Unravelling the fibres of language

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  • , Non-Fiction

As part of my gleeful anticipation of attending the Literary Translation Summer School at UEA next week, I’ve been re-reading ‘Loosed in Translation’, the Sebald Lecture given by Ali Smith earlier this year. In it, she quotes the translator Merete Alfsen: ‘Translators ‘work’ the language in a way which is different from the way people generally use it…the language itself, its uses and possibilities, are loosed in the act of translation.’

This image really struck a chord with me, because I’ve often thought of translation as a kind of unravelling of fibres. When I was younger, before my fascination with the German language came along and stole me away, I spent most of my free time sketching, painting and dreaming of a future as an artist. So, as a visual person, perhaps it was inevitable that I would approach languages in a similar way. Many translators cite the rhythm of language as being the most important feature to ‘transfer’ in translation, and also as the thing which is most easily lost. And I agree, don’t get me wrong. I understand the importance of the way a text sounds, and often read my translation drafts out loud as I go along. But, for me, it’s visual too. It’s about the way the words dance around on the page, how they interact with each other, how they jump off at me, how some jostle for more attention than others.

In my mind, the idea of those linguistic ‘fibres’ is inextricably linked with the process of learning a new language. When I first started learning German, I would flick forward to the very last chapter of our school textbook and feel frustrated by how impenetrable the sentences seemed. I recognized a sprinkling of the words, but visually the text looked like a tangle of thorns intent on dissuading me. Or to use another image, the words I knew appeared in bold and the yet-to-be-discovered ones were faded, untouchable.

But with time and effort, those tangles gradually unravelled and the faded words came into focus. The more intimate you become with the nuances of a foreign language, the more a well-written text will entice you in rather than dissuade you.

It seems to me that the fibres of the German language, particularly when it comes to sentence structure, are more closely intertwined than other foreign languages I’ve encountered so far. (German is the only language I’ve gone the distance with, but I’ve studied French, Italian, Dutch and Russian to varying degrees, and am now trying to learn Latin American Spanish). To me though, the particular challenges posed by German are what make translating it so rewarding.