Jaakko Kankaanpää: The Translator’s Art – And What Does it Mean, Exactly?

Is a literary translator an artist and is literary translating an art form?

Those are two questions one sometimes finds oneself answering as a professional literary translator. In a way the answer is self-evident: if a translated book is considered a literary work of artistic merit, it seems inevitable that the translator, as an important co-creator of the work, should receive a mention for his or her artistic effort and that his or her profession should be considered to belong to the realm of literary arts.

However, it might be worthwhile to delve a little deeper into the question of the translator’s art.

Both the author and the translator get the credit as creators of a translated book, but it would be a mistake to equate the artistic effort of the author with the effort of the translator. While the author’s work is thoroughly creative, the translator’s efforts lean strongly into the direction of the performing arts. The literary work in the form in which it flows from the author’s pen (what we translator call the original) represents only itself, whereas a literary translation represents a piece of literature different from itself – and it does so using the means and possibilities of an inherently different medium: a different language, and also in part a different cultural heritage.

Translators Jaakko Kankaanpää and Arto Kivimäki in LIWRE 2017. Photo credit: Jari Laukkanen

Consequently, metaphors involving music and theatre are popular with translators when they try to explain their work to others. It is often said that translating is like playing a piece of music written for a different instrument or like being hired to play on the piano something originally written for a symphony orchestra. These adaptive performances must be carried out exploiting the strong points of the instrument in use, while also playing down its weaknesses – all the while holding true to the things that are essential, idiomatic and unique to the original, a piece written a completely different collection of instruments in mind.

It is also possible to compare translating to the work of another performing artist, the actor. Once again it is essential that the playwright and the actor have the same understanding of the text, while their means of artistic expression are completely different. A playwright can write down “looks on worriedly” in his or her parentheticals without possessing any skill of performing a worried look on stage, while for an actor it is (with all the other acting skills) an essential part of his or her tradecraft.

One of the phenomena neatly explained by seeing translation as a performing art is the fact that translations have a tendency to age and become dated, sometimes quite quickly, while the original work solidly retains its value. For example, there have been half a dozen Finnish translations of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn published so far, while the book in its original form by Mark Twain (except for maybe some meddling by the exponents of political correctness) still belongs to the canon of the American literature. As every theatre and movie goer knows, performances eventually become antiquated, mainly depicting the era of their making. A 19th century performance Hamlet would only serve as a historical curiosity, although maybe an interesting one, while the play by William Shakespeare is still very much a quality piece in current theatre programmes.

Serving the author

The difference between the art of the author, compared to the art of the translator, also explains the perhaps somewhat surprising fact that on a purely textual level, translating is more difficult than original writing. An author may carry the story as he or she pleases, more or less glossing over parts he or she finds difficult and concentrating on what he or she does best. For the translator, there is no such luxury, since serving the author he or she must faithfully follow the meanings and intentions of the original. Where the author goes, there the translator must also go, tracing the author step by step. Again we meet the question of the translator’s art; as far as we hold the artistic merit of the text to be dependent on the beauty, style, tenor or tone of the text, there can be no doubt that those features are only there thanks to the artistic efforts of the translator.

In her Autobiography Agatha Christie tells us how greatly servants were valued in her childhood home, since they possessed a number of skills at which the family knew they would be themselves absolutely hopeless. ‘Never let me hear you speak like that to a servant,’ Christie remembers her mother admonishing a visiting child for disrespecting the servants in the house. ‘They are doing skilled work which you could not possibly do yourself without long training.’

The picturesque past depicted in Christie’s books is of course a fantasy. In her idyllic world social relationships are clear and undisputed, but equally clear and undisputed is the mutual respect which guarantees for everybody a quiet satisfaction with their station in life. Although such harmony between classes may be unknown in the real world, it seems to perfectly represent the relationship between a translator and an author at its best. Having served Dame Agatha for a span of four novels I can testify to being quite content doing my piece of ‘skilled work’ for her.


Jaakko Kankaanpää is a literary translator from English to Finnish.

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