QUARTERLY ESSAY 52 Found in Translation



Julie Rose

Found in Translation is elegant and engaging, of course; it’s also instructive, even to a full-time translator like me. 

Anything that makes translation, and translators, visible is good for all of us, general public included; but you know translation has finally hit the cultural radar when a writer-translator of Jaivin’s gifts can follow David Marr’s polemic on George Pell and the Church’s handling of priestly paedophilia with a polemic on the burning issue of translation, for an avid non-specialist Quarterly Essay readership, which also manages to feel urgent. 

Translators have been talking translation for some time now, and Jaivin’s essay is a useful synthesis of what some of them have been saying; but they’ve largely been talking to each other. It’s nice when a broader audience is addressed – proof, I hope, that we’ve come a long way from the days when talk of translation could clear a room, so to speak, faster than a poetry reading – even for a specialist audience. In this country, a lot of people have worked hard to make this so, from individuals to bodies like PEN, the Australian Association for Literary Translation and the NSW Community Relations Commission to sundry arts organisations, and a number of university language departments, which offer avenues for fostering, exploring and supporting translation. There are specialised courses now, and degrees and even the vague promise of “careers” (in the old days, people fell into the job, often on their travels, simply as literate, language-proficient scholars open to the world). A swag of world-class local translators have been rewarded with prizes, the NSW Premier’s Translation Prize now being among the most generous in the world.

But Jaivin’s essay is also necessary, given the dire turn that language-learning in Australia has taken, as she outlines, and the drying-up of funding for translation, as well as the enduring lack of interest in translation in the print media here, where even high-profile literary translations are often, still, ignored altogether or not reviewed as translations (are we really stuck with a monolingual body of reviewers?). 

As Jaivin makes clear, we’ve still got a way to go, all over the Anglophone world in particular, before we Ariadnes of the cross-cultural labyrinth are more than vaguely visible to the public eye, or, better yet, the focus centres on the ball of thread. The status of that ball of thread as independent artefact is far from assured, even within the translation world itself, as is clear from the occasionally rancorous ongoing debates that Jaivin touches on in her nice round-up of the issues. Such debates centre on definitions of “faithfulness” and “authenticity” and the degree to which a translation, particularly a literary translation, should or can follow the original; and even the degree to which any translation succeeds on its own terms.

As recently as 2013, Roland Kelts, a contributing editor to an American literary magazine featuring new Japanese work in translation, questioned the very point of translation in the New Yorker: “I can’t help but wonder if the translation of literature, where the strengths and even personality of the original are embedded in the language, is futile, however heroic.” Futile … All those fabulous contributions to world literature, our transcultural heritage?

Jaivin’s essay speaks eloquently against such a defeatist ethic. Her vision is all-inclusive: the humble interpreter, even the “document drone,” at last find a home. Jaivin’s first major revelation: it’s all translation. Her second: it’s all political.

But Jaivin’s attitude is nuanced and without hubris. I think that’s what I like most about her essay: its relaxed and easy spaciousness. Free of defensiveness, Jaivin is able to cheerfully accommodate all possibilities along the spectrum, from what is found and even gained in translation, to what may well be lost, or at least a little fudged, or even trashed or subverted. She can calmly debunk a host of myths, like the myth of transparency, at last pointing out that translation is not a pane of glass you look through at the original – it is the glass you look at; and that “glass” is the translator’s work, both as an independent creation and as an interpretation of the original. 

We seem to have a lot of trouble with that notion, no doubt because of translation’s unique intellectual-property status. Translation, all translation, depends, at least initially, on the prior existence of something else – the writer’s intellectual property, in the case of literature. To some, this smacks of a “wilful passing off” of the kind the law defines as plagiarism and copyright infringement. The paradox is that translators are meant to be copying the writer’s text, and are often castigated when they’re felt to deviate from it; yet there is no way they cannot deviate from it: French grammar is not English grammar; a Mandarin word may simply not exist in English, or German. 

As William Weaver, the translator of modern Italian classics, once said, “the original is only the starting point.” (Weaver, who died recently at the age of seventy-nine, was a man from the heroic age of translation, when a translator of calibre could grow rich introducing a writer of calibre to a new audience.) Every word you, who need the translation, read will be one that the translator, who doesn’t need it, writes. As Murakami’s American translator, Jay Rubin, points out, when you read his translations of Murakami, you are reading him, Jay Rubin, even if Murakami isn’t entirely happy with that fact. Jaivin would say, more subtly: Murakami and Jay Rubin. I’d add Jay Rubin as Murakami, not as Jay Rubin. Translation is not an exact “copy,” but it is a “speaking likeness” – an imitation of the writer’s style. We think of style as inimitably particular, yet the whole brief is to imitate, in a completely different language, the style of the original, accurately capturing, without overriding, the author. Yet every word of this reinvention will be the translator’s, and coloured by the translator’s personality and cultural range. “The original is faithful to the translation” (Jorge Luis Borges): Murakami as Jay Rubin?

We understand, with Jaivin, that this circularity is the pleasure principle at work, but that it only works with scrupulous precision and skill. You take out what you bring to the task of translation, as producers and consumers … which is why we need to engage with translation with more depth and less narrowness. When done with creative élan, it is a twin kindness: to the original writer and to the new audience.


Julie Rose is a translator, whose works include the first full original unabridged English translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Alexandre Dumas’ The Knight of the Maison-Rouge. In 2003 she was awarded the PEN Translation Prize.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 52, Found in Translation. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 53, That Sinking Feeling.


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