Dancing on Ropes, by Anna AslanyanHow translators sealed Hiroshima’s fate

In her wide-ranging study of the translator’s role, Anna Aslanyan tells of how the American interpretation of one Japanese word sealed the fate of Hiroshima. In July 1945, the US demanded Japan’s surrender. The Japanese prime minister Suzuki decided to mokusatsu the document — ‘kill with silence’, or kick into the long grass and hope to play for time. However, the Americans translated mokusatsuas ‘treat with silent contempt’, and as a result the fate of Hiroshima – and ultimately the end of the Second World War – was sealed.

This is just one of a host of fascinating examples of how translation has had a huge impact on the world, far greater than the general public (or most politicians) ever imagine, as described in “Dancing on Ropes,” a new book, written my Anna Aslanyan, a Russian translator and published at the end of May this year.

Aslanyan argues that ‘it’s only natural that the translator’s fingerprints should show’ in the final work and that abstruse disputes over ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ elements in the translator’s work are not helpful, suggesting that what we need is a flexible ‘hybrid of the two’. With entertaining examples of the perennial ‘fidelity vs freedom’ debate, she explains why this can never be satisfactorily resolved for all parties, illustrating her argument with quarrels between those who would always insist on a literal translation and those who prefer to communicate the sense and feeling behind the words. She notes that St Jerome defended the translation for his Vulgate Bible by saying, ‘I have not translated word for word, but sense for sense’. However, as Boyd Tonkin, in his review in The Spectator, points out, “who gets to defines the sense? With contentious biblical vocabulary … divisive translations might break nations.”

It’s rare (to put it mildly) to see a book on translation reviewed outside the pages of the specialist translation websites and even rarer to see it being reviewed in the likes of The Spectator. I had a quick Google search and found there is universal praise from some highly respected journals, a snapshot of which can be seen below.

Good Reads: “Dancing on Ropes explores some really interesting issues related to translation and interpretation. Machine translation. How can one translate humour? The impact the drive for cost savings on court translations has had. Translation as literary collaboration. Aslanyan does it through all sorts of stories, some historical, some based on her own experience (and I wanted even more of the latter!)”

The Economist: “Full of lively stories… leaves the reader with an awed respect for the translator’s task.”

Bridget Kendall, Literary Review: “Engaging… Aslanyan’s compendium of tales of interpreters at work spans not just the globe but historical experience. (She) doesn’t merely pay homage to her forebears in this honourable profession. Her deeper purpose is to get us to consider the future: to drive home the point that while this may be an era of machine learning, it’s too soon to dispense with the human professionals.

Sarah Watling, Times Literary Supplement: “Ranges engagingly across period, geography and media… illumine(s) both the complexities of the craft and the thorny questions of the translator’s agency.”

Gaston Dorren, author LINGO: “A colourful tribute to the translators and interpreters slogging away throughout history, oiling – or clogging – the wheels of diplomacy and culture. Flitting from Saints to cheats, drudges to adventurers, pedants to geniuses, Aslyanyan sketches a lively history of an underrated art. Highly enjoyable.”

Boyd Tonkin, The Spectator: “She finds the software that depends on giant data-sets sort of works because (depressingly) ‘most things people say have already been said before’, but concludes that the human touch still counts at critical moments: ‘It’s too early to concede defeat.’ To cite one of her examples, while Google Translate renders the lovely French idiom on m’a posé un lapin as ‘they put me a bunny’ — as it just has for me — we’ll need minds rather than algorithms to oversee the process (it means ‘I’ve been stood up’). Aslanyan shows why we still need to keep a date with translators — not on a pedestal, or in the shadows, but companionably at our sides.

I couldn’t agree more. If you work in translation and/or interpreting, this is a book well worth seeking out. You can get it on all the usual websites.

Fiona Woodford, Head of Language Services, Global Connects

Dancing on Ropes, by Anna Aslanyan
Publisher, Profile Books
Publication date: 20/05/2021
Recommended Retail Price £16.99
ISBN: 9781788162630