How much is the translation of a literary work into another language a creative piece of writing in its own right?

A very interesting item on the BBC World Service’s arts programme The Strand made me consider this question. It seems the role of the translator is as much about capturing the sense, mood and tone intended by the original author as a literal interpretation. Translator David Bellos – who just happens to have a book out (with a lovely multi-typefaced promo video) – argued that translation reflects the paradox of being human: we experience the world individually through our many languages, yet we are all human and translated ideas can be understood universally.

And can we ever really appreciate an author’s craft when they write in a language we don’t understand? I love Camus, Dostoyevsky and Garcia Marquez, to name a few non-English language writers, but the words I’m reading are not strictly theirs. Apparently, in Japan translators are celebrated authors in their own right, due to the way they allow people to access foreign culture.

So thank you translators. Without you I wouldn’t carry with me images of places I’ve never been, drawn by people who know them well.