Blog – Gained in Translation or Found in Translation? Which do you prefer? by Mike Polack

Monday, November 13th, 2017

This year’s LitFest innovation, the Translation Duel, engaged, fascinated and entertained its audience. Handed two English translations of a chapter from Gabriel García Márquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, we were instantly absorbed in the many decisions that a translator has to make.
If the Duel we were promised wasn’t quite as confrontational as we might have expected – Margaret Jull Costa had to withdraw through ill health – Rosalind Harvey, the other translator, and Daniel Hahn, the chairman, quickly drew us into examining the two contrasting translations and gave us a hugely enjoyable, teasing 50 minutes of discussion – a discussion which the audience was almost immediately a key part of, chipping in with questions and suggestions.


Marlborough Literary Festival 2017
Ben Phillips Photography

For a subject which could have been dryly academic, as we compared details of language, style, tone, voice and even punctuation, details which Daniel referred to as ‘nerdy’, there was a lot of audience laughter. Why had both translators used a comma when the Spanish text did not use one? How had Margaret and Ros dealt differently with the problem posed by the original’s use of two Spanish words for walk (‘caminar’ and ‘andar’) without repeating the word ‘walk’ in English? Was Margaret’s slightly more literary style preferable to the more direct approach of Ros’s version? Why had the original American translator added a ‘Sir’ to the name Francis Drake, and why had he mistranslated the word ‘bisabuela’? What did Daniel, the chairman, mean when he said, “Let’s move on to Margaret’s ‘buttock’?”


We were privileged to be examining translations by two highly regarded and widely published translators. Daniel referred to Margaret, sadly absent on this occasion, as ‘one of the best translators I have ever met.’ Handed five pages of parallel translations, we had time to examine just a page and a half. We would happily have stayed on for more. An intriguing, stimulating session.

Let’s hope future Marlborough LitFests feature more Translation Duels.

Mike Polack