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Author 'There is a magic to literary translation, it matters'

Carolina Schutti, author of ‘Without Waking Up,’ discusses language and translation.

GOOGLE TRANSLATE AND ChatGPT have long since superseded the dictionary and it won’t be long before we can converse in foreign languages in real time.

While technical advancements sometimes cause us to shudder, they more often astound and delight us at the possibilities offered, making us feel our lives will be made easier from now on. However, neither a robot vacuum cleaner nor the mobile phone which translates my order in a robotic voice in an Italian trattoria is either magical or” sexy”.

Literary translation, however, is and remains magical. As we all know, it is not just the words of a piece of good literature which create the magic, and the art, but the spaces between them. This space is filled with images and emotions and is the reason why we read.

Reading is itself a form of translation; simple written symbols are translated into spoken words, which can themselves become an image of a film running before our inner eye, enabling an immersive involvement in the narrative. The more the story moves us emotionally, the longer we remember it.

Language matters

In everyday life, we encounter the discrepancy between spoken word and meaning all too often. A casual, throwaway “I love you” can be just as hurtful as a swear word. “You swine” whispered gently, can become an intimate term of endearment. And while the biblical “let your yes be yes, and your no be no” might be worth striving for, in our everyday lives we are usually moving through a kind of grey area where the boundaries blur.


It is these grey areas, these gaps and shadowy places that require true magic so that they can be transferred into another language and thus into another cultural realm. Not only do translators need to be ready to be moved by a story but they must also take responsibility for it.

They may delve at will into a treasure chest of words, constructions, and possibilities until they eventually build a new version.

For this creation, they need to juggle so that they render the original author’s intentions properly while keeping an eye on the cultural background of the new readership.

Let me give you an example to illustrate this: “Without Waking Up” appeared in Croatian and sometime later in Serbian. I undertook reading tours in both countries and saw at close range how the once shared language was becoming increasingly separate. Although the book will be understood in both Serbian and Croatian, there is scarcely a common word, even the sentence structure was changed whenever possible – not to mention the writing system. New social and political realities are being cemented more and more into the language.

It was different in countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, where national identity is closely linked with the language and translation plays an important and often quite highly regarded role. For example, if I allow an Austrian novel to be translated into Ukrainian, I elevate the status of Ukrainian, reinforcing the significance of this language and, to a certain extent, safeguarding its cultural and national identity. A Georgian interview partner once told me that language and identity are an existential theme for Georgian culture and therefore for Georgian literature.

I have realised on many reading tours that the value of literature is higher in societies whose culture is under threat than in the “large” central European countries who have long been secure in their world status.

Languages such as English are unbelievably important to enable humanity to move closer together; I am not an opponent of globalisation if it means that we can engage with each other, eye to eye and eventually come to understand that we are all not just inhabitants of the same planet but also stem from the same ancestors.

But that doesn’t just mean that we are all equal. So, as there are different solutions for technical problems – zip versus buttons versus belts – there are different ways of expressing ourselves. Language influences our thinking and with it, our behaviour, and this abundance must be protected. Translation is key to this; when a translator embraces a work they bow down before another language and culture. Translation isn’t just about magic but also with respect and appreciation.

Carolina Schutti is an Austrian-born author, academic and musician. She has published five novels including this one and is the Austrian winner of the European Literature Prize in 2015. Her book, Without Waking Up is translated by Deirdre McMahon, is published by Bullaun Press – Ireland’s first publisher exclusively dedicated to work in translation.

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