Lost in translation

Interesting article in The News & Observer on foreign translations and the potential problems that arise. It starts off discussing an New Yorker article that quoted liberally from a translated work without noting the translator. The translator complained. Eventually the New Yorker agreed to print the translators letter to the editor.

The article raises some interesting questions:

Few people would endorse the magazine’s oversight. Yet we must also admit that it offered a little wish fulfillment to some readers. Translators play such a central role in our experience of foreign works that we have a natural urge to erase them from the picture.

Picking up “Madame Bovary” or “Crime and Punishment,” we seek to surrender ourselves to the towering genius of Flaubert or Dostoevsky. We don’t want to be reminded that our ignorance of French or Russian means we can never fully enjoy their works, but only versions of them created by gifted, but obscure, translators.

I have to confess this is a good encapsulation of my view! I often completely forget about the translator. I recently read Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal and I didn’t think much about the translator Edith Pargeter.

But the article points out that translators have a big impact on how we read these works:

Almost all first-rate translators convey the story and spirit of the works at hand — capturing Bovary’s yearning or Raskolnikov’s torment. But then we remember Flaubert, who famously labored to find le seul mot juste (the one right word). Even a cursory glance of competing translations displays thousands of differing word choices, many of which alter the rhythm, the syntax and, to varying degrees, the meaning of the work.

To take one telling example, here is Lyngstad’s translation of the third sentence from Hamsun’s novel, “Victoria”: “When he grew up he wanted to be a maker of matches.” Here’s how an earlier translator, Oliver Stallybrass, rendered it: “When he grew up he would work in a match factory.”

I cannot say which version is truer, but the differences are plain. Lyngstad gives us an ambitious boy determined to set the world on fire. Stallybrass introduces us to a child whose grim fate seems predetermined.

Translators are like priests who mediate our relationship with the literary gods. We depend on them even as we wish for direct contact.

Fascinating subject, and one worth thinking about. What do the readers think? Do you pay attention to translators when you read classic works that have been translated? Do you read current fiction in translation? Or is this not really an issue for you? Let me know what you think.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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7 Comments

  • I might mention, in case you (or some readers) weren’t aware, that the late Edith Pargeter was the same person as mystery writer Ellis Peters, who gave us Brother Cadfael.

  • Eliot Weinberger put together a slender volume titled “Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.” It includes a poem by the classic (1200 years ago) Chinese poet Wang Wei, eighteen translations, and commentary by Weinberger. (Come to think of it, it’s sort of an episode of American Idol for poetry translators. Weinberger is Simon Cowell-ish, in a properly restrained academic way, but still pretty amusing.)

    Weinberger concludes that the truest translation is the one by Ezra Pound, who knew no Chinese. Instead, he took an earlier English translation and rewrote it.

    Amazon link

  • This is an issue worth much discussion. A good translator shares the life of the work with his reader. You have chosen lesser pieces of literature. But what of the ancient classics; I am thinking of Homer. And, in an era of ‘everyone’s translation,’ who allows the Bible to speak?

  • I pay attention to translator of course. I make my choice considering this factor. I mean a lot of people translate the same works and I prefer to read the translation of one I and know respect .
    If to speak about fiction I only read original version.

  • I pay attention to translator of course. I make my choice considering this factor. I mean a lot of people translate the same works and I prefer to read the translation of one I and know respect .
    If to speak about fiction I only read original version.

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