Translation as the Quiet Revolution in UK Publishing

By Alessandro Gallenzi


gallenzi 2aI was delighted to take part in one of the Authors and the World seminars at Lancaster University, a lively round-table discussion with other colleagues from the world of publishing who offered their perspective on what “a world author” is and discussed the role of translation as a cultural mediator.

I am the publisher and managing director of Alma Books and Alma Classics, which I founded around ten years ago. Some may also have come across me under my previous incarnation as publisher of Hesperus Press, which I founded back in 2001, before moving on to set up Alma Books in November 2005.

As well as being a publisher, I have written poetry, plays, novels and translated works of literature, predominantly from English into Italian. Among the books I have published are translations of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Carlyle’s House by Virginia Woolf, The Rape of the Lock and The Art of Sinking in Poetry by Alexander Pope and W.H. Auden’s Thank You, Fog and The Age of Anxiety.

From this brief introduction, you will understand why translation is so central in my publishing activities.

As a young translator, I remember once agonizing for two hours over a line in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, which I was trying to translate into Italian. A friend of mine saw me and said: “What’s all the fuss – there’s only one way to say ‘apple’ or ‘water’ in any language.” I looked up and smiled. Although this is a very naive perception of translation, unfortunately it’s also quite a common one.

If my friend’s observation is true at a basic level – just like saying that the average English speaker only uses between 2,000 and 5,000 words to communicate on a daily basis – no one can deny that language is elusive, inventive, multi-layered and almost infinitely complex and variegated. This is especially the case for the language used in literature. If you are translating a literary work, you won’t have to worry about the meaning alone, but also about context, tone, register, nuances, cultural or semantic references, double entendres and – if it’s poetry – metre and rhyme. If it were only a matter of looking up a word in a dictionary, then machine translation or BabelFish and Google Translate would be all we need.

In fact, literary translation is a thankless job and an incredibly difficult profession – if not even a craft or an art. It is frustrating to see that readers are mostly unaware of, and indifferent to, all the work needed to recreate a text in another language. Few realize that translation plays an essential role in our appreciation of a book, and that a good version can make the success of a work – while a bad one can ruin its chances of a wider readership.

Often when I talk to MA students in translation studies, I like to use the beginning of Anna Karenina as an example of how widely translations can vary. I take the first few paragraphs of the old Constance Garnett version (1901), which is still very much in print and freely available on the Internet and as an ebook, and compare it to the acclaimed Pevear-Volokhonsky translation (published by Penguin in 2000) and the new one, by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, that was published four years ago under our Alma Classics imprint.

I read out one paragraph at a time in each version, without revealing which is which, and let the students choose the one they prefer. Invariably, different people will like different translations, so that at times it’s impossible to say that one version is “better” than the others. A translation can be said to be more or less faithful, accurate, readable, idiomatic, but some will prefer reading Anna Karenina in a slightly more old-fashioned translation, as it will ring truer or more pleasant to their ear and taste.

The point I try to make by reading different versions of the same text is that translators work under the pressure of time, just like writers, and have varying degrees of education, knowledge of the language, understanding of the source and target cultures and history, ability to translate and ability to write.

Constance Garnett was a contemporary of Tolstoy and published her translation of Anna Karenina when the great master was still alive. She was a fluent writer and a skilful translator, but her knowledge of Russian was limited, and she shared, with other translators of her age, the tendency to “smooth out” or even cut some of the sentences she didn’t understand. The fact that her translations are still so widely read today is a great testament to the quality of her work and perhaps one of the reasons why Tolstoy has always been so popular in this country and why he has become “a world author”.

The prize-winning translation by the American Richard Pevear and the Russian-born Larissa Volokhonsky benefited not only from over a century of previous translations of Anna Karenina, but also by the constant advances in translation studies and knowledge at mother-tongue level of both source and target languages.

Kyril Zinovieff had the additional advantage of being born in Russia in 1911 to an aristocratic family from a similar milieu to Tolstoy’s, before emigrating to England in 1917. His grandfather, Alexander Dmitrych Zinovyev, was the Governor of St Petersburg from 1903 to 1911 – and just as no other living Tolstoy translator can claim, like Kyril, to have had a glimpse of Rasputin in his childhood, perhaps no one can boast a better understanding of the kind of language used in Tolstoy’s novels, including its most subtle nuances and hidden connotations.

Since the quality of a translation depends so much on the individual skills and background of the translators, and since language keeps expanding and evolving (around 1,500 new words have been added to the English dictionary over the last ten years alone), it is essential to continue commissioning new versions of the classics – and not just because they can be constantly improved and updated, but also because, as I have mentioned above, different translations speak to people’s ears in various ways.

In my long career as a literary translator from English into Italian and in my fifteen years’ experience in British publishing, I have striven to promote literature in translation, raise awareness of its importance among readers and encourage more and more young people to learn the craft of translation.

Publishing literature in translation in the UK is challenging to say the least, especially in the current economic climate. Only about 4% of all titles published in Britain are translations – as opposed to 30% in France and 26% in Italy, for example – and this 4% includes non-fiction, academic, children’s books and all other genres.

British publishers – especially the bigger ones – are traditionally averse to looking beyond the Channel for inspiration, and would probably rather publish the 100th-best British novel than the best Danish novel of the year. But there are signs that things may be gradually improving, as people travel more and are curious to explore new countries and new cultures.

The recent success of the Stieg Larsson trilogy, as well as the brilliant efforts of many independent publishers such as Bitter Lemon Press, Gallic Books, Haus Publishing, Maclehose Press, And Other Stories, Peirene Press, Pushkin Press and Portobello Books are removing the stigma attached to works in translation and making them more and more of an established presence in British bookshops. We need more international “world authors” for the future.

Translations are an essential part in a healthy, outward- and forward-looking society. All great periods in history – from Dante’s time to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – were eras of intense translation activity. It is to be hoped that Britain – for so long one of the leading world nations, not just for its economy but for its linguistic and cultural influence – may with time undergo a quiet revolution and discover the many joys that can be found in translation.


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