METM21 Online presentation 

Negotiating literary translation: author’s signature, translator’s style and publisher’s preferences

Clare Vassallo, Msida, Malta

In preparing a translation for publication there is a lot more to negotiate than issues of meaning. Style, it may be argued as Milan Kundera did emphatically, is the signature of the author, the “supreme authority” in a literary text that the translator must “carry over”. Kundera argues, and I tend to agree, that literary authors are recognised by their style, not by their plots. Simply re-telling a story in an easy and fluent style erases that which is individual to writers – their language games, use of rhythm and playfulness, allusion and intertextuality, a strange but haunting turn of phrase, the twisted grammar that says it better. These are signature elements that the literary translator should try, in my opinion, to deliver to the new reader.

However, publishers tend to prefer a smooth style, texts that don’t remind the reader about the “foreignness” and the presence of a translator which is, by most accounts, best forgotten. This is a particularly Anglo-American attitude to importing works into English. But desire for foreign writers to be published in English, according to Tim Parks, encourages them to lose stylistic play in an attempt to make their work more amenable to “smooth” translation.

The talk will draw on the works of Umberto Eco and his concept of negotiation in translation, on Lawrence Venuti’s discussion of foreignisation and domestication translation styles and on Tim Parks’s work on literary style in translation, among others. It will make use of real examples of Maltese literary translation to illustrate the argument. It should be interesting not only to translators and editors who work in the literary genres, but to all of us who understand style as an important aspect of meaning, whatever our field.

About the presenter

Clare E. Vassallo is associate professor in translation studies at the University of Malta, where she teaches such topics as translation history and theory; pragmatics, semantics and semiotics; popular culture and literary tradition; feminist literary theory; and theories of adaptation. Her undergraduate work at the same university was in philosophy, English literature and linguistics, and her interest in the relationships among these three areas of knowledge led her to study under Prof. Umberto Eco at the Istituto di Comunicazione, University of Bologna, where she obtained her PhD in semiotics in 1996. She has been translating fiction from Maltese since 2014.