21st Century Literature discussion

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Question of the Week > Are translations reliable? (Feb 3/14)

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message 1: by Daniel (new)

Daniel As a prelude to our actual discussion, please allow me to introduce this new "Question of the Week" feature. We have seen great participation through open question threads in the past, but there has never been a formalized process of introducing those discussions. Your friendly neighbourhood moderators have decided to start a weekly question feature on a trial basis to see whether this would resonate with the group. Feel free to yay or nay your opinion in the following weeks, but the strongest vote will really be accounted through your participation.

For our introductory question, I would like to venture into the world of translated literature. Translations are a necessary evil for those of us looking to experience a wide range of literature, but how far can we trust the translator? If we can't understand the original text, on what basis can we decide whether a given translation is accurate?


Evelina | AvalinahsBooks (avalinahsbooks) | 116 comments I try to avoid translations when I can. I read at least half my books in English, but also half in my own language (those would be the translations). there are some books where the translation doesn't really interfered with the reading.. most books will be like that, really. unless the translation done really half-assedly (for example, I've seen this one case where the translator didn't know who Bob Hope was, or rather that he was a person at all.. and proceeded to translate Hope as 'hope' and 'Bob' as some ancient-taken-from-god-knows-what-old-cupboard definition of 'joke'. I didn't even know what to say. that was to be the biggest translation fail I've ever seen.)

but there are certain books where translation matters a lot. for example - The Clockwork Orange. or - apparently, The Help (I find that as I'm reading it now). there books have slang or dialects in them that is either very hard to translate or plain impossible. The Help - which I'm reading a translation of now - just feels so flat. I can see that the translator was trying to give it the feel of the original, but it didn't work out. now because I know English, I know what was in the original when I read the translation. but if it was a person who couldn't read the original..? this part would be missed, and the reader would just think the book isn't well written. and that's the problem with a mediocre translation.

but of course, there will always be people who can't read originals, and there will always be mediocre translators who also need a job and bread to eat, so I don't think this problem can really be fixed. it's still better to read a mediocre translation if that's the only one available and you can't read the original, I think.


message 3: by Sam (new)

Sam (synkopenleben) | 21 comments I want to prelude this by saying that I speak German and English on a native level and dabbled into Spanish and French - probably around a conversational level, but not good enough for highbrow literature.

To evaluate a translation's worth, one has to intricately compare both side by side. Translating literature is immensely difficult: Emulating the style, syntax and often neologisms and vernacular becomes tougher the more literary your texts are. It took the German translator of DFW's Infinite Jest, Ulrich Blumenbach, six years to complete his translation, which was eventually awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize for Translation in 2010. These translations are usually very close to the original, while simultaneously bridging cultural differences monolingual readers might find hard to grasp. A translation is, in my opinion, always a separate work of fiction. We can never fully grasp the author's original intentions and thoughts when reading their prose through the words of another writer, i.e. the translator, some intricacies usually get lost in the process.

Of course, most texts are relatively easy to translate, and even if some parts are not translated properly, most monolingual readers would probably not detect that. Most fantasy and scifi-novels for example are translated horribly into German - it's pretty obvious when a less experienced translator was at work. But as long as a reader is not able to understand the original, one has to make do with what's available. Wollschläger's translation of Joyce's Ulysses into German for example was in some parts even better than the original, in my opinion. Eva Kemper's translation of Díaz's Oscar Wao on the other hand was a mess - I appreciated that she left the Spanish bits and pieces intact, but most of Díaz's natural flow was just gone. And that's the case with most translations, to be honest.

If you can compare, do so. Search for award-winning translations to find some amazing ones. Speak with bilingual speakers to determine if your translation is fair enough. Because even if the translation is perfect, your cultural knowledge has to be up to par as well. In the end, we always have to trust the translators - but as they open up entirely new realms of thought for us, some leniency is always appreciated.


message 4: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Those are some impressive and fascinating comments. Wow!

Evelina, that translation of Bob Hope is laughably memorable, and saddeningly believable. And Sam, your comment about Wollschläger's translation of Ulysses being at times better than the original struck a chord. It reinforces your point that translations are always a separate work of fiction, but at the same time refutes the assumption that translations are by definition inferior or lacking.

Thank you both for sharing your perspective here.


Evelina | AvalinahsBooks (avalinahsbooks) | 116 comments I was actually surprised that someone would translate something for 6 years. A clear good example for doing something for art, not for money. As most books here are translated for money (and little money, at that), we can see how pushed for time and unmotivated (and ignorant of the subculture..?) translators produce such gems as with Bob Hope..


message 6: by Ben (new)

Ben Rowe (benwickens) | 89 comments I have just about enough German to be able to read in German and have done so in a number of occasions but it is quite a laborious process for me and I tend to just read books in English although I have no problem reading books in translation.

With books in translation you need two things, a good book and a good translator. I am a big Chekhov fan and I have read quite a few different translations of his plays and it is interesting to see how different translators and adaptations have approached different parts of the plays.

One of the challenges of reading books from another culture is that you will often not get all of the cultural references or social inferences from the original but this is not just about the translation it is about your understanding of that culture. For instance if you read, as I like to do, books from the Meiji period of Japan without a decent understanding of their culture then it is unlikely that any sort of translation will make the work accessible to you without either a long introduction or with much of the book being lost.

There is not to my mind just one good way of doing a translation, I can enjoy a very literal translation or a very loose translation as long as the end work (the translated version) is of a quality that I can enjoy. I am a bit more tolerant of clunky language in a translation as I understand that sometimes there is not an easy way of saying something in translation and it is a fair exchange for getting to read something that I otherwise would not get to read and that offers something different from work originally written in English.

There are some translators that are so good at what they do that I actively seek out books that they have translated, even if I am not familiar with the author. An example of this is Anthea Bell who is one of the more famous translators out there. Lydia Davis is another translator I look out for.


message 7: by Lily (last edited Feb 16, 2014 12:46PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Ben wrote: "There are some translators that are so good at what they do that I actively seek out books that they have translated, even if I am not familiar with the author. An example of this is Anthea Bell who is one of the more famous translators out there. Lydia Davis is another translator I look out for..."

For Russian works, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are the pair of translators whose work I will seek out. But critics who know both Russian and English, as well as P&V themselves, can point out some of the difficulties -- apparently for Russian, one particularly troublesome issue can be sentence structure, i.e., how words are concatenated together into thoughts and ideas.

Michael Cunningham has written a piece on translation that I have found to be particularly thoughtful. It has available as the Introduction to Death in Venice. At least much of his article can be read by using the "Look Inside" feature on Amazon. Here is quotation therefrom:

"All novels are translations, even in their original languages. This has been revealed to me over time, as I’ve worked with the various dedicated (and inevitably under-paid) people who have agreed to translate my own books. When I started working with translators, I couldn’t help noticing that many of the problems that vexed them — questions of nuance, resonance, and tone, as well as the rhythms of the sentences themselves — were familiar to me. I’d worried over the same things when I wrote the book in the first place. It dawned on me, gradually, that I was a translator, too. I had taken the raw material of the book in question and translated it into language.

"Every writer of course works differently, but I suspect that most novels begin in their writers’ minds as confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot, to name just a few. A novel in its earliest form, before it begins to be rendered into language, is a cloud of sorts that hovers over the writer’s head, a mystery born with clues to its own meanings but also, at its heart, insoluble. One hopes — a novel is inevitably an expression of unreasonable hopes — that the finished book will contain not only characters and scenes but a certain larger truth, though that truth, whatever it may be, is impossible to express fully in words. It has to do with the fact that writer and reader both know, beneath the level of active consciousness, something about being alive and being mortal, and that that something, when we try to express it, inevitably eludes us. We are creatures whose innate knowledge exceeds that which can be articulated. Although language is enormously powerful, it is concrete, and so it can’t help but miniaturize, to a certain extent, that which we simply know. All the writers I respect want to write a book so penetrating and thorough, so compassionate and unrelenting, that it can stand unembarrassed beside the spectacle of life itself. And all writers I respect seem to know (though no one likes to talk about it) that our efforts are doomed from the outset. Life is bigger than literature. We do the best we can. Some of us do better than others.

"My own translators, the best ones, seem always to battle a sense of failure — the conviction that while they’ve come close they’ve missed missed something in the original, some completeness, some aliveness, that refuses to quite come through in French or Italian or Japanese. This, too, is familiar to me. I always feel the same when a novel has finally exhausted me, and I feel compelled to admit that, although it doesn’t seem finished, it is as close to completion as I’m capable of getting it...."

Mann, Thomas (2009-10-13). Death in Venice. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


message 8: by Lily (last edited Feb 17, 2014 06:19AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments John Ciardi has been another favorite commentator on translation for me. As a poet, he created an awareness of the difference in translating a flower's name as "daisy" -- reminiscent of a day's eye and sunshine, versus "margarete" -- evoking a woman, probably beautiful.

It was a pastor dealing with Bible translations who taught me to listen to one translation while reading another, a habit I love to carry over to literature, except on those rare occasions that the differences are great enough to induce a headache. She also taught me the difference between a translation and a paraphrase -- and that there can be a place in one's reading oeuvre for both.

Another issue is the changes a language experiences over time -- I can read only translations of Chaucer, even though originally written in English, albeit Old English.* Some argue that there are sympathies between his Victorian translators and Tolstoy because both lived and experienced the same time period. Nabokov's translation of Eugene Onegin cost him a friendship when, among other concerns, critic Edmund Wilson descried Nabokov's use of obscure and archaic English in his attempt to faithfully convey Pushkin's poem novel in English.

Some of you have heard me tell these favorite translation tales before. My apologies for being repetitive, but I won't promise it won't happen again. ;-o

* Middle English -- see Casceil's comment in the following message! (I can still only read translations. [g])


message 9: by Casceil (last edited Feb 16, 2014 03:19PM) (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Lily, Chaucer is actually Middle English, and thus much closer to Modern English. In college I actually took a course in Old English, as in pre-1086 West Saxon, and it really is much more like a different language. At the beginning of first class, the professor walked to the front of the room, raised one hand, and announced "Whaet." (Except I can't put it in right because the a and e are joined together as one letter, the name of which is pronounced like "ash.") Old English uses a slightly different alphabet, with two letters we don't have, to represent different ways of saying "th" (I think one is voiced and the other is unvoiced, but it's been 40 years and I may have that wrong.) There is also another letter I can't quite remember called something like "yog." It's a gutteral sound that metamorphosed into "gh," but sounds more like you are swallowing or gargling or something.


message 10: by Lily (last edited Feb 17, 2014 06:12AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Thank you, Casceil! You make me want to go back and correct my post!

Just for fun, let me see if Goodreads will accept this symbol (copied from MSWord):

æ æ æ

Let's see, Beowulf is Old English?


message 11: by Casceil (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Beowulf is Old English. There is a translation by Seamus Heany Beowulf: A New Verse Translation that is supposed to be very good. It is a parallel translation, with Old English and modern English on facing pages.


message 12: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2465 comments Casceil wrote: "Beowulf is Old English. There is a translation by Seamus Heany Beowulf: A New Verse Translation that is supposed to be very good. It is a parallel translation, with Old English and m..."

I haven't gotten entirely through it, but I have enjoyed the part of the Heany rendition I have read. The edition with illustrations adds to the pleasure.


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