half-formed thoughts on editing a translation

1) How much is ok to change? Should we sacrifice elegance for faithfulness?

2) Subjectively (insert “rendered into English” on all counts): Swedish is a redundant language. Japanese is oblique. Mandarin is leaping. Turkish is winding.

If we move editorially away from any of these qualities, which we would discourage in an English language origination, are we losing part of the meat?

3) Do people read translations for story, or for flavor? If the latter, should the translation taste like a translation and not just a story?


(Hint: there are no answers to these question. We could tear down the walls fighting about them if you want to, though.)

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10 Responses to half-formed thoughts on editing a translation

  1. Hmm, I don’t know if I have a strong opinion on this, since I haven’t read many translations beyond Beowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey. My only comment at the moment is that I adore the way you described each language. I hope you explore your ideas about language in a story someday! The way you talk about them makes them sound alive.

    • i wish i had more time to dabble widely in foreign languages and make more gross generalizations like this. languages do totally have personalities, though. don’t you think? every language i’ve ever studied has a different mindset you have to sink yourself in before you can speak it.

      correlative: i wonder how much cultural stereotyping is born out of thinking tics born out of language personalities.

      • Yes, I definitely think languages have personalities! I love the idea of a cafe where all the languages gather–a Tower, perhaps, of Babel. Some are smoking, some are gesticulating, some only speak when they know precisely what they want to say. But what do they do there? Are they like gods? I’m running away with myself but anyway, I enjoy the image.

  2. Froog says:

    I’m a little sceptical of – or confused by – some of your one-word summations, Whaddaya. ‘Redundant’ seems harsh for the Swedes! And something they’re likely to be a bit sensitive about. Allowing a lot of apparent redundancies in their expression doesn’t make the whole language redundant. But I gather all the Scandinavian countries are now confronting the fact that their populations are nearly all bilingual in English, and speak with the rest of the world – and increasingly with each other – in English; so, the ‘redundancy’ of their native languages may be becoming an issue.

    And Mandarin is ‘leaping’? Full of lacunae, or inspecificities (is that a word? ought to be!), I would say.

    I agree that different languages have peculiarities that can give their literature – and their native speakers’ habits of thought – a distinctive flavour. But I think this distinctiveness is usually – with a good author, anyway – far less than the distinctiveness of a particular book’s style and worldview.

    Much of the distinctiveness of any book – whether it’s in the language or the way the author thinks – is simply not going to be transferable to another language. Over-literalism, or ‘faithfulness’ taken to misguided extremes, is, I think, the bane of translation. A good translator has to find ways of recreating as much as possible of the impact of the author’s modes of thought, style of expression, webs of cultural reference; but it’s mostly unfeasible to do that in a way that closely resembles the original; you have to find equivalents that achieve a similar impact in the target language.

    ‘Elegance’ is not the only virtue in style. Some writers deliberately eschew it, preferring registers that we might call ‘spare’ or ‘gritty’, or perhaps sometimes even wilfully ‘pedestrian’ or ‘awkward’, and so on.

    However, I think ‘elegance’ (I would prefer to say ‘good writing’) vs. ‘faithfulness’ is a false contrast. I’ve read of a few translators who claim to eschew ‘literariness’ in their work because they supposedly just want to convey their author’s words simply and directly into their own language. I think they are mostly very bad translators. Translation is a balancing act between conveying the essence of the original as fully as possible, without undue elaboration, and yet also producing something which works in the target language – something which is a good book in English.

    Translators know that 98% of the time, their version is not going to get close to being as good in English as the original was in French or Arabic or Mandarin or whatever. But if they do get somewhere close, that’s an astounding achievement.

    I have discussed the difficulties of translation a few times on my own blog: for instance, presenting a ‘translation’ by American academic Frank Bidart of a poem by the classical Chinese writer Du Fu, which included extended glosses on features of the historical background (and was apparently produced without any knowledge of Chinese); and an attempt of my own to translate a piece by the Roman poet Catullus, which discarded two or three whole lines and also consciously, carefully omitted what in the original had been the key word.

  3. Froog says:

    Supplemental, on your last point: it doesn’t sound like a good thing that something should “taste like a translation”. We don’t want to be obtrusively reminded of the feats of mental acrobatics involved in rendering literature from one language to another.

    Primarily, we want it to “taste like literature”. We should feel that it’s good writing, that’s engaging, that we can understand it. Secondarily, we would like it to carry some “flavour of the original”, insofar as that is possible.

    I always read for the quality of the writing rather than story. Great writers are usually able to produce great stories as well. Interesting stories written by poor writers tend to bore or irritate me.

  4. Froog says:

    A further thought…

    I’ve sometimes heard it said by translator friends here in China that they wish they could have an editor who understood some of the translation issues, who had at least some familiarity with the Chinese language and the Chinese literary scene. I imagine they just say this when they’ve had a particularly difficult – and losing – tussle over something they felt was important.

    I should think that it’s actually better to have an editor who’s completely ignorant of the origin language – that the creative tension between the different perspectives of translator and editor is productive, and necessary.

    Translators, I think, often get ‘too close’ to the work; they devote so much time and attention to it that they become over-invested in fairly trivial points (all authors do, but translators can be even worse), they can lose sight of the wood through obsessing about each vein of each leaf on each tree.

    Translators do their best to develop a sense of how a work reads in its own language (though their grasp of this is always likely to be a long way short of perfect, unless they native speakers). Editors, however, are likely to have a better sense of how a translation reads in English. I don’t think it’s good for them to know or care about how it works in the original: the translator is going to fret quite enough about that. Translators, I fear, can often lose touch with reality a little; they need editors to keep them grounded. And, in particular, there may be a temptation for many of them to focus too much on the richness of the original language and not enough on the readability of the English; they need editors to keep them away from that error.

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