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Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny

Benedetto di Bindo/Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania/John G. Johnson Collection, 1917/Bridgeman Images
Detail of Saint Jerome translating the Gospel of John, circa 1400

Is translation a discipline or a cause? A catalogue sent to me by a small American publisher begins by naming all the translators of the foreign titles the company is offering, inviting the reader to thank and celebrate the people who have made the English versions of these books possible.

I go to a university seminar on translation whose program is headed with a quotation from Paul Auster: “Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments… who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.”

I go to a translation conference where the keynote speaker observes with satisfaction that the period when a speaker might show an example of translation, criticize it, and suggest his or her own supposedly better version—“the time of the ‘Translation Police’”—is thankfully over. Toward the end of the same conference, a revered pioneer of Translation Studies is pleased that “everything we have heard here makes a mockery of pedantic questions of fidelity and the old tendency to hierarchize some translations as good and some as bad.”

When a member of the “Translation Police” does show his face, he is rebuked. I open The New York Times and find an angry letter from a number of well-respected names in the translation community. They are attacking Benjamin Moser’s negative review of Kate Briggs’s recent book on translation, This Little Art. Moser had taken issue with Briggs’s remark that “we need translations. The world, the English-speaking world, needs translations. Clearly and urgently it does; we do.” He felt the claim needed qualification: Which translations, why? He was also unimpressed by Briggs’s enthusiasm for the first translator into English of Thomas Mann’s novels, Helen Lowe-Porter, whose German, it is generally agreed, had shortcomings that led to there being a large number of mistakes in the English versions. Those writing the letter to the Times deplore Moser’s “simplistic and retrograde… insistence on accuracy.” Translation is a complex subject, they observe, and accuracy not such an easy issue to pin down.

Meanwhile, someone directs me to a translators’ online forum where a certain Tim Gutteridge, a British translator based in Spain, has suggested that criticizing a translation for plain errors is hardly a crime—language competence lies at the core of translation, does it not?—and is being scolded by colleagues who feel this is “unethical”; translators need support, not criticism. Reading the thread, it rather seems that they are policing him, and not vice versa. In any event, the issue is so keenly felt in the translation community these days that the editors of In Other Words, the twice-yearly publication of the British Centre for Literary Translation, have decided to dedicate a major article to the ethics of criticizing translations in their forthcoming January edition.

All this should be heartening, perhaps. Literature in translation has never been a priority in the Anglo-Saxon world. While, in a country like Italy, more than half of fiction titles published will be translated, in the US the share of the market is much smaller, somewhere around three percent. Translators are poorly paid and, for the most part, unsung. How encouraging, then, to see a growing advocacy for translated literature and a spirited defense of those who practice this art. Back in 2010, I wrote these words:

You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He [or she] reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his [or her] own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to [the translator’s] own experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness. Imagine shifting the Tower of Pisa into downtown Manhattan and convincing everyone it’s in the right place; that’s the scale of the task.

I concluded that article, however, by suggesting that since literature is indeed so wonderfully rich in nuance and translating it is, consequently, such an arduous task, we “must make sure we get the best translators.”

Let us return to that catalogue thanking the publisher’s translators. It is true, of course, that a translator makes the English version of a foreign novel possible. However, thanks to copyright law, it is also true that a new translation will prevent the appearance of any other translations of the same book for a very long time. Once Don Bartlett has translated Knausgaard, or Ann Goldstein, Ferrante, or Lorin Stein, Houellebecq, English readers are not going to get a chance to read anyone else’s version for decades. If the book in question is to enter into our culture, our collective psyche, it is going to do so, for better or worse, through this first translation.

Even when we come to translations of works long out of copyright, their authors dead seventy years and more, the investment involved may be so considerable that only one shot at the book will be possible. After Farrar, Straus, and Giroux generously undertook to translate and publish all three thousand pages of the nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi’s tortuously difficult philosophical diary, the Zibaldone, it is hardly likely that another complete edition will appear in our lifetimes. Each translation is an opportunity, to be taken or missed. Thus a responsibility, for both publisher and translator.

Imagine I am reading a novel for review, something translated from Italian, a language I know well, having lived in the country almost forty years now. I’m enjoying the excellent plot, the characters, the descriptions, and am eager to write positively about the book.

Then I notice something odd. “At this point,” I read, “it was clear that when she’d confessed she’d hardly even considered it.” I’d had the impression that our heroine hadn’t confessed and that she wasn’t the the kind of person who did important things without due consideration. I download the original to my Kindle and find:

A questo punto risultava chiaro che lei a confessare non ci pensava neanche.”

Literally: “At this point, it became clear that she, as for confessing, wasn’t even thinking of it.” More fluently: “At this point, it was clear that she wasn’t even thinking of confessing.”

So here we have a straight mistake, an inversion of the meaning. There is nothing nuanced about it, no question of the translator’s taking a creative decision on a particular interpretation of the text. Just a mistake. We all make them. As much the editor’s fault as the translator’s, perhaps. And who cares, anyway? The book is still enjoyable. Onward.

Only, now that I have been alerted to translation issues—and presumably I was invited to review the book because I know Italian—I begin to notice all kinds of small glitches and irritations.

“Ah, how well he understood me,” the English gives in one place, “my anxiety that experience immediately turned into memory.”

The second part of this sentence doesn’t seem right to me. Going to the Italian, we have: “la mia ansia che l’esperienza diventasse subito memoria.” Which is to say: “my eagerness that experience should turn at once into memory.” In trouble with the flexibility of “ansia” (not always a simple cognate of anxiety), the translator has missed the effect of the subjunctive “diventasse,” and so inverted the sense. We’re not worrying about experience becoming memory; rather, we want it to become memory as soon as possible. Again, there is no question of creative interpretation; what we have is a straightforward misreading. Likewise, later, when the Italian banco, a bench, is mistaken for banca, a bank (in the sense of financial institution).

This goes on. I’m still enjoying the book, which is excellent, and most of it is coming across fine; all the same, there are dozens of these blemishes. What is a reviewer to do? If I mention one or two errors, I’ll be accused of pedantry, seeking to show off my knowledge, ignoring the translator’s larger achievement. And I do want to recommend the book, which is a great read, and, despite these glitches, a profound novel. Nevertheless, it would be a better read if the translator’s Italian had been better, and this seems an important reflection when reviewing a literary translation.

After all, I know a number of translators who would not have made these mistakes and whose English is equally fluent and stylish. Of course, if I say nothing about the quality of the translation in my review and just concentrate on the book, I will be accused of not showing respect to the novel’s “co-writer,” as translators are now sometimes referred to.

Now, let’s suppose I manage to fudge this issue with some superficial remark toward the end of my review—“an effective, if uneven translation”—only to hear, shortly thereafter, that the translation has won a prestigious prize. The recent interest in translated literature has brought with it a plethora of new translation prizes: for translations from specific languages or from any language, for young translators, for women translators, for both book and translation, or for just the translation, and so on. Well, the logic of prizes is that some translators, or translations, are better than others and that not all versions are equal; so what am I to think when this translation—with all its flaws—wins?

Has it won because, in spite of the translation problems, this remains a fine novel, in which case the prize is more the merit of the writer than the translator? Did the judges of the prize not notice the problems I found? Do they know Italian well? Did they have time to read the books entered for the prize properly? Above all, should I say something at this point, should I write something? Or at least drop a note to the publishers, inviting them to correct the mistakes in a later edition? Doesn’t the idea that one can be praised and celebrated for a translation imply that one might be criticized for it, too?

“We are all singing from the same hymn sheet,” remarked the pioneer of Translation Studies at the end of our conference; among young translators particularly, there was a “fervor,” a “zealotry,” that was admirable and encouraging.

This desire for unanimity and solidarity is understandable, and no doubt, at a deep level, we do all share a passion for literary translation and a wish that the practice thrive. This is why we invest so much time in learning our languages and working on our writing—so that our translations will be better. It is the logic behind every course that teaches translation: that one can improve. If someone is not happy with the hymn sheet, or with hymn sheets in general, let’s hear them.