To the outside world, literary translators are famously invisible. Being a tight-knit community of solitary home workers, though, we talk a lot amongst ourselves. Recently, one big thing we’ve been talking about is reviews of our work. As critics come to notice our existence, we garner both praise and - in what feels like greater depth - criticism. So I thought it might be useful to ask other literary translators what they aim for, what positive criteria we have for judging the outcome of our work. I was not disappointed.
It’s easy to say what a bad translation is. The ones that are accidentally jagged like the person wielding the scissors was drunk. The ones where someone has misunderstood the original, or perhaps misinterpreted it. The ones where all individuality has been smoothed out. But how do we identify a successful translation? When have we done our job well? What is it we want to achieve, beyond mere fluidity?
What is a good translation?
Fluidity is not to be sneezed at, and is often difficult to accomplish, but a good translation goes further and achieves the self-evidence and urgency of the original. It sings, whispers and swears like the original and leaves the reader thrilled, disturbed and amused in the same ways too. A sensitive monolingual reviewer describes the style of a good translation in terms that unknowingly echo the reviews of the original novel or poetry. A good translation does not have to be impeccably starched and ironed, but dares to be ragged and frantic when appropriate. When presented with a few lines of original and translation, a bilingual reader might not be sure which is which. The voice of a good translation is as distinctive in English as the author’s voice in the original language, also when compared to other authors translated by the same translator. A good translation is something to aspire to and, in this perfectionist’s profession, a good translation is never good enough.
To write a good translation, at a certain point I have to forget the text I’m translating exists. Only then can I read my translation without “seeing through it” the foreign-language text “underneath” – that is, the way virtually everyone else who reads my translation is going to read (and assess) it. Beyond that, I don’t agree that fluidity is necessarily always a goal.
A good translation respects and, therefore, reflects the author’s style and vocabulary: Where the author’s writing is choppy, mine should also be. Where it’s harsh or stilted or opaque, or lyrical and flowing, or unambiguous, my writing should be too. When the author conforms to convention, so should I; when they bend or break it, I need to do the same. This assumes the author intended these effects.
On the other hand, it can happen that an author’s writing comes across as awkward when in fact it was a result of poor (or non-existent) editing, rather than a deliberate style. This is where it can get tricky. We all know by now, I hope, that this doesn’t mean every single word or phrase in my translation must precisely correspond in style and effect to a counterpart in the author’s text. But it does mean that I don’t have the liberty to write a “strange” work when the author’s was “normal”, or “normalise” the writing when the author meant to be unorthodox. If I do, the result may still be “good”, but rather than a translation, it might be more accurate to call it an adaptation.
A good translation captures the spirit of a text without slavishly following it to the letter. It captures the energy and texture and voice of the source text and replicates them in the translation, drawing on all the resources of the target language. A good translation conveys what is written between the lines. A good translation exudes empathy. A good translation elicits the same emotional response in the reader as the source text does in its readers.
A good translation doesn’t colonise the work but preserves the joys and beauties of its “otherness” without resorting to weird foreignisation. A good translation perfectly resolves the tension between meaning and music, and that of being source-text oriented and target-reader oriented. A good translation is bold and creative.
A good translation is imperceptible. It reads as if the book were written in the language into which it has been translated. A good translation removes the barrier imposed by an unfamiliar language and allows the writer to communicate directly with the foreign reader.
In some instances, achieving that aim can mean moving away from the literal meaning of the original. This is probably truer for translation from some languages than others; perhaps for translators into English, languages outside the Indo-European group will need a different approach from languages that belong to it. Different genres or translating for children can also have different requirements.
I suppose a good translation is a good piece of writing. Personally, I appreciate musicality in a text and an ability to carry through the feeling of each line: those subtle shifts, for example, when at the end of a paragraph a well-placed word or phrase elicits a laugh, a note of tragedy or irony. I think this has something to do with experience.
The texts I’m thinking of were early on in my career, which might bring me to my answer for what a good translation is: When the translator feels comfortable enough with the text to treat it as their own – all the while keeping the author’s music, tone, emotion, voice, etc., in sight – and is able to create a piece of writing that feels like the original and carries the original through to the reader. However, many of the translators has stayed faithful to or departed from the original text, where the reader becomes too aware of the mechanics of translating.
To me a good translation is one where you almost can’t believe what you’re reading was translated, from something into something, from somewhere to somewhere – is language a place, or is it rather a thing? One where you almost can’t believe it was brought from somewhere to somewhere. That it was unboxed, then hastily transported, a shapeless, unprotected something, and carefully put into new boxes. Which makes it sound like I sustain the theory that a good translation is some sort of a hoax.
For me a good translation is one that is on the same wavelength as the original text – a piece of music that has been arranged for different instruments but evokes an emotional response as close to the effect of the original as possible given a different cultural background and references. Or a goulash or a soufflé prepared from locally available ingredients that comes out with a texture as stodgy or fluffy and that burns your palate or tickles your taste buds in the same way as the original.
A good translation wants to be read. The strengths and curiosities of the source will dare to be present alongside its duller points and weaknesses, but all will have been reimagined, naturally and effectively, at a remove from the rules of the original style.
I think it’s about a near-magical balance being struck between channelling the translator’s perceived idea of the text’s original sound and intention and its re-enactment through the translator’s own voice, the way they personally would express these styles and ideas. It’s about the careful and always considerate mingling of these two impulses or perceptions – which means you can’t always tell that you’re reading a good translation! The nature of the animal is that you can’t be sure to identify it as such, though you may have a good feeling about it.
A good translation hums. It lives in the ear. It shatters our expectations, redefining what translation can do in the first place.
When you read a good translation, the usual labels quickly lose their value. To borrow from Potter Stewart, we know a good translation when we see it, right? Each good translation is good in its own way. I hope that doesn’t read like a cop-out. The good ones make us see translation in a new way.