Loss and gain: the art of literary translation

On Tuesday 9 February the translators of the work of Dame Antonia Byatt met in Leiden to discuss their work with the author herself. The day before, Byatt had received an Honorary Doctorate from Leiden University at the Dies natalis. 'Can we say that the art of translation is the art of loss?'

Dame Antonia Byatt receives a belated 'Sinterklaas' gift, a pack of Dutch syrup waffles, from Richard Todd. (Photo: Judith Laanen)


‘Can we say that the art of translation is the art of loss?’ was the provocative opening question posed by Claus Bech, translator of Antonia Byatt’s works into Danish. Quite the contrary, was the unanimous opinion of the international translators gathered to exchange views and experiences on literary translation: a translation exists in its own right, in parallel with the original.

Translators' symposium

On Tuesday 9 February a number of eminent international translators of the works of Dame Antonia Byatt met in Leiden to discuss their work with the author herself. The symposium was organised by Richard Todd, Professor of British Literature, as part of the celebrations surrounding Leiden’s conferral of an Honorary Doctorate on Dame Antonia. The symposium was supported financially by the Expertise Centre for Literary Translation (ELV).

The cover of the Dutch translation of The Children’s Book, to be published in March by De Bezige Bij.

Close relationship

It was clear that Dame Antonia and the translators of her works have built up excellent relationships over the years. Anna Nadotti, from Italy, for example, has translated all Byatt’s books over the past twenty years into Italian; Claus Bech and Melanie Walz have had the same challenge, but into Danish and German respectively. The strength of the relationships that can be forged was particularly evident in the esteem and affection that Dame Antonia expressed for Jean-Louis Chevalier, French professor emeritus at the University of Caen, who translated all Byatt’s works to appear in French and who was awarded the Prix Baudelaire for his translation of Possession. Sadly, Chevalier has since passed away and at Byatt’s request, the Symposium was dedicated to him.


One of the difficulties when translating from English, as these translators experienced, is the richness of the English language, which is by no means always matched in the target language. As an example there is the range of words in English to describe imaginary little beings from the world of mythology: elves, gnomes, fairies, will-o-the-wisps, goblins, pixies, brownies, nymphs, sprites, sylphs, to name but a very few. For translators such as Kersti Juva from Finland and Tania Samsonova from Russia, this can apparently be quite a challenge, one they have learned to be extremely resourceful and inventive in meeting. The more limited range of words available to them means there may not be any word that conveys the exact ‘feeling’ of the English word, and if there is a suitable equivalent, what do you do if in a paragraph of English the same ‘little people’ are referred to ten times using ten different words, but you have just the one option? If you keep repeating the same word, you'll soon lose your reader.

Gerda Baardman who has been a literary translator for over thirty years and who has recently translated The Children’s Book into Dutch, in collaboration with Marian Lameris, shares this view. ‘Dutch does not have quite the rich vocabulary of English; as with most of my colleagues, translating novels takes up all of my time, creativity and intellectual capacities.’

Weak females

Marete Alfsen from Norway presented the problem of a Danish word for ‘girl’: veikj. The word suits the period she needs to portray. Fine, you might think, but in Danish the word veik means ‘weak’. Yet, Byatt’s females are generally far from weak. So, then the translator has to wrestle with the question of whether this word’s association with ‘weak’ might negatively impact the Danish reader’s image of the character. After some discussion, Byatt herself concluded that for her it was not inconceivable that the character’s name might have some connotation of weak; it could even serve as a means of emphasizing her strength.


What is it your aim as a translator? Do you want to convey the atmosphere of the England of Byatt’s work? Or should you try to transpose the novel to the local culture? Names: to translate or not to translate? How do you represent British accents and dialects to the non-English reader? The choices made by translators vary from novel to novel, from country to country, from publisher to publisher and from translator to translator. That’s what makes it such a challenging and fascinating profession.

Dame Antonia Byatt receiving her Honorary Doctorate from Leiden University on 8 February.

Translators have to be writers

It’s common knowledge that translators are not in it for the money. Literary translation iis notorious for being among the poorest paid areas of academic work. Yet, these dedicated individuals have to be as erudite, academic, cultured, literary and linguistically skilled as the authors they are translate. In fact, translators have to be writers themselves. So why do they do it? One thing these professionals agreed on was that with literary translation – and above all with a writer such as Byatt – you can be sure you will be working with a source text of impeccable quality: ‘It’s a privilege to translate such beautiful words, put together with such skill.’

But why don’t they write themselves? Kersti Juva’s immediate response was ‘I love writing but I don’t have the imagination to create a novel.’ Gerda Baardmans was more pragmatic: ‘I have no lack of imagination, but you can’t do everything, and translation is a challenging and fulfilling way of working with language and literature.’ On the subject of poor remuneration, she said of the situation in the Netherlands: ‘It’s hard to make a living by translating, but fortunately there are such organisations as the Dutch Foundation for Literature that provides a number of grants and subsidies, which makes it just about feasible.’

‘Gained in translation’

The issues of globalisation and internationalisation that occupy so many areas of society are also very apparent in the world of literature. Both the translators and Byatt – and more authoritative professionals it would be hard to imagine – stressed the importance of the role of translated literature in promoting international understanding and awareness. Their long years of experience have convinced them that translated literature represents a true gain in transcultural enrichment. The translation and the original literary work exist in parallel, and each is a valuable work in its own right.

Whose work is it?

The significance of translated literature was clearly demonstrated by Italian translator, Anna Nadotti. In Italy, the best-seller list is dominated by translations. Eight out of ten of the top ten novels are translations. A question that springs to mind with translated literature is: whose work is the translated novel? Is it still the undisputed work of the novelist? Kersti Juva’s decided response was: ‘ It’s definitely mine! I chose every word in it.’ Byatt confessed that she never reads the translations of her works. That speaks of an enormous confidence on her part in these skilful and dedicated translators who are responsible for the safe passage of her works to the consciousness of readers throughout the world.

The Dutch translation of The Children’s Book (Het Boek van de Kinderen) will be available on 4 March 2010, published by De Bezige Bij.
Introductory price to 1 April 2010: 29.90 euro, thereafter 34.90 euro


Expertise Centre for Literary Translation (ELV) (iin Dutch)
ELV supports translators' symposium with A.S. Byatt (in Dutch)

(16 February 2010/Marilyn Hedges)

Last Modified: 24-02-2010