Sisterhood in Translation: Translation Partnerships You Can Get Excited About

Translation Partnerships in Focus: Han Kang/Deborah Smith & Elena Ferrante/Ann Goldstein

I imagine the process of assigning a translator to a book must be a bit like matchmaking. Rather than deciding if two people might have a romantic connection, a publisher must ask themselves whether the translator will connect with the text. Will they be able to not only translate the words but also convey an atmosphere? It can’t be an easy decision to make but when it’s done right, real magic can happen.

Two translation partnerships I admire are Han Kang /Deborah Smith and Elena Ferrante/Ann Goldstein. Women supporting women is of course always awesome but better still, the work from these duos truly captivated me and produced some of my all-time favourite reads.

The union of Han Kang and Deborah Smith is fascinating. Kang, already a celebrated writer in her native country of South Korea, was catapulted onto the international stage when Smith introduced her novels to a new, English-speaking audience. When I read ‘Human Acts’ and ‘The Vegetarian’ what impressed me most was how Smith was able to create a sense of style in her translation. I understood, without necessarily knowing how, that Kang’s prose verges on the poetic and that she fundamentally explores what it is to be a human being with competing carnal and spiritual needs. Kang’s most recent book translated into English by Smith is called ‘The White Book’ and was published in 2018.

Deborah Smith has been on her own journey. Not one to do things by halves, in the space of less than 10 years she learned Korean, translated the work of a famous author and won the International Booker Prize with Kang in 2016 for ‘The Vegetarian’. In 2015 Smith founded an independent publishing house called Tilted Axis Press which seeks to bring more work in translation to English-speaking audiences.

The story of Elena Ferrante and Ann Goldstein’s partnership is equally interesting. Goldstein, an experienced and respected translator in her own right, has never met the Italian writing sensation that is Elena Ferrante. Ferrante famously shies away from the limelight, very few people even know who she is since Ferrante is in fact a pseudonym. All Ann’s interactions with Elena are via her publisher and while you might expect this kind of working relationship to produce a choppy, stilted, reading experience, for me that was not at all the case. Goldstein’s translation of the books that make up the Neapolitan quartet (which starts with ‘My Brilliant Friend’) create a real sense of place transporting readers right onto the streets of Naples. I’m not alone in loving the books. To date, the series has sold over 10 million copies in 40 countries and was recently made into a TV series. The result of Goldstein and Ferrante’s most recent partnership, ‘The Lying Life of Adults’, will be released on the 1st of September.

Translated fiction is special, it brings an additional layer and creates a more complex relationship between the reader and the text. If a reader doesn’t enjoy a translated book is it because it was a bad book or a poor translation? It’s hard to say, since there will always need to be a balance struck between accuracy and sensibility. One thing that transcends any language barrier, however, is that feeling a reader gets when they leave a book in some way forever changed by the experience of reading it.

Written by Rachel Matthews 


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