On literary translations – a respectful objection

Book bloggers and reviewers should pay much more attention to the work of translators of literary works as they usually do – I am no exception, although I have devoted some blog posts in the past to translation issues and will do so also in the future. Sometimes we bloggers and reviewers do not mention the translation at all, not out of bad intentions or disrespect, but out of habit. We all should make efforts to change that.

One of my favourite fellow bloggers, Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life has recently brought a text to my attention which was published some time ago on the website of Words without Borders, the always interesting online magazine for international literature. As a part of their series On Reviewing Translations, three excellent and renowned literary translators (Susan Bernofsky, Jonathan Cohen, and Edith Grossman) submitted “Some thoughts for reviewers of literary translations“.

As much as I appreciate the work of translators (and these three are excellent!), and as much as I agree with the general tendency of this document, I disagree with their argument regarding the appraisal of translations.

A reviewer can only judge the quality of a literary translation when he/she knows the language from which the book is translated well; a translated book can be a smooth read and set in the most elegant prose, but if it renders the words and choices of the original author correctly is something I cannot know when I am not able to really compare it with the original. And let’s be honest – how many readers and reviewers are able to do that? Praising a translation for its elegant prose without knowing the original – I personally would feel like a cheat if I would do that.

The second disagreement I have is with the last point they make. Sorry, but a literary translation is not supposed to contribute to the literary life of the English (or any other) language, to our speech, art, and sensibility – a translation is supposed to render faithfully, and congenially a literary text into another language, not more and not less.

So, let’s pay more attention to the difficult and extremely important work of translators, but let’s be also honest. Sometimes we readers are not really able to know how well they did their job; and the same goes for the vast majority of reviewers.

Just my two stotinki…


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9 thoughts on “On literary translations – a respectful objection

  1. rise

    I think the King James Bible is a good example of “literary translation” that contributed to the life of the English language, speech, and art.

    I find judgement of translations as translated works per se (without reference to the original language) valid as long as the reviewers acknowledge that they are judging the quality of the translated products, not the quality of the transposition from one language to another. As long as the reviewers made the necessary qualification or disclaimer. I mean, if reviewers entirely withhold their judgements of the quality of prose that they can actually read in a language they can competently understand mainly because they do not know the original, that is a pretty much dry form of reviewing. I’d rather read of qualified judgement in book reviews of translations than no judgement at all.

    1. admin Post author

      As for the King James Bible: agreed. I think something similar could be said about the Luther Bible. In a way, Luther created the modern (High) German language. And I don’t want in any way diminish the efforts of modern translators. Among them are real masters, full of ingenuity and I admire them for that what they do. Still, I feel rarely able to write a qualified review about a translation since a translation must in my opinion always be judged in relation to the original.

  2. Gert Loveday

    How right you are. I do like, though, the suggestion that parallel translations of a work could be compared. Lisa Hill has just done this in a recent post. That gets you closer to thinking about what the essence of the original might be. As for whether a translation contributes to the literary life of the English language, I often think that a translated work that’s admirable in the second language is like a new creation. In that sense I can see how it might contribute to the second language, but it isn’t the original book. I don’t usually comment on the original author’s style other than in very general terms because it’s hard enough to writer well about the style of a writer in your first language!

  3. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    I’m with Thomas here, completely. Of course a translation can contribute to the new language. But Bernofsky et. al. claim that the reviewer is supposed to write about this – that the reviewer “should address” the issue. They also say we “ought” to write about the translator’s note!

    I say the reviewer should do whatever the hell he wants.

    If I take Edith Grossman seriously, here and in her Why Translation Matters book, I “ought” to give her co-credit for the invention of Don Quixote, which is twaddle. Cervantes made a massively greater contribution to English than any or all of his translators.

    1. admin Post author

      Exactly, Tom. By the way, translations of older works tend to “age” over time – whereas the original (in the best case) will be still read as it is in its original form. For me that’s also a quite interesting fact that needs to be taken into consideration when we talk about translations.

  4. Gert Loveday

    Thomas, I thought of this post when I read an article by Tim Parks in the NYRB 15/3/16 on translation. I quote
    “I remember in the 1990s a friend at a major Italian publishing house telling me that he and other editors had received a corporate directive instructing them to reduce the price paid for translations, because their market research had shown that the public couldn’t tell the difference between good and bad translators. I was indignant. I was young. These days experience tells me that from the merely commer­cial point of view they were right. There are many poorly translated books that are highly praised and widely sold, in the US as in Europe.”

    1. admin Post author

      I can see that this is unfortunately a common practice: publishers paying translators very little, and so they are forced to translate fast and frequently the quality of the translation suffers a lot. Still I think it is not correct to bring intentionally a product on the market that is no good, believing that the customers will not remark it. A “name and shame” approach should be the appropriate way to deal with such publishers – I believe that in the last years the awareness of the public regarding the importance of the quality of translations has increased and in some countries publishers associations and the professional bodies of translators have agreed to certain minimum standards regarding the remuneration and ethical standards of the dealing of publishers with translators. I hope these good practices are also considered in other countries and motivate more publishers to join existing agreements.

    2. admin Post author

      As a reader, I feel honestly personally offended by such publishers. I could to a certain extent understand that when the respective book market is very small (like here in Bulgaria, with sometimes just a few hundred copies of a title sold, which makes translations especially from languages very expensive where it is difficult to find a good direct translator – still I think it is unethical!), but there is absolutely no excuse for big publishing houses in big markets like the English, German, French, Spanish market. It is a bit like when you go to a restaurant, order an expensive wine and then you get a cheap one of bad quality, because the patron thinks “these people have no culture anyway, and the won’t feel the difference”.


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