Some Thoughts on Translation

What with my Russian reading, I’m becoming increasingly aware of issues of translation.  I think this is because, in the past, I’ve tended to mostly read translated classics in happy oblivion, assuming all of the words were written by the author and that the translator was some kind of mystical babel fish, magically transmitting meaning.

Image created by Rob Lord for the TV series of 'The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy'

Image created by Rob Lord for the TV series of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’

This is shameful, in part because I used to deliver yearly rants to my ‘A Doll’s House’ A-Level English class, emphatically explaining why they shouldn’t really say ‘Ibsen wrote’ about the words they were quoting.  Ibsen wrote in Norwegian, and they were using a specific English translation (unhelpfully anonymous and undated, but cheaply reproduced by Dover Thrift publications).  I was being unfair really, because I did enjoy the proprietorial stance students took over the text, to the extent of complaining that actors had got their lines wrong when we were fortunate enough to see the play (translated by Simon Stevens) performed later on in the course.


It’s a complex topic though, and I sometimes worry that it’s naïve of me to ever say that I’ve read Goethe or Flaubert or even authors I claim to know well and love, like Zola or the Russians I’ve been re-reading and discovering.  I’m generally unashamed about saying I’m a fan of Zola, even though I’ve only read him in English.  You see, I’ve read and loved so many of his books I feel like I can recognise his style and overarching thematic concerns even through the language barrier.  Some of the translated dialogue may be clunky, but the stupendous passages of description are always sublime.  With writers I know less well though, it can be hard to call.  Do I find Turgenev difficult because I don’t like the way he writes, or is it just that I haven’t come across the best translation yet? Maybe if I knew Russian, I’d love him.  Also, the Russian classics were heavily influenced by the European writing tradition with which I’m already familiar.  When I read ‘The Pillow Book’ by Sei Shōnagon (completed in Japan in the year 1002) it felt like tourism, gawping across geographical, historical and cultural barriers – my complete lack of wider knowledge didn’t stop me loving the book though, partly because it did feel so alien and exotic.

I guess what I’m saying is that translation starts with language, but that this is only a part of it.  That’s why I’m so excited by the London Southbank Centre’s Poetry International Festival that will take place towards the end of this month.  Translating poetry seems like the most difficult translation at all, but as well as embracing the challenges, the festival is clearly also actively engaging with the complexities of translating across cultures.  One highlight is going to be Aviva Dautch‘s workshop on ‘How to Write Ghazals’.  Aviva is not an ancient Arabic word-smith, nor a medieval Persian or Hebew poet, but she knows the form and uses it to write modern poetry for a multicultural society.  She will be working with others to actively translate an ancient art form into contemporary poetry. That’s why translation is so exciting.  The original texts are timeless, but translation allows them to speak to audiences in each generation.

I’m a reader and not a writer, but I’m so pleased that there are so many writers out there translating wonderful books so that I can access them, and re-working ideas from the past so that I can appreciate them anew.  Of course this post does not do justice to the incredible complexity of translation, but I just want to take the space to record my thanks to the people who do the hard work.  I’m so happy that I am able to luxuriate in the pleasure of reading, feeling the whole world is at my fingertips.

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6 Responses to Some Thoughts on Translation

  1. FictionFan says:

    Yes, indeed, I have often wondered how much my like or dislike of a book is down to the translation too. I once compared a passage from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black across three published translations, the original French and one of these online translation programs. The differences were huge – not just the words but the style and even the grammar changed from one to the next. On the whole, for me, the only time I think a translation works is when it is smooth enough to make me forget it’s a translation at all – and that only happens rarely. And as for translating poetry – I’m not convinced that’s really possible…

    • I did have trouble with ‘The Red and the Black’, but I’m afraid I blamed Stendhal for that! In my defence that was based on reading his other works too…
      I’m still on the fence about poetry, in theory I agree with you, but I know that I’ve loved Bialik, Goethe and Crucefix’s wonderful translation of Rilke so I’m really still testing this as I try to prove myself wrong.

  2. Really interesting post! I read a lot of translated fiction – and watch a lot of subtitled films/programmes – but I’ve only started thinking about the subtleties of it recently. Its so complex!

  3. It is! I tend to tie myself in knots when I try thinking about it, but it’s a fascinating issue so I’m sure I’ll be returning to it. As an ignorant mono-linguist myself I’m utterly dependent on good translators…

  4. Dessa says:

    After a while I found myself gravitating towards Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky as translators for Russian novels, and pretty much unwilling to read anyone else’s version. Do you have favourite translators or translations that you recommend?

  5. Pevear and Volokhonsy are fantastic; I read their translation of Leskov and he’s now one of my favourite Russian authors. I’d also recommend anything by Stephen Pearl whose translation of Goncharov’s Oblomov is utterly brilliant. You’re right though, once you’ve read really good translations it’s hard to just trust other versions.

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