How to avoid getting lost in translation

Startup brings local publisher to talk truth in language

by Kiley Garrett / Beacon Correspondent • March 29, 2012

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Jim Kates explained what it means to be accurate in translation.
Jim Kates explained what it means to be accurate in translation.

Every language has particular nuances, which prompts some complications when exporting literature over borders. Last Monday, students and literary professionals alike attempted to reconcile this issue at the first event from the Scribbler Suite, a recently launched writing and publishing event series.

Titled “Do you do Windows? Literary Tranlsation and your Day Job,” the Piano Row Multipurpose room hosted a presentation by Jim Kates, a poet, translator, and the co-director of Brookline’s poetry house, Zephyr Press.

Kates was brought to Emerson on Monday by senior writing, literature, and publishing major Danielle Padula, who started the Scribbler Suite series through her entrepreneurial studies minor. The purpose of the minor is to design and then attempt to start a business.

“A business plan makes you learn everything in a real-world sense,” Padula said. “How can this apply to my business? How can I combine writing and publishing events?”

Her brainchild attempts to emulate a coffee-shop environment, which was influenced by her experience as an intern at Grub Street, an independent creative writing center that offers seminars, readings, and other services at various venues in the Boston area. Its workshops, as well as its collaborative and cohesive nature among writers, inspired Padula’s first event. 

The first workshop aimed to reach as many people as possible by explaining the business of translation from the perspective of someone who has been a writer, publisher, and translator.

Kates introduced the concept of translation by addressing the speculation that truly faithful translation is impossible. People are not concerned about the literal words, but about the ideas, feelings, and notions that are sometimes thought to be lost when crossing language barriers.

Kates countered the claim by framing the process as more about “close reading” rather than writing. Close reading, he said, is a concept that translators use to determine the writer’s exact purpose, and figure out the most accurate translation for that purpose. Programmatic, or literal, translators risk compromising the craft of a piece when they ignore cultural habits, syntax, and references.

Valuing close reading over word-for-word transfer, Kates said, allows literary translation to be a freer field than one might expect: Conclusions on a writing’s true meaning may not be exactly the same — it’s the message and general idea that matter. If done well, translation cultivates an appreciation for other walks of life. The name of the workshop, “Do you do Windows” was meant to suggest that translation is a window into another culture.

“As a translator, I think it’s very important to make people aware of the process of translation,” Kates said, “and the wonderful literature all over the world.”

Padula said she hopes to start the business within the next five to seven years at host restaurants, where she will hold open mic nights and more workshops. Soon, she plans to offer an array of options to aspiring and working writers alike, including manuscript-reviewing services for a fee. She said she eventually wants to move her business out to Wilmington, N.C., where she said the arts scene is beginning to expand into attractive destination. 

Ultimately, the goal of the Scribbler Suite is to support and engage the writing community, a sentiment Kates echoed in his comments on Monday.

“You write because you want to write,” said Kates, “You write because you want to communicate and take part of a larger conversation.”