A love for translation - Ursula K. Le Guin

Published on February 20, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

Ursula K. Le Guin

1929-2018

"I love translation because I translate for love. I'm an amateur. I translate a text because I love it, or think I do, and love craves close understanding. Translation, for me, is discovery." - Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin has recently passed away at the age of 88. Her legacy as “the grande dame of science fiction”, as she is called by the Washington Post, seems to not do her justice. 

Born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California in 1929, she is an immensely popular author and translator who brought feminine sensibility to the science fiction and fantasy world. Her books and poems range from young-adult adventures to deeply philosophical fables, producing notable works such as the Earthsea series and The Left Hand of Darkness. Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia, Words Are My Matter, an essay collection, and Finding My Elegy, New and Selected Poems. Her website is UrsulaKLeGuin.com.

  • Ursula K. Le Guin is best known for her early novels. In the span of six years, she wrote and published A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Lathe of Heaven (1971) and The Dispossessed (1974). These books are said to have greatly influenced authors such as Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, David Mitchell, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith.

  • Known as an anarchist, Le Guin often carries a witty, protesting tone within her writing. She loved playing with the idea of political utopias, power dynamics, gender roles, and the supernatural.

  • Given this love for the supernatural, it is no surprise that she became enchanted with Lao Tzu’s The Tao Te Ching. Not knowing any Chinese she set out to produce her own translation, or rather transliteration, utilizing Paul Carus’ translation of 1898 which has the Chinese characters followed by a transliteration and a translation in English. She developed this lyrical interpretation of the Tao with the help of J.P. Seaton, a Chinese scholar, and poet.

  • Beginning the transliteration In her twenties, Le Guin completed several chapters. She then picked up the project again in her seventies, a book Le Guin describes as “a rendition, not a translation. She describes the experience as “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original.” She says, “...because I don’t read Chinese I can’t call it a translation. In other words, it is a sort of compendium of everybody else’s translations looked at, and then I had the Chinese text with a word-to-word [translation], which is, of course, possible only to a limited extent. And then I had Seaton to talk about it with; to tell me, “yeah, you can say that means that, but you can’t say this means this.” He could encourage me and stop me. I tried to give him more credit with that book, but he wouldn’t take it.”

  • Le Guin and Seaton’s version of The Tao Te Ching is regarded as one of the most approachable, enjoyable, and satisfying versions in circulation. Here’s a sample where Le Guin beautifully highlights Lao Tzu’s humor and thoughtfulness:

    “Thirty spokes
    meet in the hub.
    Where the wheel isn’t
    is where it’s useful.

    Hollowed out,
    clay makes a pot.
    Where the pot’s not
    is where it’s useful.

    Cut doors and windows
    to make a room.
    Where the room isn’t,
    there’s room for you.

    So the profit in what is
    is in the use of what isn’t.”


Ursula K. Le Guin is the winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Gandalf, Kafka, and National Book Awards. An honored author of children’s books, poetry, and criticism, she has also received the Endeavor, Locus, Tiptree, Sturgeon, PEN-Malamud, and the Pushcart honors. She has received a lifetime achievement award from the World Fantasy Awards, Los Angeles Times, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, and Willamette Writers, as well as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Award and the Library of Congress Living Legends Award, among many others. She died on January 22, 2018, in her Portland, Oregon home at 88 years old. May she rest in peace.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin in numbers:


Total number of languages Le Guin’s works have been translated into.


Number of novels Le Guin wrote throughout her lifetime.


Number of volumes of translation she has personally produced.


Number of languages she spoke: English, Spanish, French, and Italian.


Read Le Guin’s English transliteration of the Tao Te Ching here, and listen to the audiobook version here.

For Le Guin’s translation of Gabriela Mistral’s Selected Poems from the Spanish, click here.


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"Famous Translators"is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We will be researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog.

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