When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I am a translator. I say, “I translate novels.” The image, true to the etymological origins of the word ‘translation’—translatio, a physical transfer or ‘carrying across’—is one of clean transposition: a novel exists, it is a distinct entity with precise boundaries, and I am the mediator, the invisible vessel charged with bearing it across to a new shore. In reality, the process is a great deal more complicated. It begins with a reading so close it verges on psychology, and ends with an act of unusual power: a written interpretation, a creative record of my reading for which, ultimately, I alone must be held accountable.
So let me begin afresh by rephrasing the reply to my imagined inquisitors: What do I do for a living? “I re-write novels.”
I like the word “re-writing.” It invites questions, provokes challenges. And that, for me, is what literature is all about: the open-ended, the unveiling of new or long-uncharted passages.
Stories are infinitely re-told and re-tellable; they are re-interpreted, re-assimilated, re-written in a million different forms: as poems, songs, paintings, children’s tales, fantastic myths. In this sense—to borrow Jacques Derrida’s phrase—stories are always already translated. Translation, in other words, lies at the very core of storytelling.
Our stories are our histories. The word “story” comes from the Latin historia, which in turn evolved from the Greek ἱστορία: an inquiring, a looking, a witnessing. The word’s origins lie deep in the untraceable past, with the Proto-Indo-European word widstōr: “the one who knows.” A story, indeed, is also a knowing; stories are the tools with which we fathom the past and construct, however tremulously, a place for it among the present.
Most importantly, stories change. Like the symbols of the word itself, our stories move and adapt; they mutate. Eventually, like all living things, they die. But during their lifetimes, stories allow us not only to translate our thoughts and experiences into expressions, but to translate the past into a new, present form of experience—into a peal of laughter, a face misremembered, a fragile pain handled briefly, privately, in silence.
For reasons that are historically and ideologically complex, the concept of “the untranslatable” often goes hand in hand with discussions of literary translation. It is a concept worth unpicking. What does it mean to say something is untranslatable? Generally, it means there is no commonly accepted equivalent for a particular word or expression. From Buzzfeed lists (“15 untranslatable words you wish existed in English!”) to eloquent disquisitions on the untranslatability of poetry, the term crops up with alarming frequency. And yet, for those of us who have found our own way across the linguistic divide, the word ‘untranslatable’ doesn’t really mean much at all.
For example: If you are a fan of Japanese culture, you might pride yourself on your familiarity with certain ‘untranslatable’ Japanese concepts. Like wabi-sabi. Or mono no aware – the wistful awareness of the transience of beauty. This applies to all cultures; flamenco aficionados will be familiar with the Spanish term duende—the sense of soul and authenticity exuded by great dancers— just as fans of Portuguese fado will comprehend the unspeakable nostalgia of saudade. Students of Epicurean philosophy will wax lyrical on the Greek concept of ataraxia, and lovers of Tolstoy will know the intimate melancholy of the Russian word toska.