What Jamaa said at that dinner persists in my mind. You always get a headache when you're translating, she said.
She was talking about translating a talk between two politicians, but I’ve been wondering about the broader questions of translation in general. I’m ostensibly here to promote literary translation in the ways that I can. Thus far this has consisted of compiling a database of literary magazines that publish poems in translation, since very little Mongolian literature makes it into another language, much less to another shore, and get the guidelines for starting a PEN centre translated into Mongolian so Chilaajav and the heads of the Mongolian Arts Council and the Mongolian Academy of Culture and Poetry so they can all read them. A PEN centre is what I’d love to see happen for these folks; beyond what a Luce or Fulbright Scholar can do to learn a difficult language and translate a few poems in eleven moths, the writers here deserve a much longer lasting platform from which to interact with other writers in other countries (which Mongolian writers are keen to do) and have their work translated and published much more than it is today.
That said, the effort to get Mongolian to sing in another language is inherently hazardous. So much of good poetry uses the plays on words and rhythm unique to the language in which it was written. These are impossible to duplicate, and Mongolian doesn’t sound like Russian or even Chinese. As I have said elsewhere, the sound of spoken Mongolian might well be indescribable, so the sound of a Mongolian poem read aloud in Mongolian seems unlikely ever to find justice in the awkward basket of another language. Forrest Gander says that translation is the most impossible thing every writer must try.