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Rachid Filali in Conversation with the Great Translator, David Bellos

KNOT:  Why have translations not taken their full right of honor and recognition until now?

BELLOS:  I think the Romantic "cult of the original” has a lot to do with it. The more we prize the authentic and the “first”, then the less regard there is for translation. But it has not always been so, and is not so in every culture even today. In Soviet Russia and in contemporary Japan (to take just two examples), translation was and is regarded as high art. 

KNOT: If Wang Wei's poetry can be translated in 19 different ways, how do you explain the success of one translation without the other, and is the style alone the reason, or can the translator's fame be added, for example?

BELLOS: I am not sure what you mean by “success”, and what time frame you are thinking of. Of course, famous writers attract more attention—but that does not mean that their translations are going to be the ones that are treasured over the ages. There’s a lot of sheer chance involved as well.

KNOT: Almost all great writers practiced translation before writing their "literary texts." Do you think that practicing translation is necessary to acquire the ability to creative write?

BELLOS: Yes, I do! It is a great shame that this truth is not much acknowledged in the English-speaking world, but I think it is obvious to writers in many other languages that translating is an excellent training exercise and a valuable way of contributing to the literature of their home countries.

KNOT:  As you mentioned in your book, the translation of the works of writers like Freud and Georges Perec needs a special genius, as the language of these writers is entirely unusual and innovative. Does this constitute a losing challenge for the translator, or is it the nature of his work?

BELLOS: Actually, I don’t think “difficult” writers are more difficult to translate than “easy” ones. Even the simplest text presents profound challenges to the translator if she thinks about it hard enough. But you don't bother to think hard enough unless the source text has high prestige or a special value, or unless you want to make it something of high prestige. From a strictly linguistic point of view, Freud is not more difficult than Tintin. What I find genuinely difficult are texts I don’t really understand. But that is not in itself a translation problem. 

KNOT: Electronic translation, "Google Translate," for example, still falls short of achieving the efforts of a good translator, but there is a clear improvement in this area, so how do you view the future of human translation from a relatively remote perspective?

BELLOS: Machine translation is certainly having a big impact on the amount of translation done and on the amount of time translators spend doing boring things. I think it is more likely to create additional demand for human translation than the reverse.


David Bellos was educated at Oxford and teaches French and Comparative Literature at Princeton, where he also directs the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. He has written biographies of Georges Perec and Jacques Tati that have been translated into many languages, and an introduction to translation studies, Is That A Fish in Your Ear? He has translated numerous authors from French (Perec, Vargas, Kadare, Simenon, Antelme, Fournel) and offers a new understanding of the extraordinary life and work of Romain Gary in Romain Gary A Tall Story. His latest book is a study of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables.

Editor at Knot Magazine

Rachid Filali was born in Algeria in 1964 and has been a journalist since 1985. Filali is a researcher in linguistics and is fluent in a number of languages: English, Arabic, French, German, Chinese, Japanese. He expressed his view about the universe and life in his first collection of poetry published in 2007. The second book published in 2014. In addition to these, he has published two books on world literature. He is also scientifically published in his study book about bees.  Currently, he is collaborating with a number of Arab and foreign magazines and works as an editor and revisor for the newspaper Elkhabar-Elriadi.

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