Toni Aquilina, D. es L., associate professor at the University of Malta and one of the foremost translators of FARAXA Publishing, was recently interviewed by Malta Today regarding the role of literary translation in our times. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
Q: Do you think literary translation is becoming more and more crucial for local writers? Why?
A: By ‘local writers’ you seem to be referring to those among us here in Malta who write exclusively in Maltese. They exist of course, but this is very far from the truth. Maltese literary authors (and translators are authors) for the most part indulge in at least two languages. The confusion in the minds of a good number of readers springs from the substantial financial backing that the Culture Council has been putting at the disposal of those who believe we have something worthwhile exporting, which is not wrong in itself. But I honestly believe we are putting the cart before the horse.
Without minimizing the obvious merits of a few authors writing in the vernacular, I feel we should acknowledge that there is indeed very little written in Maltese that deserves the attention of the international reading public, and that ‘importing’ foreign masterpieces through worthy translations into Maltese (flooding the market if this were possible) would be more beneficial, because this is how the Maltese language can grow and successfully compete with English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian and the rest. On the other hand, if ‘exportable’ local authors are few and far between, good translators who can do justice to their talent in other languages are a rarity. This does not mean that we should concentrate exclusively on translations of foreign authors into Maltese. Far from it. Let us also hone the tools of those of us who are predisposed for this sort of work and have the gift of tongues so to speak. This is what we are doing, after all, with regard to translators into Maltese at the Faculty of Arts of the University through the Department of Translation, Terminology and Interpreting Studies.
Good translations into Maltese, like for example, The Diary of Anne Frank by an ex-student of mine, should at the very least be allowed to share equally the meager resources that exist, thus making it possible for them to see the light of day. We are not even talking here of allocating funds to pay translators a deserved fee. I have repeatedly knocked on the door of the Culture Council among others to see how part of the translation rights for the above-mentioned book could be met. It is a pity and a shame at the same time that even in the field of translations, fifty years after independence, we are investing much more in translating Maltese literature into other languages than foreign languages into our own. Yet again, we owe it to foreigners (principally thanks to EU membership policy) that we are witnessing an impetus, if not an outright revival, in Maltese Language Studies.
Q: What are some of the key skills that need to be cultivated by aspiring literary translators? Are we in a position to cultivate these skills?
A: Reading strategies and language analysis basically. Then follows practice, a lot of practice on a daily basis, while doing comparative studies of other people’s translations vis-à-vis the original texts. This should make translation processes meaningful and enjoyable until they become second nature to prospective translators. Translation is really a combination of skills and this is what makes good translators authors in their own right. They definitely need a nigh perfect command of both Source and Target languages, a good ear for the best distribution possible of word clusters and enough translation theory to see you through when the going gets tough. Each language has its peculiarities and therefore juggling with the various translation tools at one’s disposal, such as shifts, transpositions, change of polarity, expansion and reduction, to mention but a few, becomes the order of the day.
Let me answer your second question now. I honestly believe that in these last ten years, the Department of Translation, Terminology and Interpreting Studies [at the University of Malta] has provided the means to cultivate the necessary skills. Not only has it succeeded to cater for the needs of the translation market, created thanks to Maltese becoming an official language of the EU, but it has also contributed, through various publications, to demonstrate how well theory can be put into practice with regard to literary translations.
Q: Should Maltese literature focus primarily on English translations? Which other languages would it be relevant to translate Maltese books into?
A: To my way of thinking, you don’t discriminate between one language and another. It’s all a matter of whether you have a really good translator for the target language of your choice. We should know our limitations. Let’s be humble enough and admit that the vast majority of us are not really bilingual. The faster we shed this myth the better, because only then can literary translators feel free to admit the enormous effort and research it takes to produce a good translation, and lay claim on a just reward for their work.
Q: Given how Maltese – like any other language – is evolving all the time, what would be the best way to keep track of emerging new terminology and slang, with an eye to ensuring that any translation of works that makes use of this new idiom is also up-to-date and relevant?
A: It would be presumptuous of me to give a straightforward answer to this question. To begin with, the reality of emerging new terminology and slang is not relevant only to the Maltese language. Language is something alive and is therefore shaped by the realities of the day, everywhere around the world. A good number of local modern authors are using these, some with good effect like Immanuel Mifsud and Meilak, for example. Translating these, while at the same time striving to retain their meaning and flavor, is an obvious challenge for any translator. This is where strategy comes in, of course. You can go for domestication, foreignisation, or a mixture of both. Guy de Maupassant in the 19th century frequently opted for the latter regarding his Franco-Prussian and Normandy tales. The problem lies elsewhere, in my opinion. We simply cannot continue to borrow words lock, stock and barrel from English and pretend to make them Maltese just by dressing them up in the Maltese orthography. This is ridiculous to say the least. First you need to have in place a system of permanent ‘cells’ made up of experts in as many fields of knowledge as possible. This can be achieved through the existing set-up of the University Departments. These cells will then be coordinated by a permanent, full-time, terminology committee within the Council of the Maltese Language. Through scientific approaches, ways and means of forming new words can be explored and thus pre-empting all possible lexical problems. This in time before the media takes over, creating havoc and practically blocking the introduction of adequate neologisms which would otherwise enter the language without much ado (as we have recently seen in the case of “stessu/i” for the term selfie/s).