on the misunderstanding that his message - what the novelist wants to say - is ever going to get across untainted to the reader. I was frankly insulted by some of his comments. But even someone as clever as AS Byatt, who talks about her great relationship with her German translator Melanie Walz, says she prefers not to read translations. Ali Smith, however, is sparkling and intelligent and refers to translation as an ecstatic process. I'm glad the producer gave her the last word.

What the programme does quite cleverly is to juxtapose these writers - who don't know much about the nuts and bolts of how translation gets done, of course - with actual working translators. They all join in on a translation slam with Aldermann, who makes a few choices we wouldn't necessarily make, being a novelist rather than a translator. And they talk about how they work, defending the profession to some extent. They're still not named on the BBC website though. 

I suppose there are a couple of lessons in the show, for me: Firstly, that we still have some way to go, if even novelists take the view that translations are second-class versions, filtered reading that ought to be undertaken with the original at hand to check up on the translator's mistakes. There is some talk of the impossibility of translation, the fact that languages don't correspond one to one, and that English with its rich vocabulary is difficult to render into other languages. But they don't pick up on the idea that this might make English translations a richer experience than some originals, at least in theory. Nor do they think about whether writing itself is "possible" - whether emotions, sights, sounds, smells can be adequately translated into words. Most of the writers seem trapped within the notion that translators work on a word-by-word basis, "swapping in English words for foreign ones" - which made me rather sad. Little talk of tone, rhythm, voice, cadence, or any of those things we put so much effort into capturing.

And the second lesson is about translation metaphors. Have I mentioned before that I abhor translation metaphors? That bloody ferryman, the actor interpreting the playwright's words, the ventriloquist, the cow chewing the writer's cud and passing it through her four stomachs to produce manure. Here, though, the translators talk about translators as musicians - Aldermann uses the rather unfortunate image of an amateur pianist but Hunter picks it up and runs with it, admirably. And I'm coming to believe than when we're talking to a wider audience and not among ourselves, perhaps the occasional comparison is useful. Seeing as we work on rhythm, voice and cadence, perhaps the musician will do the trick. 

Do listen, now that I've spoiled it all for you. Stick your fingers in your ears when David Baddiel talks but let your love for Ali Smith flow.