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Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny

23 October 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

Is translation a discipline or a cause? A catalogue sent to me by a small American publisher begins by naming all the translators of the foreign titles the company is offering, inviting the reader to thank and celebrate the people who have made the English versions of these books possible.

I go to a university seminar on translation whose program is headed with a quotation from Paul Auster: “Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments… who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.”

I go to a translation conference where the keynote speaker observes with satisfaction that the period when a speaker might show an example of translation, criticize it, and suggest his or her own supposedly better version—“the time of the ‘Translation Police’”—is thankfully over. Toward the end of the same conference, a revered pioneer of Translation Studies is pleased that “everything we have heard here makes a mockery of pedantic questions of fidelity and the old tendency to hierarchize some translations as good and some as bad.”

When a member of the “Translation Police” does show his face, he is rebuked. I open The New York Times and find an angry letter from a number of well-respected names in the translation community. They are attacking Benjamin Moser’s negative review of Kate Briggs’s recent book on translation, This Little Art. Moser had taken issue with Briggs’s remark that “we need translations. The world, the English-speaking world, needs translations. Clearly and urgently it does; we do.” He felt the claim needed qualification: Which translations, why? He was also unimpressed by Briggs’s enthusiasm for the first translator into English of Thomas Mann’s novels, Helen Lowe-Porter, whose German, it is generally agreed, had shortcomings that lead to there being a large number of mistakes in the English versions. Those writing the letter to the Timesdeplore Moser’s “simplistic and retrograde… insistence on accuracy.” Translation is a complex subject, they observe, and accuracy not such an easy issue to pin down.

Meanwhile, someone directs me to a translators’ online forum where a certain Tim Gutteridge, a British translator based in Spain, has suggested that criticizing a translation for plain errors is hardly a crime—language competence lies at the core of translation, does it not?—and is being scolded by colleagues who feel this is “unethical”; translators need support, not criticism. Reading the thread, it rather seems that they are policing him, and not vice versa. In any event, the issue is so keenly felt in the translation community these days that the editors of In Other Words, the twice-yearly publication of the British Centre for Literary Translation, have decided to dedicate a major article to the ethics of criticizing translations in their forthcoming January edition.

. . . .

You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He [or she] reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his [or her] own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to [the translator’s] own experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness. Imagine shifting the Tower of Pisa into downtown Manhattan and convincing everyone it’s in the right place; that’s the scale of the task.

. . . .

Let us return to that catalogue thanking the publisher’s translators. It is true, of course, that a translator makes the English version of a foreign novel possible. However, thanks to copyright law, it is also true that a new translation will prevent the appearance of any other translations of the same book for a very long time. Once Don Bartlett has translated Knausgaard, or Ann Goldstein, Ferrante, or Lorin Stein, Houellebecq, English readers are not going to get a chance to read anyone else’s version for decades. If the book in question is to enter into our culture, our collective psyche, it is going to do so, for better or worse, through this first translation.

Even when we come to translations of works long out of copyright, their authors dead seventy years and more, the investment involved may be so considerable that only one shot at the book will be possible. After Farrar, Straus, and Giroux generously undertook to translate and publish all three thousand pages of the nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi’s tortuously difficult philosophical diary, the Zibaldone, it is hardly likely that another complete edition will appear in our lifetimes. Each translation is an opportunity, to be taken or missed. Thus a responsibility, for both publisher and translator.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books


10 Comments to “Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny”

  1. Kafka’s stories, I’m led to believe, are supposed to be far more funny in the original German. So you can’t criticize the English translation because it’s not?

    Recently, I undertook a translation of a French Sherlock Holmes parody into English, despite the fact I don’t know French. It’s a low-stakes translation, but I found it interesting to see the latitude you need to have to make the story comprehensible to English readers of my time. A straight word-for-word translation (thanks to Google) is word salad that I had to revise into something more comprehensible and amusing.

    Translation is a skill that needs to be debated and argued over. It’s not like building a car. When you’re done, the car either runs or it doesn’t. But if a story doesn’t work, you can’t criticize it? That sounds like guild protection to me.

  2. Translation is a lot like editing, the writer’s intentions can be completely hidden/destroyed by either.

    Heck, play that message passing game between you and your friends – for added fun each pass must be in a different language.

    And anything is open to criticism.

  3. I wish this love affair people have with writing in the present tense would die a quick and painful death.

    • I don’t. Present tense has an edginess that the literary (past) tense lacks. It feels raw. It’s a good fit for cyberpunk and horror.

  4. Translation was also a political act.

    Jules Verne was French, Wells was English, so the translators simplified his prose, selling it as Juvenile/young adult. They needed to diminish the French over the English. Nationalism at its worst.


    The main guy who butchered Verne in translation was I.O. Evans


    “Verne’s Best Friend and his Worst Enemy”: I.O. Evans and the Fitzroy Edition of Jules Verne

    I have all of the Verne translations by Evans.

    • Did you check out the (relatively) recent Miller translations at Baen?


      • I have the Miller from the Naval Institute Press, in paperback.

        It took me decades hunting down the Verne, only to discover that they were all abridged editions — and I mean all — once the internet let me learn that fact.

        I wonder if Amazon France has all of his books in the original. If they did it might be worth it to learn French to read the books. HA!

        I need to ask some Space Cadets over on Stross’ blog to see if they know.

        If I do that, then I might have to learn German as well to read all of the Perry Rhodan. They are close to 3000 issues so far.

  5. I’ve been bilingual for most of my life so I know how hard it is to translate anything exactly from one language to another. The nuances often get lost because certain words, jargon or concepts simply don’t have a word in the other language. You have to do a ‘in English you’d say something like this’. So bravo to those who take on this thankless task.

    Nevertheless, political correctness should not overshadow accuracy. Imagine if the translators at the U.N. substituted their own idea of what a speaker ‘meant’ to say instead of what he/she did say?

  6. I am lucky to be able to read in several languages (German, Chinese, and, with strenuous effort, French.) I can’t recall a single book that I think is better in translation. And some translations are disastrously bad. There are many translations of classical Chinese novels that I have a hard time believing that they are based on the same book as the original.

    However, I don’t disparage the translators because I’ve tried my hand at translation and gave up. It is unbelievably harder than I ever imagined it might be. I can enjoy and appreciate a book that I don’t fully understand, but I can’t translate that appreciation into another language without hard work at deepening my understanding, often of the nuances of both languages. And that is only the beginning. When it comes to actually writing the translation, you have none of the freedom that you have when writing your own work, and that takes a lot of the pleasure out of the job.

    Therefore, I respect even bad translations for the effort put into them, if not for the results.

    • I’ve read a lot of fan translations of Chinese, Japanese and Korean fantasy novels and you can easily see how hard it is after reading a few.

      How many choices they have to make and the problems they face each time with terms that make perfect in a couple words in the original language but need paragraphs to explain the background in English.

      And that doesn’t even count the language puns of homonyms that don’t translate at all without explanations.

      I also appreciate all the translations no matter how bad as long as they are upfront with their skill levels.

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