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What is literary language?

During the process of negotiating a translation project, the customer frequently stipulates that I should use ‘literary language’. This seems like an appropriate thing to request from a literary translator but what exactly does it mean? It is a somewhat a vague term, though, nebulous even, that sounds lofty and intellectual and seems to mean different things to different people. So, I decided to give the matter some thought and come up with a definition of my own that I could call upon when faced with this request in the future.

Wikipedia defines literary language thus:

A literary language is the form (register) of a language used in written literature, which can be either a nonstandard dialect or a standardized variety of the language. Literary language sometimes is noticeably different from the spoken language (lects), but the difference between literary language and non-literary language is greater in some languages; thus a great divergence between a written form and a spoken vernacular, the language exhibits diglossia, a community’s use of two forms of speech.

The article then lists a selection of languages and discusses their various literary traditions. Russian is not currently included in this list, which I find surprising, given the interesting history of the Russian written language and its evolution from Old Church Slavonic, blending with the vernacular to create a new, unique literary language in the 18th and 19th centuries. English, on the other hand, is included in the list, stating that:

For much of its history, there has been a distinction in the English language between an elevated literary language and a colloquial idiom.

This is true to a point, of course. Managers of a large company might write official reports in a different kind of English to that which is spoken on the shop floor, for example. A poet writing a new poem will most likely use a much wider and more interesting vocabulary than a parent writing a letter to school to explain a child’s absence.

This explanation implies there is a strict and clear divide between literary and non-literary English, pitting written language against the vernacular, or ‘posh’ versus ‘common’. But what if an author is writing a novel about the goings-on in a factory, or a story told from the point of view of a parent of a sick child?  An elevated form of ‘literary’ language might not be the best option in order to create the right mood. Instead, the author would need to select the right kind of language to suit the situation.

The language of Shakespeare or the Bible could be described as literary, but Shakespearean English wouldn’t suit a modern crime novel. Long, unusual words or scholarly vocabulary might be considered literary language, but fans of popular detective sagas or bestselling chick-lit might not be too pleased to find their favourite authors using academic terminology. 

Literary language, in practice, is the language used in literature. Technically, it concerns only the written language, but it can also be spoken aloud, just as the spoken word can be conveyed in writing. It is not a matter of a separate language with its own grammar and vocabulary, but a melting pot of all varieties of language, from the highest to the lowest and everything in between. For a writer or a translator in today’s world, using literary language means being sensitive to register, style, region, and all the other subtleties of language. It is about being able to manipulate language to create a desired effect – to shock, delight, horrify, thrill, console or devastate. Therefore, the process of being aware of all of these facets of language and using them to full effect is a gargantuan task faced by every writer or translator, and the results vary immensely.

Do I use literary language? I certainly hope so. I aim to use the right words in the right settings, avoiding archaic language where modern slang would be more appropriate and vice versa, or making aristocratic characters sound noble and refined, and uncouth ones come across as coarse and rough around the edges. However, the translator is more restricted than the writer. If a Russian text says, for example, ‘зал был большой’, (literally, ‘the hall was big’), the number of options available to me are limited. Depending on the context, I could perhaps venture to use a more evocative adjective, such as ‘spacious’, ‘vast’ or even ‘cavernous’, but this might add an extra level of meaning beyond what is in the original text. So, I have to stick with ‘big’ or ‘large’, since I am the translator in this situation, and not the author. Similarly, in French, ‘une belle femme’ is ‘a beautiful woman’. She could perhaps be ‘lovely’, ‘pretty’, or even ‘comely’ in certain contexts, but probably not ‘radiant’ or ‘captivating’, even if I think that would be nicer, because that is not what the author has written.

As a translator, I must be faithful to the original text, finding the best possible match in English. Unless requested to do so, I should not use language which is richer and more eloquent than that of the source document. If I have done my job properly, the English in my translation will be no more and no less literary than the language used by the author.

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