The foreign language is the first thing to go, the very sound and order of the words, and along with them all the resonance and allusiveness that they carry for the native reader. Simultaneously, merely by choosing words from another language, the translator adds an entirely new set of resonances and allusions designed to imitate the foreign text while making it comprehensible to a culturally different reader. These additional meanings may occasionally result from an actual insertion for clarity. But they in fact inhere in every choice that the translator makes, even when the translation sticks closely to the foreign words and conforms to current dictionary definitions. The translator must somehow control the unavoidable release of meanings that work only in the translating language. Apart from threatening to derail the project of imitation, these meanings always risk transforming what is foreign into something too familiar or simply irrelevant. The loss in translation remains invisible to any reader who doesn’t undertake a careful comparison to the foreign text—i.e., most of us. The gain is everywhere apparent, although only if the reader looks.
But usually we don’t look. Publishers, copy editors, reviewers have trained us, in effect, to value translations with the utmost fluency, an easy readability that makes them appear untranslated, giving the illusory impression that we are reading the original. We typically become aware of the translation only when we run across a bump on its surface, an unfamiliar word, an error in usage, a confused meaning that may seem unintentionally comical…
There are telling examples from Margaret Jull Costa’s version of The Man of Feeling by the Spanish novelist Javier Marías as well as other translations, and some more general remarks like the following:
Some languages and literatures are particularly undertranslated today. Take Arabic. Little Arabic writing is available in English, much less than Hebrew writing, for instance, undermining any effort to gauge the cultural impact of social and political developments in the Middle East. The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz deserves to be ranked among the most fascinating Arabic writers, but to regard him as the literary spokesman for the Arab world is undoubtedly a mistake. Mahfouz should be read alongside his countryman Abdel Hakim Qasim, whose Rites of Assent (translated by Peter Theroux) combines modernist techniques with Qur’anic allusions to interrogate Islamic fundamentalism, the forced conversion of an Egyptian Copt under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qasim might then be juxtaposed to Sayed Kashua, whose Hebrew novel Dancing Arabs (in Miriam Shlesinger’s translation) incisively depicts the identity crisis of an Arab Israeli who, although raised in a family of militant anti-Zionists, tries to pass among Jews. Sometimes, to gain a broader view of the cultural situations that translation leaves behind, a reader must venture into neighboring languages and territories.
Via wood s lot.