I do not read much fiction these days but I used to read it a lot in the past, especially the classics that were written in so many different languages. Because my language skills are so poor, I only read English translations of them and almost always the translations were so good that you forgot that you were doing so. The translators were able to make the English versions feel familiar while not losing the foreign culture that the source material was describing. The ability to make translations so smooth, especially in literary works where metaphors and style are so crucial, was always something that impressed me greatly.
But at the back of my mind was always the nagging feeling as to whether reading in the original language might be better because something might be missing or added that was not in the original. In the back of my mind was the idea that translations should have complete fidelity with the original and that any deviation made it worse. That translations can be better than the original is displayed by my post from a few days ago that had the singer Charles Aznavour singing the English version of his own song Yesterday, when I was young. While he was the composer of the song in French, he said he found the English lyrics, co-written with Les Miserables’ lyricist Herbert Kretzmer, to be more poetic. Clearly the translation had added something.
Mark Polizzotti is an author who has done translations and he describes some of the challenges that translators face that make literal accuracy not just an unattainable goal but not desirable as well. He says that translators get criticized from all sides.
We might think that the very indeterminacy of literary translation would earn it more leeway, or more acceptance, but not so. From book reviewers who parse the minutiae of translations for defects, to theorists who evoke ‘assessment models’ such as those by Juliane House (1977, revised 2015) and J C Sager (1989), with their stern categories and sub-categories of error-types, the ultimate message seems to be that no translation is ‘perfect’ – which any reader already knows instinctively. Some commentators, of course, have lavished high, and often well-deserved, praise on certain translations and translators, but many relegate the translation of literary works to somewhere between grudgingly tolerated and openly disdained. Authors rail against translation’s failures to conserve their rhymes and rhetoric. Critics tar its practitioners as hacks and traitors (traduttore, traditore). Academics produce tome after tome detailing its impossibility. Even translation’s own have long dismissed it as at best a poor cousin: the 16th-century scholar and translator Thomas Wilson denigrated his own work as ‘Cheate bread’; George Eliot, who translated Baruch Spinoza and Ludwig Feuerbach, asserted that ‘a good translator is infinitely below the man who produces good original works’; and Vladimir Nabokov derided the practice flat-out as ‘profanation of the dead’. Little wonder that translation is often politely brushed, when not rudely kicked, under the rug – or that the pursuit of excellence in this context can appear so quixotic.
Furthering this attitude is a tenacious prejudice in favour of the original, or ‘source’, as undisputed master in the text-translation duo… Even many sophisticated readers view translation as no more than a stopgap, and many feel that to read an author in translation is not really to read her at all.
He says that there is always a tension between focusing on translating the literal meaning of the words in the original to trying to get beneath the surface of the text and conveying the spirit. Both approaches have pitfalls.
The heart of the matter lies in whether we conceive of a translation as a practical outcome, with qualities of its own that complement or even enhance the original, or as an unattainable ideal, whose best chance for relative legitimacy is to trace that original as closely as possible.
If we consider the translator the ‘servant’ of the source text, charged with forging as close an equivalent as possible, then any deviation from the original syntax or structure, whether born of egotism, incompetence or cultural prejudice, will indeed seem a betrayal. If instead we take translators as artists in their own right, in partnership with (rather than servitude to) their source authors; if we think of translation as a dynamic process, a privileged form of reading that can illuminate the original and transfer its energy into a new context, then the act of representing a literary work in another language and culture becomes something altogether more meaningful.
He provides examples of translations that try to stick closely to the original with those that took liberties. He points to Ezra Pound, who was widely praised for the literary quality of his translations, as someone who took enormous liberties with the texts he translated, both with those in which he knew the source language well and those in which he did not and depended significantly on writings about the source rather than just the source itself.
We are used to adaptations that take a source text and converts it into a different form, such as novels being made into plays and films. We know that these adaptations have taken liberties with the originals and we judge them on their own merits, with fidelity towards the original not being the only or even the main criterion for judging it. The creators of the adaptations are recognized as contributing something original to the work. These adaptations can be considered as translations of sorts, from one medium to another. With translations from one language to another, the freedom to change things is much less of course but we should still treat the translated work on its own merits.
When judging the quality of music, Duke Ellington took the view that we should not worry too much about abstract elements in order to judge its merits but instead use the rule, “If it sounds good, it is good.” This dictum can be extended to anything that involves taste, such as the appreciation of food or wine or art. In the case of judging written language translations, we can (ignoring the poor grammar) paraphrase Ellington’s words as “If it reads good, it is good”.