Other People’s Views on Literary Translation


In my last blog entry I ran on quite a bit about what I think translation is, or at least should be. I was delighted to find that I am not alone! I was equally delighted to see that some very talented people did a much better job of expressing what I was trying to say.

For example, I recently ran across a link to this very excellent article on literature in translation on the website of the Boston Globe newspaper.

The author, Estelle Gilson, is a translator bringing Italian works into English, and while her background is with European languages, what she has to say is right on the money. In fact, a look at her website reveals at least one other article on the perils and joys of translation, too, which is also worth reading.

Some key snips that struck home for me:
"True, no translation can reproduce the full vitality, power, subtlety, and excitement of an original work. And true, too, there are bad translations. But faulty as translations can be, imagine, if you can, a world in which the Bible had remained Hebrew and the New Testament Greek."

She has summed up the key problem with evaluating translation neatly: "It is generally suggested to reviewers that a translated work ought to read 'naturally and smoothly.' While it is true that an English translation of a foreign work should read as if the author were a native speaker of English, this standard lulls reviewers into thinking that smoothly flowing prose is indicative of a 'faithful' rendition of the foreign author's words. Yet without reading the original work, no reviewer can be sure that a translator has not gentrified or bowdlerized the original text."

I wonder if this might not be an especially severe issue for translations from Japanese to English, because of the amount of information missing from the printed page in Japanese. When a native Japanese reader reads the original, of course, they understand the story, but people who have grown up with English discover a lot of holes. Japanese rarely needs to specify the subject of a sentence, for example, the gender of a speaker, or the quantity of anything. When I was translating Wolfcrest by Hirai Kazumasa for example, I contacted the author to ask whether a minor character – a schoolteacher, I think – was male or female, because I had a sentence that could be either "He said" or "She said." Astonishingly, Hirai replied that he'd never thought about it, but since I asked why not make it a man.

I was flabbergasted... I knew that English readers could have difficultly picking up "missing" information in a Japanese novel, but now the author was telling me that it was missing because he never put it in. Never even considered it, in fact!

A number of translators have made similar observations over the years. No, over the centuries, no doubt.

In his collected lectures on literary translation, "Mouse or Rat?" Umberto Eco, the author of "The Name of the Rose," later made into a pretty good flick with Sean Connery, suggests that translation is not just about putting the author's message into a different language, but also transposing the cultural differences. As a result, he says, translators are always "negotiating" between the two.

Another article well worth reading, especially if you like Murakami Haruki, was written by Wendy Lesser in The Chronicle. She discusses and compares parallel translations of Murakami, along with some interesting thoughts, and demonstrates amply how two different translators can come up with completely different – but equally valid – interpretations of a given text.

So, in spite of the difficulty, and especially considering the total lack of recognition and the low pay, why translate at all? To borrow the wisdom of Estelle Gilson once again: "Grossly inaccurate or patently individualistic translations aside, literary translations are explorations and interpretations. Each of the various translations of a masterwork can bring the reader unable to read the original work, new and valid insights."

And of course:
"As we have through the centuries, we uncover, interpret, and reinterpret to the best of our abilities, and as closely as two languages will permit, the work of brilliant, pedantic, hateful, loving, disturbing, soothing writers, poets, and thinkers, so that readers, no matter how distant in time and space from them, can taste the wealth of their offerings."

Unless Hollywood suddenly discovers me I'll never get rich at translating, or publishing it, but the joy of managing to capture the essence of the original in English for others, even in part, is worth it.


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