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Some thoughts on translation

In A Splendid Conspiracy (reviewed here), the police informant and intellectual of the streets, Rezk, covets foreign books, which he diligently reads at the pace of a page a day even though he frequently finds phrases that are beyond his comprehension. At the same time, Medhat, who works the for the town’s newspaper, dismisses the idea of reading books in other languages because people are the same everywhere and the books are going to share the perversity in any language so why bother working so hard.

In The Russian Girl Richard Vaisey stubbornly resists teaching courses in translation because the students cannot then claim to read Russian novels, but only a pale image of the real thing.

Years ago I had a conversation with a friend who declared that he doesn’t read books in translation. In contrast, almost forty percent of my non-academic reading in the past four years has been translated into English. My friend’s concern was over the quality of the translation and I must admit that I have read some book where the translation was distinctly antiquated in such a way that it distracted. Sometimes the issues with the translation are with the translator, but sometimes they is with the original text. But even that dichotomy is too simple. To wit, all translation is going to itself be an art, with decisions about how to render turns of phrase, but where some syntax tracks well with English, some languages do not, while some books like Tyrant Banderas flow between multiple different dialects with varying levels of complexity and each with its own external symbolism in its diction.

The proper solution would, for Richard Vaisey, to read the book in the original. There is a value to this, which I can quite attest to in my academic work with Greek texts, but since there are multiple purposes for reading, translations are usually satisfactory so long as it is realized what they are.

I like explanations for particular word choices, as Alyson Waters offers in her translation of A Splendid Conspiracy, but generally trust publishers to employ capable translators. As a rule, cut some slack on purely aesthetic judgements of the text since it is being passed through a medium. The problem is trickier when there are dueling translations, but thankfully Google provides a service that allows easy access to reviews of the different translations. At the most granular level each will probably have its virtues, but, being interested in collecting stories, I prefer readability to a word-for-word translation. While I appreciate authors who have enough English to work closely with their translators like Umberto Eco and Orhan Pamuk have done, but the truth is that I greedily want access to these stories and (usually) lack the facility with the original language so I happily settle for the translation.

I will likely soon pick up one or more novels in French just to work toward fluency with that language, but I don’t consider it necessary to appreciate a book as a work of art. I believe that one of the things reading enables is to unlock all sorts of people and places, world views and experiences that are not normally available, particularly to someone living in the United States. To reject works in translation is to apply blinders to a whole range of cultures, not mention willfully denying oneself great art.