After I had published my first fiction books, several of my non-Polish friends asked me whether my stories would be accessible in English. I answered that I would never become a bestselling author, and that my Polish publishers did not seem to be interested in international marketing; thus, there was little chance that my books would appear in other languages.
“But you are a professor of translation science, and you have worked as a translator”, some of my friends opposed. “Why don’t you translate your books yourself?”
I shook my head again and explained that, as a translation researcher, I knew that I was not suitable for this task.
First of all, to produce a high-quality target text, one should translate into one’s mother tongue, or, in the worst case, to one’s next-to-best language. It happened that I translated technical, scientific, and administrative texts into German and Swedish, but I would never dare to translate a literary work into another language than my native one (so I thought).
English as a target language was out of the question, since I started learning it as an adult. I was born in Communist Poland, where the only foreign language taught in elementary schools was Russian. I was lucky to get the opportunity to learn German at home, and later, to study Swedish, but the necessity of acquiring competence in English became obvious to me first when I moved to Sweden, at which time I was twenty-five. Since then, I have used English in my everyday work, but not in my private life. Thus, I have developed a rather rich vocabulary in the domain of linguistic theory, translation studies, and related scholarly areas. However, in the academic world you are not supposed to be emotional. How could I translate novels about hate, love, malevolence, and cordial friendship? I have never talked about intense feelings in English, except when I did it metalinguistically!
Another obstacle in translating one’s own literary production lies in the inevitable personal attitude to the source text. All fiction is in some sense autobiographical. Even if you don’t write a typical roman à clef, the characters you construct are built upon your memories, experiences, and deeply private feelings. Most classical models of the translational process include the source text sender, the editor (translator), who is both a receiver and a sender, and the target text receiver. This implies that the mediator is positioned at a distance from the sender and, consequently, can analyse the source text from outside, relate it to his/her knowledge about the target receiver, and chose translation strategies and techniques on this basis. Would it be appropriate to merge the roles of the original sender and the mediator? I doubted it.
In spite of the argumentation above, my novel Alter (Polish edition 2021) was published in an English version last year, the title page announcing: “translated by Susan Erdmann and the author”. Who and/or what made me change my mind and act against the theoretical principles?
The question “who?” is answered by the quotation above. My friend and UiA- colleague, Susan Erdmann, who has co-taught many translation courses with me, and who knows a lot about my strengths and (considerably more numerous) weaknesses, asked me one day to make a raw translation of the first chapter of Alter. She told me not to bother about grammar and style; she just wanted to get an idea of the plot. It would be redundant to mention that Susan does not speak Polish. She is a native speaker of English.
I felt no inhibition nor shame in front of my long-time translation research colleague. I ran the first chapter through Google Translate, post-edited it, and emailed to Susan. She read it, became interested in the fate of my hero, and wanted to know what happened next… So, I repeated the procedure with some more chapters. In a couple of days, we reached the middle of the book, and Susan convinced me that the English version of Alter could be worth publishing. She can be very persuasive.
Thus, I started adding comments on style variation, connotations, jokes, wordplays – and Susan worked on finding English stylistic equivalents. We had a lot of fun! She also put much effort into proof-reading and making my scholarly English more idiomatic. Below, I repeat what I have written in the foreword to the English edition of Alter:
Dear Susan, without your kind and fully voluntary help, I would never manage nor dare to transform Alter into English. Our joint venture was quite unusual from the theoretical point of view, since the translator-in-chief had no command of the source language, but your marvellous communication skills made it possible to overcome such a trifle. I thank you with all my heart!
The third ‘actor’ involved in the production of the target text was, as mentioned, Google Translate. A widespread opinion is that Machine Translation (MT) cannot manage literary texts. An unedited MT output would of course be a disaster. and I had many good laughs reading Google’s translation of my novel. Apart from making odd lexical choices, the system often misinterpreted pronouns and relations between the subject and the object, and had trouble with handling the Slavic double negation. Examples like The husband did not kill his wife could be translated as The wife killed her husband. One must be careful with post-editing, especially if one writes crime stories!
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that an MT system spares time and sometimes suggests synonyms that are not a part of the translator’s active vocabulary. For me, post-editing of the Machine Translation output created the necessary distance to the source text that I lacked when I tried to translate it directly.
My human friend and my automated assistant helped me a lot, but some aspects required my personal intervention. Certain fragments involving wordplays had to be re-written, or “re-created”. In the example below, a young boy ponders about the word fairy:
“I got my first easels, brushes, and paints for my seventh birthday as a gift from an envoy from Auguria. My father was fortunately not in the castle at that time. When I discovered what I could achieve with these things, there was no turning back”.
The feeling of guilt couldn’t prevent me from doing what my father thought only Venditian fairies did. When I first heard this judgment – I may have been about eight at the time – I was very surprised, and enchanted. I imagined tiny fairies with glittering wings, flying around with small brushes in their hands and putting magical, colorful powder on canvases, creating pictures more wonderful than anything I could achieve. But my father uttered the word “fairies” with immense contempt and disgust.
In the original, the Polish pejorative word referring to a homosexual is ciota. Its basic meaning is an old, ugly woman, a kind of witch. The boy wonders why scary old witches attend the Academy of Arts; he is not “surprised, and enchanted” but “horrified, and confused”. The different connotations of the polysemous nouns ciota and fairy triggered re-writing of a whole paragraph (in the spirit of Nida’s functional equivalence).
The joint translation efforts found approval in the eyes of an international publisher: in November 2021, I received an email from the Europe Books Publishing House, saying: “We have read Alter, which you sent for review to our publishing house, with interest, and it has impressed us.” The English version of the book was published in spring 2022.
As already said, I know that I will never become a bestselling author, but translating and editing the altered Alter was a valuable experience. Equally valuable was the feedback I have got from the readers. Several of them discovered that Alter, although on the surface it is a fantasy adventure story, actually is rather a psychological development novel and also, as one of the readers expressed it, “a book about the power of language”.
*B. J. Gawrońska Pettersson works as Professor of Translation Theory and Intercultural Communication at the University of Agder, Norway. Her research interests include cognitive semantics, comparative linguistics, Machine Translation, and literature translation.