our words make worlds

Translation as Dialogue and Empowerment

By Jozefina Komporaly

Between 11 and 18 November 2019, I attended Translation Week at Cove Park, on the Scottish West Coast. The residency – supported by the National Centre for Writing, Publishing Scotland and the Language Acts and Worldmaking project – brought together seven translators working into English from languages as varied as Norwegian, Japanese, French, German, Turkish, Hungarian, Romanian, German, Dutch and Brazilian Portuguese, and two translators working from English into Brazilian Portuguese and French. The aim of the residency was to facilitate the immersion of participating translators (Kari Dickson, Polly Barton, Katherine Mendelsohn, Ayça Türkoglu, Jozefina Komporaly, Jozef van der Voort, Zoë Perry, Stephanie Fernandes and Ghislain Bareau) into a current project, to encourage them to explore fresh ideas and to get up to speed with developments on the translation scene. Most evenings featured group discussions, moderated by Kari Dickson, on a selection of hot topics, such as translating for the stage (with guest producer and director William Galinsky), L2 translation (taking place at the Translators’ Stammtisch at the Goethe-Institut in Glasgow), translation as conversation (focusing on the diverse challenges encountered in the translation process) and life as a literary translator (discussing networks, group initiatives and other ways to make a living within the field). The residency culminated in a public reading with invited guests, offering an opportunity to share an extract from the translated texts developed throughout the week.

As an academic, I have spent many years studying translation in various contexts and I became a practising translator alongside teaching contemporary theatre to UK-based undergraduate students. My decision to embark on the translation of Romanian and Hungarian drama was motivated by the relative lack of knowledge on this topic, and by the dearth of dramatic texts available in English hailing from these countries. In other words, my intention was to promote what I consider to be thriving theatre traditions, and in this way encourage transnational cultural exchange. The work I have developed over the years in this field had the intention to nuance the understanding and reception of European theatre, and to contribute in modest ways to bringing the academic study of theatre and translation closer to translation practice and to ongoing concerns within the theatre profession. The drama anthologies that resulted from this process aimed very specifically to act as a hybrid between these diverse perspectives, and juxtaposed play texts in English translation with contextualising material, presented in the shape of essays, interviews with practitioners and production histories. As editor and co-translator of these collections,[1] my aim was to champion the theatre tradition of lesser-known cultures in the Anglophone world. At the same time, I was also adamant to present the work of seminal playwrights in translations as sensitive to the source texts as possible, also ensuring that the plays are not only an enjoyable read in English but also adhere to requirements of speakability and performability.

Throughout this process, I practised writing and translation as creative activities of equal standing, working through the medium of English as my language of habitual use. I read English at undergraduate and postgraduate level and, by this point, I have lived almost half of my life in the UK. English is not my ‘native’ language but the language in which I have communicated for over two decades and authored numerous publications. In other words, I have developed my own English usage throughout this process, which is precisely what Ayça Türcoğlu advocates in the case of bilingual translators.[2] Even though I do not find categorising translators on the basis of ethnicity necessary, I welcome debates on the topic of translating into ‘non-native’ languages, including discussions on the Emerging Translators’ Network and the TA’s panel ‘Who Are We? Who Could We Be?’.[3] There is an urgent need for addressing the potential of both mother tongues and acquired languages in translation, especially if conducted dispassionately and acknowledging broader geopolitical concerns. Seeing that ‘L2’, ‘non-native’ or ‘inverted’ translation are highly charged terms used to refer to translation into languages other than one’s mother tongue, I invite further theoretical inquiry into this field alongside collegial discussion and practical experimentation. At the same time, I’d like to advocate utmost linguistic competence and – in Marta Dziurosz’s words – emphasise the ‘importance of the quality of the text produced over the identity of the translator’.[4]

For me, translation is not so much an act of linguistic hospitality but a form of writing which generates a continuum of transnational texts where the question of native versus foreign is no longer the main concern. I think that it is important to interrogate ownership over language and to question the idea of purity in a linguistic sense, precisely in order to challenge received notions of hierarchical language competence still widely held in many circles. As a move forward, I am proposing a model whereby languages are available for reclamation by anyone who has the interest to extend, in Wittgenstein’s famous words, the limits of their world. In this latter sense, translation has the potential to become a genuine form of empowerment and an act of doing justice, especially with more confidence and professional acceptance coming the way of those of us translating into languages acquired through education and/or relocation.

Seeing translation as an ongoing negotiation between the familiar and the unknown, I am in support of what Venuti terms ‘an ethics of difference’[5] and am mindful of paying maximum attention to the cultural and stylistic specificities of the source text. Instead of opposing the categories of foreignization and domestication, however, I would like to argue for a form of dialogic translation where translators are not simply assimilating or dislodging texts from one language to another, but truly building bridges between places and cultures.

I am in agreement with claims that one language is insufficient to express all thoughts, even though non-native or wandering accents can easily undermine the credibility of speakers in certain situations. Yet the freedom of not being a native speaker can also bring about a less constrained approach as to what might be permissible in a given situation. In this context, Xiaolu Guo recommends using one word to find another and trying to write ‘a text that is alive and true for both cultures’.[6] By way of such texts, translation conducted by individuals with an international experience is no longer a strict transfer from one national literature to another but an attempt at making universal literature (cf. José Saramago), even if, as Marina Warner claims, translation is an act of ‘being in the wake of another’.[7]

[1] Jozefina Komporaly, ed. András Visky’s Barrack Dramaturgy: Memories of the Body (Intellect, 2017) and Matéi Visniec: How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients and Other Plays (Seagull Books, 2015).

[2] Ayça Türcoğlu, ‘Some Thoughts on Translation, Bilingualism and Relearning a Language’, In Other Words, Issue 53, Summer 2019, p. 70.

[3] Debate chaired by Polish translator Marta Dziurosz, featuring writer/artist Khairani Barokka, journalist/Kurdish translator Kareem Abdulrahman and Charlotte Ryland of the Stephen Spender Trust (19 November 2019).

[4] Marta Dziurosz, ‘In my opinion… The gold standard of “native language” translation needs to come to an end, argues a bilingual translator’, The Linguist, vol. 56, No. 1. 2017, p. 27.

[5] Lawrence Venuti, The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference, Routledge, 1998.

[6] Xiaolu Guo, ‘One language is not enough – I write in both Chinese and English’, The Guardian (13 October 2016) <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/13/my-writing-day-xiaolu-guo> Accessed 21 November 2019.

[7] Marina Warner, ‘Translumination or Travesty: The Passage into English’, public lecture, Senate House, University of London (2 June 2015).


Jozefina Komporaly is a second year coordinator for Creative Research on the Performance and Digital Technologies programme at Wimbledon College of Arts. Her research focuses on contemporary performance in a British and European context, and investigates concerns in gender, identity, translation and adaptation. She is also a practicing literary translator, and has translated several contemporary plays and novels from Hungarian and Romanian into English. Her translations are published by Seagull Books, and have been staged on both sides of the Atlantic, most recently by [Foreign Affairs] in London and Theatre Y in Chicago.

In November 2019, Jozefina and another translator, Katherine Mendelsohn, received funding from Language Acts and Worldmaking to take part in Cove Park's Translation Week. You can read about Katherine's experience here.

Founded in 1999, Cove Park is a charity and arts space overlooking Loch Long and the Firth of Clyde, just one hour from Glasgow, on Scotland’s west coast. It hosts national and international artists from all cultures and career stages, supporting them to create, develop and share new work, through a unique programme of residencies, commissions and collaborative projects. Since 2000, Cove Park has hosted over 1,500 artists and its former residents include Margaret Atwood, Ann Carson, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Mariana Castillo Deball, Alasdair Gray, Beca Lipscombe, Tom Morris, Ciara Phillips, Elizabeth Price, Charlotte Prodger, Simon Starling, Christos Tsiolkas, Louise Welsh and Jan Verwoert.