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Michiel Heyns on Translation, Creativity, and "Re-creating"

Over at the Tin House blog (which is relatively new and very solid), South African author Michiel Heyns has an interesting essay about creativity and translation:

I have just sent off the first draft of a translation of a 130,000-word novel, Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nagte in Amsterdam (30 Nights in Amsterdam). By chance, on the same day, I receive a Call for Papers from the University of Swansea in the UK for a conference on “The Author-Translator in the European Literary Tradition.” The call for papers kicks off with the following paragraph:

The recent ‘creative turn’ in translation studies has challenged notions of translation as a derivative and uncreative activity which is inferior to ‘original’ writing. Commentators have drawn attention to the creative processes involved in the translation of texts, and suggested a rethinking of translation as a form of creative writing. Hence there is growing critical and theoretical interest in translations undertaken by literary authors.

The topic interests me, because I have published four novels and three literary translations (not counting this latest, as yet unpublished one), and I have from time to time asked myself, in an informal sort of way, about “the creative processes involved in the translation of texts”: is it in fact “a form of creative writing”? And if so, how does it differ from the more traditional kind?

Writing this, it occurs to me that the word “recreate” encapsulates the problem: for if it means simply rendering the work in another language, then it’s more a question of transliteration or transposition than creation; but if it means “re-create” as in creating anew, then one is stressing the creative contribution of the translator: the translation, then, carries the stamp of the translator as unmistakably as the original carries the stamp of the author.

But of course translation is also, inescapably, a second-order activity, derived very directly from the creation of the author. If the translation is a creative act, it is yet unlike the writing of a novel in that it does not require that most difficult of creative feats, which is to create from nothing. A novelist creates and peoples a world; a translator reports back on that world to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to that world.

I like his take on this (although the bit about author’s craving a “faithful rendering” when their books are translated feels a bit reductive), and his novel, The Children’s Day looks really interesting as well.



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