On L2 (“non-native”) translation

(originally published by The Linguist magazine, issue 56, 1, February/March 2017)

There are many names attached to the practice this article discusses: L2, non-native, bilingual or inverted translation. They all describe translation out of one’s ‘native’ language into a ‘non-native’ one. The terminology is still in flux, and as my inverted commas suggest, even the most basic terms defining the practice are disputable. I will use ‘bilingual translation’, although this term is not without its problems.

Bilingual translation has not been extensively researched and, maybe partly for this reason, it provokes a frisson of disapproval, at least in the literary translation community, which is my background. Nonetheless, it is widely practised, especially from ‘smaller’ languages, as the limited number of native English speakers able to translate from them encourages others to act as ambassadors of the literature.

I became interested in bilingual translation when I moved to London after working for a few years as a literary translator into Polish, my native language. Four years ago, I attended the London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Centre for the first time. During a discussion following one of the events, a German audience member mentioned that she wanted to translate into English. Someone sitting next to me whispered, “But why would you want to do that?”. This was the first of many instances I witnessed of bilingual translation being treated as whimsical at best, and gross incompetence at worst.

This bias has demonstrable consequences: bilingual translators I have spoken to report being denied work on the basis of their nativity status or nationality (although one said a publisher changed their mind after reading a sample of her work), and seeing translation grants advertised that only invite applications from ‘native-speaker translators’.

Disapproval of bilingual translation seems to stem from a belief that, if a translator comes to a language later in life, she cannot inhabit it fully, cannot use it with the flexibility and nuance required of a competent translator. It is the same assumption that prompts many English language schools to advertise teaching posts only aimed at ‘native speakers’ – sometimes regardless of whether they have relevant experience or a teaching qualification.

Silvana Richardson delivered an eye-opening plenary on the issue of native speakerism in EFL (English as a foreign language) teaching during the 2016 IATEFL conference.1 She cites research analysing whether students really prefer native-speaking teachers. What emerges is that both native and non-native teachers are perceived to be competent, each with unique strengths.

Parallel research to verify whether editors and readers can differentiate between translations provided by native and non-native translators would be very interesting. Can we attribute any sharp points to a non-native mis-rendering? Or can these be due, just as often, to the texture of the original text or the work of a native translator? Maybe it is impossible to tell the difference.

Language ownership

Literary translation is less professionalised than EFL teaching. A diploma is still not a requirement for a successful career – many eminent translators say they “fell into” the profession. If we, as an industry, are content to accept this democratic approach, the issue of language ownership, frequently conflated with national identity, seems to become critical.

I propose that distinctions such as ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ are becoming irrelevant. Richardson notes that the very idea of ‘second language acquisition’ can be more usefully reframed as ‘plurilingual development’. The PETRA-E Framework for Literary Translation, developed by eight eminent scientific institutions to map out five levels of competence for literary translators, from ‘beginner’ to ‘expert’, does not mention the translator’s linguistic status once.2 Instead, even for the most advanced levels, it mentions pragmatic manifestations of language skill: “can justify choices made in translations”, “can write publishing reports”, “optimal creative ability”.

Both an informal survey of bilingual translators I conducted, and a panel about non-native translation I organised and chaired at this year’s London Book Fair (LBF),3 were expressive of an open-minded, descriptive, pragmatic approach to language use. My respondents emphasised the importance of the quality of the text produced over the identity of the translator. When discussing the latter, they were alive to the complexities involved, keen to add nuance to our understanding of how we come to use languages, and supportive of the translator embracing all the national and linguistic aspects of their experience. After all, as one of the participants of the LBF panel pointed out, issues such as mixed parentage and international upbringing (not to mention migration to a target-language country) blur the native/non-native distinction.

A large number of my respondents did not define themselves as bilingual translators – just as translators. That does not, however, invalidate their various identities, linguistic histories and individual preferences – which all translators have.

During the LBF seminar we discussed translation as creative writing, focusing more on the similarities than the differences between these two artificially separated groups: ‘native’ and ‘non-native’. All translators, Maureen Freely noted, are writers, and all benefit from enhancing the tools they use to write, for example experimenting with voice, register and style. As translators we try to travel back and forth between languages, understanding what language is and exploring the things that lie beneath. Furthermore, all translators need to find their niche, the texts they find most rewarding to work on – whether it is smooth Oxbridge diction or the deliberately fractured patois of a first-generation immigrant – but also be flexible enough to accommodate other styles.

Retiring the dichotomy of native versus non-native would help to do away with the impostor syndrome and the lack of confidence many bilingual translators struggle with. This can even lead those with foreign-sounding surnames to use their English married names, or pseudonyms, so they are not rejected out of hand by editors and clients. Interestingly, some bilingual translators I interviewed considered this ‘impostor syndrome’ to be an asset, as it made them second-guess and deeply analyse their linguistic choices.

Collaboration vs chaperoning

Co-translation is widely proposed as a way of integrating bilingual translators: they provide the first draft of the target text, and then a native speaker of the target language produces a final version. While some of my respondents work like this – one says she “can’t imagine working in any other way” – this is only one form of co-translation.

My view is that, while all translators can find co-translation stimulating, more sociable, and more rewarding, considering the quick verification of their proposed solutions, the suggestion that a bilingual translator should necessarily want a chaperone when engaging with a language is not helpful and, again, assumes a hierarchy of language competence that has not been verified.

The bilingual translator may have acquired her target language later in life, but if she approached the process seriously, she would have spent years decoding the rules that govern the language, learning from various teachers and possibly doing some teaching herself, diving headfirst into the literature and culture. The difference is that the process of expanding the user’s linguistic repertoire happens consciously, not via the osmosis granted to the ‘native’ speaker.

This is not to say that either way of acquiring a language is better – and there are endless other ways between those ends of the linguistic spectrum. It is to argue that, if they are all rooted in a deep, passionate interest in the language, in continued professional development, in keeping the translator’s voice rich and flexible, then they are equally valid and neither should disqualify the translator from engaging with the language in active and creative yet rigorous ways.


1 See . Checked 13/1/17

2 See Checked 13/1/17

3 See Checked 13/1/17

Oh dear

You know what it’s like. You create an online space for yourself, you love it intensely for a while and everything about it is very important, and then real life hits you in the face and then it’s a year later. It’s all good though – I’ve just been busy with finding my place in London, finding ways in which I can become useful, learning and doing new things. I’ve had an excerpt of my translation into English published by For Books’ Sake, of Sylwia Chutnik’s punchy Hustlerettes. If you prefer your translation the other way round and more subtle, three of her poems in my translation saw the light of day in Artpapier. New Statesman ran my feature on Polish politician and activist Anna Grodzka.

But the biggest adventure has been becoming Free Word Centre‘s Translator in Residence. It’s such an amazing opportunity – it pushes me to my limits, what with the fact I also have a job in a publishing house, but hey! I’ve written a reading list for them, held an event on contracts for literary translators, will hold another one, on women’s voices in international literature, on March 10th, and then there’s the big one – my own seminar at the London Book Fair. I also experimented with co-translation for the first time, with the brilliant Anna Hyde: we worked on Irit Amiel’s very short story for Holocaust Memorial Day. After interpreting for the Polish cult activist “Major” Fydrych, I wrote on the relevance of orange dwarf hats to Polish politics and translated reportage on Chechen refugees in a Polish school. Also, bizarrely, I was interviewed by the incredible writer and poet Wioletta Grzegorzewska, who was nominated for the prestigious literary award Nike this year for her oneiric yet gritty childhood novel “Guguly” (forthcoming in English from Portobello, in Eliza Marciniak’s translation), for her series of talks with Polish writers, translators and poets who now live in the UK.

So here’s the linkdump that is now my professional life. Curious to see where that takes me.

“Plexus” – Kaori Ito and Aurélien Bory at Sadler’s Wells

The setting is stunning, but simple: there are thousands of thin ropes stretching from the ceiling to the floor, forming a sort of cage; there are simple light effects which change the mood from intimate to inhuman, from erotic to religious; there is some dark fabric; and one dancer. Sounds are minimal – some beats and the amplified heartbeat and stomping of Kaori Ito’s feet.


The ropes provide a completely unique environment. Ito’s interaction with them has an incredible range – she hurls herself against them violently (at the same time showing that the platform at which the ropes end is separate from the stage, so she can make the whole structure swing ponderously), she walks among them, almost naked, using them and the light as curtains that allow glimpses of her nearly naked body, she climbs on them, she allows them to support her weight in acrobatic contortions. The sheer versatility of the setting, the lighting and Ito’s absolute mastery of her body add to a narrative which, depending on how pessimistic you feel, can be anything from a meditation on our imprisonment between bars of surveillance to a hopeful story of finding new identities and possibilities within that imprisonment, of learning to dance regardless of constraints.

As a performer, Kaori Ito has great stage presence and is unbelievably expressive; aided by the light, her movement is in turns reminiscent of The Quay Brothers’ stop-motion animation figures, jerky and hectic or acrobatic and seductive. I have seen reviews that accused this performance of being emotionally distant, but I didn’t think that was the case – there are elements of horror there, of fighting against the passage of time, of finding moments of grace and harmony. Even though constrained by innumerable obstacles, hers is a beautiful struggle.

“(…) the first truth is in the earth and the body.”


Clarice Lispector

Finally read Clarice Lispector. Specifically – Near to the Wild Heart (translated by Alison Entrekin, published by Penguin Modern Classics). I’d had her on my list for a while now, but I don’t think I was prepared for the way this book impressed me. The reader follows a young woman called Joana from childhood to adulthood; she is unsettling, whimsical, independent. We see her evolve and try to communicate with others: her widowed father, her hateful aunt, her husband Otavio, his lover Lidia. We glimpse Joana as complex, willful, fascinating to others, submerged within her self.

Plot-wise there’s not much; conversations, states of mind, a flow of emotions. Alison Entrekin had her work cut out for her – translating this sort of gossamer language is not easy. What emerges, however, is a book that I’m sure will stay with me, because a weft of razor-sharp observations runs through the warp of subtlety. Lispector is masterful at naming experiences and feelings that are on the knife edge between the conscious and the unconscious and that I, for one, have felt, but never seen them described – never thought they could be described at all.

While I haven’t got enough Portuguese to appreciate the original, I felt Entrekin’s translation pulsed with a rhythm in which nothing jarred, in which the hazy and the precise interplayed beautifully. If reading the book takes a lot of work, translating it must have been very difficult indeed – Lispector uses language in a way that’s entirely her own. In an interview, Entrekin says: “(…) with Clarice the big challenge any translator faces is allowing her to be herself. This is easier said than done.” I found it very easy to trust the translation and accept that the unusual prose does exactly what it should; the amount of underlined passages in the book attests to that. There are esoteric moments, but I believe this has nothing to do with the quality of the translation – rather with the fact that both Clarice and Joana focus on things which are not exactly run-of-the-mill.

Near to the Wild Heart is a dense, short book, an invitation to a world that is intensely personal, but allows for moments of radiant recognition.

“Digital Revolution” at the Barbican.

The Digital Revolution exhibition does something interesting: it enables you to interact with technology through the medium of the computers of the age. So not only you can see Apple computers from the eighties; you get to play games on them. There’s Pong on a machine whose only feature is a knob you turn to move your paddle up and down. There’s Tetris on ancient Gameboys. The effect is pure joy, or at least it was for me – to see technology so obviously outdated yet still serving (some of) its purpose is exciting because it’s unusual. Spurred by Moore’s law and planned obsolescence we replace, update and upgrade, while equipment from twenty years ago might still fulfil its purpose.

Seeing ancient games and programmes in their original ecosystems is the joy of the old technology; experiencing the seamless way in which it enhances and changes (bodily) reality is the joy of the supermodern. There are many cliches about wearable technology and all the ways in which we approach transhumanism – in itself a controversial idea. The examples shown at the exhibition were memorable and interesting mainly because they transcended those cliches by emphasising the human, the personal, even the spiritual. It was uncanny to see my own silhouette with huge raven wings, moving in time with me (Chris Milk). The story of how Not Impossible Labs and Zach Lieberman devised a pioneering apparatus for creating graffiti using only eye movement – for a paralysed friend – shows that technology does not have to limit our creativity and enclose us in a virtual bubble, but can do precisely the opposite. Pauline Van Dongen‘s garments incorporate solar panels; the idea that your dress can be a source of green energy is mindblowing. Katia Vega‘s Kinisi, LED-assisted make-up which reacts to the wearer’s facial expressions, is an alluring human version of bioluminescence.

That, and more, is technology which engages emotions, solves problems, expands the body and enables us to think and express ourselves in new ways. It can be touching, poetic, sensual. It seems like there’s myriad experiences we’ve never had before that will become possible. If you’re excited by that thought, go to the Barbican – you have until September 14th.

Marina Abramović’s “512 Hours” at the Serpentine Gallery.

You queue for a while. You get in, leave your bag in a locker and put on noise-cancelling earphones. You leave the world behind and enter the quiet white gallery.

 There are three rooms: one is empty; one has chairs and desks with little piles of grains, as well as cots; one has more chairs and two big, low plinths. People sit, stand, lie down on the cots, sit at the desks playing with the grains, walk the length of the empty room very slowly. Once you’ve had a look around, you quickly accept the unspoken rules; you’re on your own, but you adjust. I did have an urge to run zigzags among the people shuffling along in the empty room, but let go of it – there seemed to be a lot of trust going on there, so much so that once I joined the walkers, I could do it with my eyes closed. This, in a city where keeping your eye on your surroundings is so important, was an interesting experience.

 Marina and her assistants interact with the participants; they take them by the hand and lead them to other parts of the gallery. Initially, this too seemed strange to me – I disliked the idea of interrupting what could be meditation. After a while, though, this interaction turned out to be quite gentle and I have seen people decline. An even more controversial part is that sometimes the assistants lead you to one of the plinths and stand there with you, holding your hand and breathing. Their gesture is like an invitation to dance, but it’s a dance of standing still with your eyes closed, with a stranger by your side.

 It’s difficult to describe the experience, as it’s so personal and mostly about what you bring into it. I found the containing space quite safe and the interplay of aloneness/voluntary togetherness welcome. The limited amount and intensity of stimuli may be unsettling, I imagine, but I thought it was restful. You can spend as much time as you wish in the space; when I left, it turned out I was there for two hours, although when inside time seems to become a bit less important.

 And then I bumped into Marina in the loo. I loved the suspension of the everyday that the event invites – but reality calls in the end.


While on a daytrip to Portsmouth I’ve noticed something very, very bad has happened to my portfolio and it’s basically stopped existing. Working on it, I promise, hope to have it up as soon as possible. I think this may be a good opportunity to introduce you to my bit on the side, a little side project I’ve been dabbling in, Objets d’art. Enjoy being a magpie with me.

ETA: It’s up!

Edmund de Waal at the V&A

The hare with amber eyes has been following me for some time now. The book is going to be a separate post, I hope, but now I wanted to write about “Signs & Wonders”, Edmund de Waal’s installation at the V&A. I’ve been intrigued about it for the longest time and in a way it will always be intriguing – it’s impossible to look at it closely, impossible to examine and study it. It has a most unusual placement: when you enter the V&A, before you even reach the space where tickets are sold, raise your eyes and there it is: in a dome 15 (?) metres above you there is a glimpse of a red band of metal, a circular shelf, you realise, full of ceramic dishes in subtle beiges and celadons. It’s witty, surprising and tactful (a word de Waal expounds upon, fascinatingly, in his School of Life lecture, also in relation to the installation I’m writing about – watch his “Sunday sermon” here). De Waal is very interested in the idea of the vitrine, a vessel for vessels – in this case the red aluminium shelf attracts the eye in an almost aggressive way, which is an interesting contrast to the visual murmur of the ceramic pieces.

But yes – the unreachability of it all! That was my first visit to the V&A, so I had to walk around it for a considerable amount of time, increasingly tired and distracted with all the other lovely things that are on display there, to try and find the best angle to see “Signs & Wonders”. In the end, when I did finally reach a good place and craned my head to see, it was very restful – a collection of understated shapes, an elegant echo of the riot of forms and colours that I saw in the rest of the museum. It seems this is precisely what de Waal intended: on the plaque on the wall you can read his statement on the piece, saying: “I’d look hard at some part of the collection, then look away and then make the after-image. It was a kind of distillation”. This is exactly how it works – it’s an essence, a reflection on what the V&A is. Very happy to have finally seen this.

Edmund de Waal’s “Signs & Wonders” at the V&A.


Waking up.

It’s been a while. Work, travel, a relocation to London. Dealing with changes and getting used to a new life, away from the sea, closer to the heart of things. It’s all good though, all learning experiences. I’m feeling a bit rusty with writing in general, so I’ll start with a particular: the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Lisson Gallery, sadly ended yesterday. Caught it just in time.

My absolute favourite were the metal hemispheres filled with colour on the inside. It’s such a rare experience to have your field of vision filled completely with just one thing, even rarer for it to be just colour, vivid, saturated, absolute. Those sheets of colour mess with your perception: when the colour is matte, when there’s no reflection to guide your eye, from an angle the insides of the shapes seem completely flat, not concave. I stood in front of the pieces, closely, and giggled. There was more to the exhibition, but the sheer joy provoked by the experience of facing those made them a definite highlight for me. Still amazed I now live in a place where those things are accessible, available, free.

A quick thought about assessing interpretation

I had an interesting conversation with the person I interpreted recently. After we worked together for three days and were saying goodbye, he thanked me for doing such a great job. I was of course very flattered, but I was wondering to what extent can someone who does not speak the target language assess the interpretation. He went on to explain: he knew the interpretation was competent due to the questions the participants asked. They referred to some of the subtlest aspects of his lecture and showed in-depth understanding of everything it entailed. It was a very interesting idea, to assess interpretation on the basis of the audience’s/listeners’ feedback, and I don’t mean feedback as in “do you think that intepretation was good”, but feedback as in production, associations, reflections. It makes sense.