Found in translation

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”.


  1. mnb0 says

    “Because my language skills are so poor”
    This is obviously a handicap (compare my poor French) but when a book really is good it’s a great experience for me to read the Dutch translation first and the English original.

  2. says

    The idea of a perfect literal translation is impossible. Too many people have an idea of language as just words sounding different but having the exact same meaning but of course this isn’t the case. Just look a one of the English world’s favourite German words -- [i]schadenfreude[/i]. We’ve adopted it exactly because it embodies a concept that we don’t have a word for.

    Rhyme and meter aren’t going to survive translation all that well, let alone puns and other word play. Each language has its own idioms, often very much tied to the culture they come from.

    None of this means work shouldn’t be translated, but the best translators will take a work and get as much of it across as they can while still making it an entertaining read for the readers they’re translating for. Seeing as it’s impossible to learn every language, this is not just the best but the only option we have it we want any access at all to voices from other cultures.

    On a side note, the first thing I thought of reading your piece wasn’t books but movies and the differences between dubbing where the translators want to try to get reasonable close to lip movement and subtitles where that doesn’t matter. (My personal preference is subtitles, because then I get the actor’s full performance, even if I don’t understand the language.)

  3. mailliw says

    I think translators have a very difficult job, and we should be grateful that they make so much of the world’s literature accessible to all of us.

    Even some titles are difficult to translate, consider Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. This is translated as The Man without Qualities, which fails to capture the meaning of the original. Musil’s protagonist is someone who has no firm identity -- an alternative translation would be The Man without Properties, but that makes him sound like someone who never got into real estate.

  4. Mano Singham says

    With reference to titles, Marecel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu was at one time translated as Remembrance of Things Past but is now referred to as In Search of Lost Time.

  5. DavidinOz says

    Translation is a fraught topic in New Zealand, with division over The Treat of Watangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the treaty between The British Crown and assorted Maori rangatira.

    Te Tiriti was written in English, then translated into Maori for the rangatira to sign. The rangatira came from a pre-literate society and they were more interested in what was said to them, than to symbols on paper.

    That a scant few hundred words has led to so much arguing and legal action it is easy to see how it is an Herculean task to provide a translation of a novel that satisfies all.

  6. file thirteen says

    Accurate and aesthetic concise translation can be impossible in some circumstances. Take the starting lyrics to German band Rammstein’s “Du hast”, which in its entirety mocks German wedding vows:

    Du hast
    Du hast mich (x2)
    Du hast mich gefragt (x2)
    Du hast mich gefragt und ich hab nichts gesagt

    A dogmatic literal translation would be:

    You have
    You have, to me
    You have, to me, asked
    You have, to me, asked and I have nothing said

    All well and good except that the last sentence doesn’t rhyme, and it completely misses that the German word “hast” (have) is a homophone for “hasst” (hate). So, “du hast mich”, which doesn’t make sense as it is, sounds like “du hasst mich” (you hate me) to the listener, which was intentional by the band.

    So when the song got so popular that it just had to be translated into English, what could be done? Here was the English translation that was used:

    You hate
    You hate me (x2)
    You hate me to say (x2)
    You hate me to say and I did not obey

    You can see that a huge effort that was made in trying to translate the double-meaning of the homophone hast/hasst, but it still doesn’t come across well. And from there the song diverges further. My own preference would have been to translate it as eg. the following:

    You hat (sic, in a Germanic tone, and it isn’t clear whether “had” or “hate” is meant but “hat” makes no sense so the ear picks it up as the former)
    You hat me (again in a Germanic accent, and this time the brain turns the phrase into “you hate me”, spotting sense among nonsense in the way our brains are expert at)
    You hat asked me (same pronunciation but now you hear it as “had”)
    You hat asked me and I said nothing!! (accentuate the final word and don’t even try to rhyme it)

    A lost opportunity imo and it demonstrates the difficulties inherent in translation.

    Another thing I remember, Douglas Hofstadter’s book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” had a section on logical translation where he asked, “What is the correct translation of this sentence into French?” You can get hung up on a paradox of what the literal translation should be, but the answer has the word “French” replaced with “English” (in French, bien sûr), which Hofstadter verified by looking in a French version of the book! Makes sense when you think about it.

  7. jrkrideau says

    So anyone wanting to quote the bible must be fluent in Hebrew and 1st Century CE Greek? Sounds good to me.

    I was reading part of a letter (in translation, mea culpa) by a very distinguished collection of Islamic scholars addressed to ISIS and other jihadists pointing out how un-Islamic they are. The scholars made the point that one could not speak authoritatively about Islam if one did not know Arabic.

  8. says

    DavidinOz, doesn’t the NZ government do what the Canadian government does and just ignore treaties with aboriginal people altogether whenever it’s inconvenient to have to abide by them?

  9. DavidinOz says

    I only lived in NZ for 11 years, but found substantial differences between NZ and Oz in the treatment of indigenes, maybe a lot to do wit Ti Tiriti.

    NZ doesn’t have a written constitution, so Ti Tiriti forms part of the founding laws. Maori are allocated seats in the parliament, and Maori may elect to be on the Maori electoral roll, or the general roll.

    In my 11 years in NZ it was impossible to go a day without interacting with Maori in some way, be it a work mate, a shop assistant, a police officer, a barman … in my 54 years in Oz, I can go almost a whole year without interacting with an aborigine. Right now, even though I run a retail sop, I generally only see 2 -- 3 people of aboriginal descent a week.

  10. Jenora Feuer says

    I still say one of the greater feats in translation was the English translation of Stanislaw Lem’s ‘The Cyberiad’. Word-play abounds, one of the stories involves a machine that can create anything that starts with the letter ‘N’ (at least in the English version) and the letter is important, so other things had to be tweaked because different words had to be selected to match the starting letter. Lem’s work in general was often rather poetic.

    I remember at least one anime where in the original, one character kept going into gratuitous English to sound cultured. In the English dub, the person instead kept going into gratuitous French.

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