Literary Translation is The Only Work I Do.

Interview with Peter Constantine who translates from seven different languages into English. He lives in New York.
Interview conducted by Filip Noubel.

How did you become involved with the language(s) and culture(s) you translate from?

We spoke several languages at home. I grew up in Greece, but my mother was Austrian and my father was British, so ever since I can remember I spoke English, German, and Greek. Also our village in Austria is on the border with Slovakia, so Slovak was my first “foreign” language; French and Russian I learned at school. I was intending to study Russian literature either in Kiev or Moscow, but that didn’t come about.

Do you have a definition of literary translation or a theory of literary translation you are close to?

I have always made a distinction between the theory and practice of translation; for me the practice is central. The great British poet-translator John Dryden suggested that one needs to balance translating word-for-word with literary paraphrase, which I believe is an effective approach. One must stay as close to the original as one can, but do one’s best to recreate the effect and impression of the original in the language of one’s readers.

Do you have advice for young translators on how to improve skills of literary translation?

First of all, it is important to translate only into one’s mother tongue, or at least into the language in which one lives in and is immersed in. I have often come across young translators who translate into a language they are studying or have studied. It is also vital for translators to read literature in many genres of their own language. A translator’s literary range has to be extensive if he or she is to render the stylistic range and nuance of a literary text.

This is an ongoing debate but do you think a literary translation should be closer to the original text or closer to the reader in the language of the translation?

As an American translator, my translations have to appeal to an English-speaking audience—they are the readers for whom my translations are intended. A translation that stays lexically close to the original text ends up moving far away from it: the impression, style, music and context of the original are lost.

If you are translating an author who is alive, do you contact him/her and if so what is your experience?

Interacting with the author of a work can be extremely rewarding, but is sometimes problematic. An author who has some knowledge of the language you are translating into might want to influence your translation. In one of my first translations, the author insisted I use the word order of his original Dutch text; his English was quite good, but he was not a native speaker. Having a pileup of clauses in very long sentences with the verb at the end did not seem strange or unidiomatic to him. His intervention became a problem that could not be resolved, and the translation had to be cancelled.

Do you have any translation rituals?

I translate every day, unless I’m travelling somewhere. I generally work in the mornings.

Besides literary translation, do you have another job? Is so, what is it?

Literary translation is the only work I do.

Why does literary translation matter?

One could write volumes about the importance of literary translation. In fact the great American translator Edith Grossman has written a fine book on this subject, which I recommend: it is called Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press).

About Peter Constantine

Constantine was born to an Austrian mother and a British father of Turkish and Greek descent. He grew up in Greece and in the United States and continued to study languages. Today he translates into English from a variety of languages: German, Russian, French, Modern Greek, Ancient Greek, Italian, Albanian, Dutch and Slovene. His translations include works by Mann, Babel, Chekhov, Gogol, Voltaire, Machiavelli, Kadare for which he has received numerous awards: the National Translation Award in 1999 in the US, the Hellenic Association of translators of Literature Prize in 2004 in Greece, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize in 2007.