The Art of Translating20 May 2010
The Art of Translating
Translations of the bible give rise to endless linguistic debates. Just a single word can lead to a huge controversy. However what is happening with translations of contemporary literature?
Suppose a Chinese novel is published in an English translation. How do you know if this translation is any good? A publisher who deals with many books in translation cannot be expected to have someone who has enough knowledge about each of the source languages in order to check the translators’ work. It may well be that English translations only get checked for spelling and grammar.
Recently I heard a translator explaining that he had to deal with a text in a source language he didn’t understand so he asked someone to provide a literal translation and he worked on improving this. This is a sure recipe for producing a translated text that hardly bears any resemblance to the original.
In the same way that a writer relies on his first reader, a translator needs similar feedback. His first reader needs to be fluent in both languages. It is even better, of course, if the author provides this feedback.
Unfortunately often this is simply impossible; this was demonstrated recently with the Dutch translation of Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle. The Dutch poet and translator Hanz Mirck made quite a few mistakes which prompted the publisher J.M. Meulenhoff to take the publication out of circulation. The problems were discovered because many Dutch people know English well enough. This immediately invites the question who watches over translations from Chinese.
If only Seamus Heaney would have been conversant with Dutch, these problems would have been avoided. Notwithstanding this fact, the responsibility lies with the publisher.
Any translator however good, delivers a first draft. This always contains some mistakes. The first reader, preferably as I have explained the author, surveys the text and where necessary makes alterations. The publisher facilitates this process. The more editorial reviews by better qualified experts in both languages, the better the translation will turn out. Especially set phrases, every day speech and allegorical language require a translation that ‘captures the spirit of’ rather than a faithful literal job. This is even more important with poetry that uses these elements to the limit.
One of my creative writing students is writing the story of an Afghan refugee because he himself isn’t yet proficient in Dutch. The piece contained the following sentence: ‘Jalil behaved like a lion. So he thought, but he resembled more closely a fox, as he was frightened and afraid of everything. Well, it seems: ‘An Afghan fox is supposed to be frightened and afraid of everything,’ concluded one student. ‘But we consider a fox to be cunning and impertinent,’ objected others.
Imagine that you have to translate this expression from the Afghan. How do you handle it? Do you expect your readers to take in that it is a well-known Afghan expression or do you put it in context of the target language and substitute another animal? The best course of action is for the translator to consult the author. Provided the author understands both languages, it is very likely that a good solution will be found. That is the aim of a translation: that it doesn’t look like a translation but feels like it was written directly in the target language. Of course it should also make sure that the voice of the author shines through in the translation.
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