Interview by Skirmante Ramoskaite
Q: What does it mean to translate femininity? Is it a matter of certain language, shared values, or on the contrary — losing one’s own literary personality and discovering a new one?
KAIJA STRAUMANIS: I feel like this is a complex question with an equally complex manner. One starting point is to ask what femininity in literature is, or what a “feminine text” is. How does it manifest itself in literature, how is it expressed, what is its purpose — and is there even a “standardised” way in which this is expressed. Or better yet, is there a “standardised” way in which readers expect femininity to be expressed or represented in literature. Clearly, it’s a multifaceted subject matter that could take up hours of fascinating discussion.
That said, I think that the idea of translating femininity has to first go beyond the concept itself. The translator has to consider and, ideally, understand the purpose of femininity in a text, its source. Is it because the character or narrator is feminine? Is it the style of language, or vocabulary used? Is it that the author is a woman? Or is it a text that strives to draw attention to the idea of femininity through literature, without being overtly “feminine” itself? Above all the most important thing for any translator is to understand the text he or she is working with.
In terms of approaching the translation of a feminine text, or any text for that matter, I think a certain language knowledge or word usage, shared values, and certainly mindset absolutely help with the task of the translation. But I don’t think it means that a male translator can’t do justice to a feminine text, or, conversely, that a female translator can’t do justice to a masculine text. I’ve seen translations of feminine texts that were done by men and done remarkably well, with incredible attention to detail and undertone. I’ve also seen feminine texts translated by women that, frankly speaking, just seem to have missed the mark. And while I do think an inherent connection to a gender can be a leg-up, I don’t think that the ability to connect, or understand, is an exclusive one. Not to mention that these days, concepts like “femininity” and “masculinity” are much more fluid than they used to be.
I believe that every new project a translator takes on is a combination of two things — finding some common ground, language, and values with the text at hand, as well as discovering and embodying a new literary personality. Every book is an individual being, and each translator is a fresh set of eyes and personal experience. Every time this connection is made, something new and unique takes place. The way I understand and express my femininity in a translation of a feminine text, for example, is never going to be the same as that of another woman, regardless of how similar our life experiences and assessments of “femininity” are. That’s one of the things that makes literature, and translation, so much fun — there’s rarely just one, or a simple answer.
Q: How is your cultural and native background influential to your work?
KS: I’m a second-generation Latvian-American. We spoke only Latvian at home. That explains the dominant language pairing in my work as a translator. My family has always been interested in literature and arts, and we always had books in both Latvian and English around when I was growing up. I’ve always loved literature, and it’s always been a huge part of my life. At some point in college I started playing around with the idea of literary translation, but it wasn’t until after college that I started to think about working as a translator. I ended up liking the process, and it helps that Latvian is a very lyrical language that lends itself immensely well to poetry and prose. I wanted to share what I was reading with those who couldn’t read the original.
Cultural background in literary translation can be very helpful, but also it might make the process more difficult. As I didn’t grow up in Latvia, the Latvian we spoke in the States didn’t develop in the same way it would in Latvia, mainly because we didn’t have the influence of the Russian language. I often come across slang terms or references to events that take me to research in order to fully grasp the meaning. There are times when I get caught in hours-long dive into articles, books and archives just to get the idea of what a five-word phrase may mean in the wider context. That brings me back to one of my first points, that it’s important for a translator to understand the intent of a work.
Undoubtedly the most influential part of my cultural background to my work as a translator is that I am both proud and grateful to be Latvian. For such a small country, it has some of the biggest literary voices the world has not yet heard, and it’s an honour for me to be one of those helping connect more of those voices with a broader readership.