'What is said' vs 'How it is said' in literary translation
When thinking about translation, our mind instinctually takes on a route that fixes our attention to the meaning standing behind the words; to what is said rather than to how it is said. Which makes sense, of course.
But what sets literary translation apart from all other branches of translation is that what is said is just as important as how it is said.
Unlike technical translation, where the primary focus lies on the meaning (what is said), literary translation requires not only work on the meaning (what is said) but also stylistic work (how it is said.)
Work of a literary translator is not just delivering the meaning but also delivering the literary richness through stylistic and editorial work.
There is no precise recipe for how to achieve it or how to make your translation shine as bright as in the original text, with the same flow and style. But through studying works of other translators and knowing what to pay attention to, you can develop some kind of fulcrums that will help and navigate you in your translation work.
Think about it this way: what is said is the body of translation, whereas how it is said is a set of clothes. And though the body is the first important thing to take care of, what you dress this body in, which set of clothes (words) you put on it matters as much; it is the cherry on the cake.
Let’s see how it works on some examples:
"Leg brace," he replied, polite but unencouraging. - “Накладки,” ответил он суховато.
The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
Ученик воина / Лоис Макмастер Буджолд
Look at the final piece of this sentence: polite but unencouraging. These are two words that can be literally translated as ‘вежливо, но не утешительно’ which might, at first sight, sound fine. But this translation is just the body - literal meaning of what is said. If the translator let it stay this way, it would be muddy and literary clumsy. Instead, ‘вежливо, но не утешительно’ was neatly wrapped into just one word, ‘суховато.’
Now the body (what is said) is stylistically shaped into the right set of clothes (word) (how it is said.)
They made an odd couple: one blond and pale, the other dark-haired and coffee-skinned. - Пара получилась странная: она, бледная блондинка, и он, черноволосый с кожей цвета кофе.
Judas Strain by James Rollins
Печать Иуды / Джеймс Роллинс
In this example, let’s have a look at ‘the other dark-haired and coffee-skinned.’ Now even though this sentence may look like a piece of cake, it is actually a bit tricky and needs your sense of literary dynamics to shape a better translation. In all the richness of the Russian language and its flexibility, this part could be translated in many different ways, most of which would be quite appropriate.
For example, it could be translated as ‘и он, c волосами цвета ночи и кожей цвета кофе.’ And though this translation reflects better on the mirrored way of description used in the original text ‘dark-haired and coffee-skinned,' it would poorly work with the dynamics of this sentence and mess a bit up with ‘how it is said’ part, not to mention that it would also hurt the structure of the Russian sentence.
His terrible exhaustion could be seen through his excitement. - Сквозь возбужденное состояние духа уже проглядывало страшное бессилие.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Преступление и наказание / Фёдор Достоевский
To be honest, I do not find the English translation of this sentence fully reflecting on the style, dynamics and versatility of the Russian sentence, but for those who read the whole book, I think it’s legit to say that the translation work done on this literary masterpiece is impressive, indeed. And though it is different from how translation is done these days, the way the meaning was statistically rewrapped and represented in English language should not be ignored or devalued.
Let’s see what direct translation of this sentence would look like:
A terrible exhaustion could already be seen through the excited state of his mind.
As a stand alone, this sentence might look fine. But if the translator went for the direct stamping of literal meaning standing behind the words throughout the whole book, the final translation would end up heavy and probably indigestible. To avoid such unnecessary effect in your translation, it makes sense to take ‘what is said and try to work it through ‘how it is said.
Now when you know that in translation ‘what is said’ is just as important as ‘how it is said,’ you can make your final translation significantly richer and fuller. But be careful to not overdo it.
My golden rule is:
Stay to the original text as close as possible but be ready to take accountability for the parts that need additional work.