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Lost for Words About Words; Or, Some Thoughts About Reviewing Translations

I’ve been thinking about translation since a kind reader asked what I thought about a collection of short stories translated from Russian. Then I read a philosophical review of a book about literary translation. The serendipity makes it clear that I must write something about translations.

I like reading translated books. Not only do they give me a chance to visit somewhere I’ve never been, they also put me inside the mind of someone who talks about the world and their situation in a completely different way. But I usually don’t comment on translations—other than tagging them and mentioning the translator—unless it was really bad or notable for some reason. My excuse is what can I say about translations when I’m not familiar with the source material? I know some German (not near enough to actually read it). I can remember a scrap of phrases in other languages*, because I like to collect words.

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First century Pompeiian fresco.
(Image via Vroma.org)

The most obvious thing to say about a translation is that it’s accurate. Without knowing the source material, that comment is out. What’s left? As far as I know, the biggest existential question for translators circle around capturing the meaning and the feeling of the original. Capturing the actual meaning (where possible) can lead to lifeless prose. Preserving the feeling, rhythm, etc. of the original can mean taking liberties with the story. This is part of the reason why people keep re-translating books like The Iliad. There’s enough wiggle room between fidelity and fluidity that translators can put their own stamp on the text.

I’m in awe of translators. I’m also a little bit jealous, because they’re fluent in at least two languages and have access to more stories than I do. But I’m in awe of their gumption in taking a story and bringing it into another language. How much thought and effort it must take! I’m reminded of Born to Kvetch, in which Michael Wex explains the cultural, religious, and historical depth of Yiddish. To try and be completely accurate when translating Yiddish, a translator would have to put in so many footnotes to explain there reference that the book would be a complete (and unreadable) doorstop. I’ve read translations from Yiddish and Russian (by Jewish writers) and I can only wonder what I’m missing because the translators of those books stuck more to fluidity, so that the books would actually be bearable for readers.

As a reader, I tend to prefer translations where the translator worked to make the story feel right in the target language. I’ve come across translations that have a distinct clunkiness, with word choices that read oddly or sentences with weird word order. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen very often. When a translation is good, I think, the translation work is invisible. I know that there is a barrier between me and the original words the author put down, but I don’t notice in good translations.

Thinking about this for a week has led me to resolve to be better about at least remarking on the translation in the future. If I forget, please remind me in the comments.


* One of my absolute favorite non-work things to do at work is to answer in a different language every time a particular colleague calls me. Bless caller ID.

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One thought on “Lost for Words About Words; Or, Some Thoughts About Reviewing Translations

  1. Translators have such a hard job! There’s an Italian saying: Traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor) – No matter how hard you try something’s going to get lost in translation and someone’s going to be upset. You have to find that “sweet spot” on the formal (word-for-word) vs. functional (thought-for-thought) spectrum and have an eye on dynamic equivalence (trying to make your audience feel what the original audience felt).

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