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Translating emotions: The good, the bad and the ugly

By Ann Marie Boulanger, Certified Translator 

Translation is not a process that can take place in a vacuum. To translate a text “well,” translators must consider a multitude of factors, including accuracy, idiomaticity, tone, style, context, source and target culture, and audience, all of which talented commercial translators tend to master with skill and aplomb. While it’s inaccurate to say that emotion never enters the equation—some so-called general or commercial texts can be quite emotional (think court proceedings, psychological assessments, adoption or immigration hearings, etc.)—most commercial translators probably go about their daily work largely impervious to the content of the documents they are translating. 

Not so for literary translators, who must open themselves up to the full spectrum of emotions—lower their forcefield, so to speak—in order to do their work effectively. They need to become temporary citizens of the emotional universe created by the author, failing which their translation will only be a pale shadow, a hollow echo, of the original work.

But how exactly does this process—that of translating emotions—work? And how does the literary translator approach the myriad emotions they are likely to encounter—positive, negative and ones that are unimaginable? 

A duo of master builders

As the creators of literary works, authors pour their lifeblood into painstakingly constructing their stories. Then along come literary translators, whose primary task, ironically, is to deconstruct those same works. Line by line, they pick apart and break down plots, settings and characters, until the bones of the story are laid bare. They immerse themselves in the time, place and personages of the work they are translating, gauging, measuring, absorbing, interpreting the author’s original intentions. And when they feel they’ve adequately understood the blueprint, then comes the most daunting part: rebuilding. 

Slowly, and just as painstakingly, literary translators begin piecing the story back together, only in a different language. If the bricks are the words, meticulously chosen to fit together seamlessly—just so—then the mortar is the subtext, that the reader cannot see but that holds the story together convincingly. In stripping the story down to its substructure, translators become privy to a layer of the text rarely accessed by the reader: the emotional bedrock, the foundation upon which the story rests.

Of course, readers experience a whole range of emotions when consuming literature. If they didn’t, then authors would be failing at their job. But, as opposed to readers, who experience these emotions in a largely superficial way—from the perspective of the characters—literary translators get a glimpse at the framework, the chassis, the inner workings of the author’s thought process. In tearing down the work, they bear witness to the emotions upon which it was built and recognize those that are needed to make it rise again.

An all-consuming task

Literary translation—and the deconstructing and reconstructing it entails—is almost without exception an immersive, consuming and draining experience. While the reader can skim the surface of the emotions underpinning the book, picking and choosing at will which ones to welcome and which ones to reject, literary translators are not afforded that liberty. They must confront and sit with all the emotions. And they must reproduce them without judgment, without filtering them through the lens of their own gut reactions. There is no saying, “Oh, that’s not very nice, let me choose a slightly less offensive word” or “This character is a little too much, maybe I’ll tone down this rant just a tad.” Even when the content is unpleasant, frightening, repulsive, or risqué, the job of the literary translator is to tap into the emotions beneath the storylines—the emotions the author deliberately infused into the text—and to reconstitute them for the reader in the other language, all the while following the original blueprint to a T. 

Granted, with some emotions, this is not terribly difficult. But with others, it’s easier said than done.

The good

Some emotions are perceived as universally positive, for example, joy, hope, love, gratitude, pride and amusement. Unless the translator is an inherently “glass half empty” sort, they shouldn’t have too much issue translating these emotions as conveyed by the author. A fairly easy, albeit somewhat clichéd, way for the translator to achieve this is to travel to their “happy place”: imagine themselves in the scenario described by the author, or failing that, tap into a personal experience that evoked the same emotion. 

The bad

Similar to the positive emotions, when it comes to conveying negative emotions, such as hate, anger, jealousy, sadness, guilt, resentment or failure, linked to so-called “normal” situations (heartbreak, bereavement, a perceived slight, etc.), the literary translator can also typically channel a lived experience.

The ugly

Other emotions, such as terror, rage, despair or hopelessness, may be associated with scenarios the translator has never experienced or finds inconceivable. This is where rebuilding the emotional bedrock of a text becomes more difficult. Literature is not all goodness, light and happy endings. Very often, literary translators are required to render horrific scenes involving murder, rape, child abuse, domestic violence, wartime atrocities, acts of terrorism, natural disasters, etc. In those cases, where the situation described (and its associated emotions) is unrelatable to the translator, the key to producing a convincing and moving translation is empathy. Much like an actor, the literary translator must step into a role, inhabit the scene, become the characters, and attempt to identify with what they are feeling and living. As the expression goes, the translator must walk a mile in the characters’ shoes.

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To a large degree, a piece of literature, regardless of the form (poem, novel, essay, etc.), is a reflection of the author’s soul. Writers often draw from their own experiences and emotions—good, bad and ugly—to craft works that will engross and engage their readers. More so than any other type of translator, literary translators get a backstage view of the “process” followed by the creator of the source text. It’s no surprise authors often say that being translated is a very strange and destabilizing process that makes them feel vulnerable and exposed. That’s because their translator has essentially “seen” them naked!

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Ann Marie Boulanger, MA, is a part-time translation lecturer at McGill University. She is a successful commercial translator, as well as a translator of adult and children’s literature. Her translation The Woman in Valencia (La femme de Valence), by Annie Perreault, was included in World Literature Today’s List of Notable Translations of 2021.


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