Translation and Voice

Voice is something that we often hear being discussed when it comes to writing, with a writer’s voice perhaps being described as strong or unique, and conversations on how to find one’s voice as a writer. But is it possible for a translator too to have a voice, and if so, is it possible for them to put forth that voice in their work?

First of all, we must consider exactly what voice is. According to Amanda Boutler,

“Our particular configuration of experience and words, knowledge and imagination gives a particular resonance to our voice. […] All language has already been spoken, and all language belongs to other people.”

Amanda Boutler, Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches, 2007

Voice then, comes from the writer’s previous experiences with words, words they have read, heard and spoken, words that they have experienced. All of these words will culminate in order to produce a unique voice which the writer can then put forth in their work. This means that whilst each individual voice may be unique, there are echoes of other voices within. Boutler continues her discussion on voice by stating that the written voice is then manipulated by and conforms to what the writer is writing:

“Voice is not simply created by the author. It is produced by a cacophony of voices: the author’s, the character’s, the narrator’s, and the reader’s.”

Amanda Boutler, Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches, 2007

A writer’s voice then contains an innumerable amount of other voices, culminating from previous voices they have heard or read, then manifesting within or conforming to voices that the writer purposefully writes within their text, for example, a character’s voice. So voice is not singular, but plural. In order to find one’s voice then, a writer must mimic other voices that have come before, using these to inspire and create their own voice, a voice that then warps to new, perhaps fictional voices within the text.

So whilst we can see how a writer ‘finds’ their voice and puts this forth in their writing, how apt is the phrase ‘finding a voice’ for the translation process? Can a translator have a voice, and if so, how do they ‘find’ it? Like Boutler asserts, a writer’s voice is an amalgamation of voices and experiences that have come before, combining in order to create a new, unique voice. We could consider then, that the translator simply adds to this amalgamation of voices, simply adding another layer, a voice now in a new language. The translator renders a combination of their reader’s voice and the source text original author’s voice into a new voice.

As well as their readerly voice and the source text’s original author’s voice, the translator too has a unique voice, one that is also influenced by the voices that surround them in their daily life. Just like a writer’s voice is made up of voices that are before theirs, so is a translator’s. In fact, perhaps even more so, translators need to be surrounded by literature, words that they can see, hear and touch. This is in the way in which they can find voices to match that of the source text author’s, or the character’s within the source text, and allow them to add a little of their voice that will inevitably appear. Edith Grossman has stated that when she cannot capture the words for a translation, she takes a walk in the city and waits for the words to ‘slip off the tongue’ of a stranger, a passerby. She ‘hears’ her translation in the voices of the city. It is possible then, that a translator’s world harbours the voices they need in order to render the source text into the target text, voices that balance between the original writer’s voice and the translator’s own.

So, it is possible for a translator to have a voice, and it is possible for that voice to be apparent in translation. However, the translator’s voice is unique, as it is a voice that must be balanced and mediated with the original author’s. The translator then, has to go beyond his/her individuality to form a ‘dual individuality’, a dual voice.

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