This article was first published here.
To translate written work, especially colourful prose or poetry, is
an exercise both punctuated by glee and fraught with anxiety. The
ethical pitfalls of translation are many, and synonyms somehow never
quite enough. If one resignedly steamrolls alliteration and meter, the
yells they emit could be transliterated as anything from “ouch”, to
“aïe”, to “āi yō”, depending on one’s perspective. Meanwhile, nuance
flees the scene, and nobody notices.
The Italian language has a pithy saying on the subject: “Traduttore, traditore” – translator, traitor.
It reflects the pessimistic but noteworthy idea that the act of
translation is inherently doomed to fail, for nothing can ever be
translated with perfect precision.
Reclining in her faux-leather desk chair, the philosophy professor looks smug. Does ‘translation’ even exist? Her eyes seem to say. How can any word, any perception, or any one reading of a text have a direct equivalent in another tongue? And how could you identify it anyway, trapped as you are within the framework of your own perceptions and experiences?
Yet to engage in such a debate is a challenge for another day,
another office; another bottle of vodka. Though it has its esoteric
merits, the argument that no translation can ever be ‘perfect’ risks
obscuring important practical considerations: that translation is
necessary in a globalised world, and that translating in order to learn
more about other cultures and their literary wealth is a positive
Nevertheless, assuming the attitude that translation both does and
should exist, we are already faced with several issues. For example, how
loyal must a translator be to an original text? What responsibilities
do they hold?
In an argument which harks back to the aforementioned philosophical
point, critics and translators alike have argued that translation is not
a dry affair which shuttles back and forth between languages, but
rather an act of creation. Consider stylistic qualities of texts, such
as alliteration and rhyme: a translator would have to be inventive in
order to convey a sense of an original text’s style as well as its
meaning. A nursery rhyme or a tongue-twister, to use very basic
examples, would suffer if translated too literally; no-one cares about
that random woman’s seaside vending enterprise at the best of times, but
that ‘she sells shells’ is even less interesting in a language which
loses the consonance and assonance of the English anecdote. Similarly,
no Anglophone would bother repeating the entertaining (no really, it’s
adorable) French tongue-twister, As-tu été à Tahiti? – “Have
you been to Tahiti?” – in English for fun. Clearly, there must be some
degree of creative licence in translation if an original’s nature is to
be emulated effectively.
Nevertheless, to see translation as a creative act does have its
problems. If one takes too many liberties in translation, translation
could turn into adaptation – and if a translator has been entrusted with
a text to translate, they do have an obligation to respect the original
Granted, questions surrounding ownership and originality are further
complicated by the fact translators are, naturally, encouraged to
translate ‘well’. To evoke the philosophy professor from the third
paragraph, however, what is ‘well’? Should a translation be permitted to improve on the original?
To compare a translation’s merit with that of an original is highly
subjective. That said, it is possible to analyse the two primary
components of all texts – style and content – and consider how these
might be improved via translation, and whether doing so is ethically
acceptable. On the one hand, translators have a responsibility not to
manipulate texts, even so as to ‘improve’ them, simply in order to
represent them accurately. Yet one can still find glimmers of ethical
translation innovation; turns of phrase which respect the original by
adding flair, but in no way changing the meaning. A personal favourite,
for example – a piece of genius I still recall from childhood – is how Harry Potter’s French translator, Jean-François Ménard, fused the words ‘choix’ (choice) and ‘chapeau’ (hat) to make the French version’s Magic Sorting Choixpeau. Such a pun is in keeping with the books’ tone, and thus a valid stylistic choice.
A more recent example of inspired translation is that of Deborah
Smith, who was co-awarded the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for
translating Han Kang’s prize-winning novel The Vegetarian.
Judges deemed the prize to be “equal” between author and translator,
considering the book to have “found the right voice in English” and to
have thus been made accessible to Anglophone audiences to an unusually
accurate degree, in both style and content. As with the case of
Jean-François Ménard mentioned above, this example shows how a
translator can perform their job without obscuring or overshadowing the
text with which they’ve been entrusted.
However, in terms of content the debate thickens considerably.
Naturally, it seems unlikely anyone would condone changing characters or
storylines in a translationYet making such decisions is not always so
simple. Take H. Rider Haggard novels, for example: enormously popular
back in the heyday of the British Empire, they would now be considered
ludicrously offensive for their blatant racism, sexism, and classism.
Should we alter the content, and thus our understanding of Haggard, by
toning down the racial slurs and the punitive deaths? Similar questions have been asked about Enid Blyton novels, still widely distributed, and those of Agatha Christie, the best-selling author of all time.
To alter these works, whether by translation or modernisation, would
go beyond stylistic tweaks. Whole characters’ identities could need
rewriting to fit today’s standards (it can be hard enough ), and to take
such liberties with an author’s work seems absurd, or at the very least
Orwellian. And yet what should one do, if translating an otherwise
exceptional novel in which a protagonist makes repeated racist or
homophobic jokes, for example – which, in that culture, era, and social
context, may actually have served to consolidate his popularity and
(supposedly) the reader’s good opinion of him? Does one simply footnote
such incidents, and use them to discuss cultural and historical
differences, and changing ideologies? Or does one adapt the joke, and
translate the author’s supposed intent (i.e. the joke makes the
character popular) so as not to jar a progressive modern readership?
Personally, I believe translating a work should ideally be
unobtrusive: it’s not the place of the translator to change the tone of
the original and thus influence readers’ interpretations of the text. We
can’t ever fully know an author’s intent, but we can be as faithful to
informed interpretations of it as possible. Besides, translation is
widely perceived as an objective act, even though this is hardly the
case. The common belief that a translation is accurate means a
translator therefore has a great deal of responsibility, for their word
will literally be taken to be somebody else’s. Translators are
facilitators above all: they should consequently aim not to betray their readers’ expectations of loyalty to an original.
Yet in spite of these various quandaries and ethical limitations,
translation needn’t be considered the underwhelming ‘study in beige’ of
the writing arts. As mentioned previously, it can be creative without
being presumptuous, particularly if an integral part of a text’s quality
is owed to a memorable writing style. In these cases, it can be a lot
of fun to read translations; after all, one never knows what cleverness
might have been unearthed through using a set of parallel tools, and how
different translators might have interpreted the one text. What
innovations might there have been in translating Shakespeare, and might
these translations have developed over the years along with our readings
of his works? How about Finnegan’s Wake? Or Jabberwocky?
No matter how self-effacing or otherwise a translator may be – and
regardless of whether they intend to reflect or to recreate texts –
there is at least one point on which we can be hopeful: that there will
always be as much to be gained, as to be lost, in translation.