Translator’s Library: Part One

As spring gets underway, the thoughts of translators — at least in Tucson, Arizona — have turned to … books.  That was the subject of discussion at a local lunch that took place at the European Deli on Sunday, April 19.

How-to or “tools of the trade” books such as Morry Sofer’s Translator’s Handbook, with all its continually updated editions, would seem to be obvious candidates for any translator’s attention.  However, that Sunday the group chose to focus on less obvious but still worthy mentions.  Foremost among these were translator biographies.  In that regard, Russian translator Kenny Cargill revealed that he had been reading a biography of Constance Garnett (1861-1946), a noteworthy translator of Russian literature. Some brief facts about her follow.

Based in the U.K., Garnett lived in an era in which women’s roles were closely circumscribed and translators typically tended to be male.  Undeterred, she pursued her education with full vigor and managed to break down gender barriers.  As a translator specializing in the Russian language, she was the first to translate works by Dostoevsky.   A number of other 19th century Russian authors, including Tolstoy, also received the benefits of her translating attention.  She managed to leave behind an enduring legacy in the literary translation field; her translations continue to be reprinted to this day.

To be sure, Garnett has not been without her critics.   Some have charged that her translations deviate too much from the source texts.  Some have even gone so far as to claim that, in taking liberties with the adapting of texts, she sought, in effect, to fill the role of author, rather than that of mere translator.  To judge the matter for one’s self would of course require a good grasp of Russian combined with a thorough examination of original and translated texts for purposes of comparison.  Only then could one determine whether Garnett, in penning her translations, took her adaptation of texts too far or whether she was simply exercising the leeway that applies to literary translation.

When not providing fodder for biographers’ pens, translators of all sizes, shapes, and backgrounds have managed to make it into fiction, a topic I covered during the lunch.  Fictional translators, like their real-life counterparts, have definitely experienced their share of travel and adventure — or misadventure, as the case may be.  A search for fictional translators’ tales at my local public library yielded a rather lengthy list of titles.  Below is a brief look at a small sample of these.

In Nina Schuyler’s The Translator, protagonist Hanne Schubert’s life literally takes a rough-and-tumble turn when she falls down a flight of stairs and consequently develops a rare but real condition in which she loses her native English but retains the Japanese she acquired later in life.  Faced with this new set of linguistic limitations, she takes what would seem to be the most logical step in response; she moves to Japan.  However, once there, her troubles are far from over.  The Japanese novelist whose work she recently translated accuses her of sabotaging his work.  In an effort to get to the bottom of things, Hanne seeks out the actor who served as the inspiration for the author’s novel.  A highly complicated relationship follows.

Georg Polger, a translator eking out a living in southern France in Bernhard Schlink’s The Gordian Knot, has plenty of relationship troubles of his own.  He is approached with the offer of a job as head of a local translation agency — an offer that seems too good to refuse.  Matters quickly heat up, however, when, having taken the job, he falls for the job recruiter’s secretary, only to discover her secretly photographing a military project of a classified nature.  Shortly after this revelation, she disappears.  Georg sets out on a quest to discover not just where — but who — she really is.  In so doing, he may be in over his head.

Meanwhile, not far from the Boston Harbor, Lydia Pallas (featured in Elizabeth Camden’s Against the Tide), a translator working for the U.S. Navy, would seem to be set for life, with all the comfort and security she needs.  However, all that is about to change.  A man on a quest to end the opium trade needs a translator.  Lydia accepts his mission, only to find that her new job is far more difficult and dangerous than she had anticipated.

Anyone with a young reader in his or her life should note that fictional translator tales don’t have to be for adults only.  Sacagawea, the young Shoshone woman featured in Scott O’Dell’s Streams to the River, River to the Sea, was actually not only a real person but also possibly the most famous interpreter in U.S. history.  She owes this distinction to the fact that she served as an interpreter during the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806).  While definitely a worthy subject for plenty of nonfiction writing, she has enjoyed a generous share of fictional treatment as well.

O’Dell’s tale for young adults begins when, at the age of thirteen, Sacagawea is captured by members of the Hidatsa tribe.  As a captive, she becomes fluent in the Hidatsa language.  Enter French trader Toussaint Charbonneau, who wins her in a hand game and makes her his wife.  When they meet up with Lewis and Clark, the stage is set for the pair, accompanied by their baby son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, to join the expedition, traveling from St. Louis, Missouri to the Pacific Coast.

Having survived a number of hardships and dangers on their journey, the group ultimately meets up with members of the Shoshone tribe.  It is during this encounter that Sacagawea, who has had no contact with her people since being taken captive, is reunited with her brother, now a chief.

Some background is in order concerning the Lewis and Clark approach to interpreting.  Modern-day interpreters serving at functions involving two or more nations or tribes typically speak multiple languages between them and can rely on headphones and other technology to speed the communication process.  By way of contrast, the interpreting that took place between the Shoshone and the English-speaking members of the Lewis and Clark expedition involved going through a long, arduous series of steps.  The Shoshone chief (or other  tribal spokesman) would communicate his message.  Sacagawea would then translate the message into Hidatsa, the language she had picked up as a captive.  Her husband, Charbonneau, long fluent in Hidatsa since he had frequently done trading with members of that tribe, would then translate the message into his native French.  An expedition member fluent in French then translated the message into English — the final step of the interpretation process.  When members of the Lewis and Clark party wished to communicate messages of theirs to the Shoshone, the whole process, of course, was repeated in reverse.

It should be noted that, regardless of circumstances beyond her control, Sacagawea was not merely the passive recipient of events that befell her.  On the contrary, O’Dell depicts her as a strong, independent individual and thus definitely a worthy and admirable character for modern-minded readers, whether male or female.

Rounding up this brief look at fictional translators, nine-year-old British girl Maddy, featured in Brian Falkner’s Maddy West and the Tongue Taker, has the amazing ability to speak every language in the world.  Her mother, at first wary upon discovering Maddy’s unique ability, soon finds ways to capitalize on it.  Once Maddy appears on a talk show, word spreads rapidly of her language abilities.  A certain professor seeks her out in the hope that she can translate some ancient scrolls located at a monastery in Bulgaria.  The professor seems trustworthy enough, and getting her parents to approve the trip does not prove difficult.  At first Maddy is thrilled to be embarking on this adventure abroad.  Evidence soon surfaces, however, that the professor is not quite all she seems.  What is her real motive in requesting the translation of the scrolls?  It would seem that they contain not benevolent information but evil spells.  Events take a sinister turn when the young, adventuresome translator finds herself kidnapped.  Her only hope of escape lies in turning to her friends, including a young, aspiring ninja, for help.

Two themes here will definitely ring true to real-life translators with a bit of age and experience under their belts.  First, the profit motive is alive and well in the world of translation, and the linguistically gifted can and do face the very real risk of exploitation.  However, on a brighter note, if one finds one’s self in a bit of a jam, beset by circumstances that threaten to overwhelm one’s problem-solving capabilities, the right kind of teamwork can make all the difference in the world.


Non-Fiction:  Biography

Garnett, Richard.  Constance Garnett:  A Heroic Life. — London:  Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991.  402 pp.

Adult Fiction

Camden, Elizabeth.  Against the Tide:  A Novel. — Minneapolis:  Bethany House, c2012.  362 pp.

Schlink, Bernhard.  The Gordian Knot. — New York:  Vintage Books, 2010.  246 pp.

Schuyler, Nina.  The Translator:  A Novel. — Newburyport:  Pegasus Books, 2013.  320 pp.

Young Adult Fiction

O’Dell, Scott.  Streams to the River, River to the Sea:  A Novel of Sacagawea. — Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1986.  191 pp.

Children’s Fiction

Faulkner, Brian.  Maddy West and the Tongue Taker. — North Mankato, Minnesota:  Capstone Young Readers, 2014.  355 pp.

Online Resources

Pima County Public Library catalog search results for translators in fiction:

Lewis and Clark Expedition entry in Wikipedia:

Sacagawea entry in Wikepedia:


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