Translation Is Life


Translation is life, and life is translation. Nothing begins or ends with us, not even the life we give our children. We are not authors. It is the desire to be authors that draws lines. Once you have a line, which is the ego in English, it must be protected. That means war.

The single most important event in the life of the translator is when he or she understands that translation is not a two-way process and makes reference to a third point, the source. There are three ways to evade the line, which is the role of the translator. One is to make reference to a third point and create a triangle, the letter A. One is to delete the line and make a cross, which is also a plus-sign. And one is to count down from the line to zero. By turning away from the ego, which is what the translator does every time he sits down to translate, we spell the author’s name, Alpha and Omega.

When you realize that translation involves reference to a third point, it becomes a process of listening, not doing. A translation is to be heard, felt in the silence of one’s heart. One hears with the heart and sees with the eyes.

This is a question of faith, not reason. Translation is a spiritual practice, not an academic subject. It is faith, or love (they are one and the same), that opens the eyes to the world around us, which is participative. The world takes part in our creation. The world is a creative place. I translate a poem about ladybirds, and a ladybird lands on the dashboard of my car. I translate a poem that makes reference to Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep, and on the train the girl in front of me is reading the public library copy I had borrowed a week before.

If we are unable to speak the language of our environment, how can we claim to care about it? The environment is singing a song of praise. This is the act of translation. A constant exhalation before we breathe in again.


This is the text of a talk by Jonathan Dunne given at the start of the event ‘Manuel Rivas: Books Burn Badly’, held in the British Museum on 18 June 2011 as part of the London Review Bookshop’s World Literature Weekend, and later published on the blog of MacLehose Press