Translation: The purest form of engagement with a text?3 min read

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Most of us at Ricepaper speak more than one language. Growing up 8,000 miles away from Vancouver, I too speak more than one language. Indonesian is my native tongue, with English as my second language.

In recent years I’m so used to speaking, thinking, and even dreaming in English that the longer I am in Vancouver the harder it is for me to talk in Indonesian about my daily life. When I Skype my parents at home, it’s often difficult for me to tell them what I do at work or what my opinions are on a political matter, because I think and process my thoughts in a different language. So when I try to explain them something in Indonesian, I have to translate my thoughts from English.


My experience shows that translation can be tricky even on the most basic level. How complex and difficult is it to translate a deeper thought, a body of work, a piece of prose or a poem? I may be able to speak both Indonesian and English, but can I translate a literary piece from one language to another? I don’t think it’s that easy.

Translated books usually have a translator’s note in the first few pages. Often, the translator has to explain to the readers their choices of words, phrasing, or decisions to translate certain words in the footnotes instead of directly doing that in-text. After reading so many of these notes, I can see how translators take a lot of pride of their work—which they should, because it’s not an easy feat—and how it’s not just a matter of picking up the dictionary and using the first meaning you find to replace the word you want to translate. A good translator understands not only the surface, but also the deeper meaning.

Translating prose or a poem, I think, is similar to analyzing texts like the way students do in university. You have to take a small part of the text one by one, to go deeper, fleshing out the meaning the author intended and recreating the same feeling and atmosphere that are invoked by the original text. It is time-consuming. A process has to be revisited many times for the translator to properly dig into the work. If the translator has no way of meeting and working with the author personally, he or she has to immersed themselves completely in the work, as to translate it as perfectly as possible.


Translation, however, can be quite a controversial topic. Vladimir Nabokov argued that a translator has to possess an equal amount of talent to the original author. This is a tricky requirement, in my opinion, because it can undermine a translator’s motivation and discourages many to work hard in translating works they are passionate about. Nabokov and his longtime friend Edmund Wilson even broke their friendship over the issue of translation, a contested concept that it is.

Ricepaper has published a few translated works in our recent issues, such as Josh Stenberg’s translation of Scholar Dong and Madam Li by Wang Renjie and Sally Ito’s translation of Sumo and Tennis by Toshiro Saito.

Would you like to see more translated work in Ricepaper? What are your thoughts of translating literary works? Let us know in the comment section below.

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