Who translates our stories?

Mercedes discusses the topic of translation within the world of literature

Translations control how hundreds of thousands of people perceive stories from across the globe. It is a difficult profession, often carrying little to no glory despite its arduous nature. It’s also a contentious field, inciting academic argument about what makes a truly ‘good’ translation. However, even within academia, one is hard pressed to find criticism concerning who controls translation.

What is often overlooked is that every translated instance and particular word choice can influence a reader’s understanding of the events portrayed. In that sense, the translator has the power to completely change the nature of a text, even without intent. This poses a problem when it comes down to questions of representation in the media. When the voices of women and people of colour are being controlled by predominantly white men we can see the reasons why. 

The best examples can be seen through the modern retellings, and general modern perceptions of classical stories. For centuries, classical literature has been held firmly in the hands of upper-class white men, and it still is today. Through the countless translations offered by this very narrow subset of society, many stories, particularly shorter myths like those found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, find themselves heavily romanticised by modern audiences. One of the most popular examples can be seen in the interpretation of Persephone’s capture and rape by Hades as a consensual power play, where Persephone is thankful for her new place as Hades queen, unrestricted by the influence of her controlling parents. While it can be nice to intentionally frame old narratives in a way that gives female characters agency, it is important not to erase the ways in which these stories are originally told lest we promote unhealthy models for power dynamics in society and uphold the horrifically sexist morals of those telling the stories.

Modern authors hold much more sway over the way that their works are translated than those of the dead classical masters. Nonetheless, one should not overlook the importance of diversity in story translation and storytelling. Of course translators do make every effort to translate stories accurately and fluidly regardless of their lived experience and connection to the text, that is evident. More so, publishing companies often have rigorous checks in place to ensure that the new text is as close to the original as possible. The system is good, currently, but we must not allow ourselves to fall into the same traps as the past.

There is little data available on disparities in gender or BAME within the world of translation, so it is difficult to say just how closed off this space is to a diverse range of voices currently. Nonetheless, the historical impact is clear, with agency being given and taken at will, violence being interpreted as virtue, and harmful relationship dynamics being upheld as idyllic.   

What we can take from this discussion then, perhaps, is that during the reception of a finished translation, it would be prudent to consider who exactly is translating our stories and what exactly our translations are keeping from us.

Mercedes-Georgia Mayes