A war, or at least a brushfire, has broken out in a corner of Blogovia over the issue of translation. It was started by the naughty folks at the complete review, who vented some spleen about the whole idea of translation. To put it in a nutshell, as they did: “We hate translation.” This (understandably) annoyed the translator Gail Armstrong (of Open Brackets), who responded in an entry called “Incomplete”:

In two critiques, one of Robert Wechsler’s book, Performing without a stage – The art of literary translation and the other of William Gass’s Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, we’re instructed in, well, very little aside from and the reviewers’ propensity for self-indulgence and cliché:

We still prefer strictly literal translations, trying to mirror the original, and we’ll take a footnote explaining an unclear meaning over a more suitable but not literal translation of a word or sentiment any time.

This has been said many times before but I still don’t buy it. While the stance has merit, and would give all inveterate pedants a chubby, a novel rife with footnotes is not conducive to pleasurable reading. Eyes flicking back and forth between text and footnotes is a chore, and destroys the flow of the narrative. (Footnotes are like subtitles: annoyingly irresistible.)

Chris (at Polyglut) vehemently agreed with her, and the complete reviewers posted a long response to her strictures, accepting a point or two but standing firmly by their rant. The whole discussion is extremely interesting, and I hope other translators (Merm?) and users of translations will weigh in.

Addendum. Gertrude Stein puts in her two cents:

As we took our places at the table—and certainly before we had been fortified by coffee and cognac—Gertrude turned on Bob and said, “Where have you been, Hutchins, and what have you been doing?” A little weary at the end of the day, Bob was taken aback by the abruptness and forcefulness of the attack (the energy Gertrude exuded in a small room hit one like Niagara Falls). Bob replied, as briefly and effortlessly as possible, “Miss Stein, Mr. Adler and I have been teaching the great books.” Gertrude pounced on him again and with even more vigor. “Don’t call me Miss Stein,” she said; “call me Gertrude Stein. What are the great books?” Bob tried to explain the basic educational idea in reading and discussing great books with college students, but he kept forgetting how she insisted upon being addressed, and so he was forever being interrupted by Gertrude’s peremptory injunction “Don’t call me Miss Stein; call me Getrude Stein.”

At one point I decided to come to Bob’s rescue by going downstairs to my briefcase and getting out the list of the great books. I showed it to her. She scanned the list quickly and just as quickly asked, “Do you read these books in their original languages or in English translations?” Hutchins explained that our freshman [University of Chicago] students did not have competence in Greek and Latin or Italian and French, and were finding it difficult enough to read the books in English. This infuriated Miss Stein, I mean Gertrude Stein. She laid it down as an unchallengeable axiom that great literature was essentially untranslatable. Hutchins and I then tried to argue with her, pointing out that we were concerned mainly with the ideas that were to be found in the great books. She might be right, we admitted; fine writing suffers in translation, but idea somehow transcend the particular language in which they are first expressed.

(From Mortimer Adler’s recollections, quoted at, of a 1930’s dinner party given by Robert Hutchins and his wife Maude for the great Gertrude.)

My take on it is contained in a comment on Chris’s blog, which I will reproduce here:

…I think both you and Gail are taking the good folks at the complete review way too seriously. They’re not advocating destruction of all translations, for heaven’s sake, they’re just making a point: translations, even the best, are pale reflections of an original and should never be taken as equivalent, or even adequate. There are plenty of places where you can get reasoned discussion of translation issues and evaluations of particular translations; surely there’s room in the world for one voice crying out in the wilderness that translation is per se an evil. Yes, of course, a necessary evil, what would we do without it, but everyone else hammers on the “necessary” and goes on from there; these guys are stuck on the “evil,” and I think that’s a valid bee to have in one’s bonnet. Again, they’re doing no harm, they’re just expressing their cranky opinion, and isn’t that what the internet is all about?

Oh, and I’m a big fan of footnotes in translations; the more the better. Chacun à son goût.*

*Everyone has the gout.


  1. Hmph. I just do my translatin’ and let those guys go. Not worth worrying about, they’re not.

  2. Among my favourite contemporary authors is Peter Høeg, and I can’t believe I would like his work half so much if he didn’t have such an excellent English translator, one who doesn’t try to be as literal as possible. Of course, it would be better if I learned to read Danish and just used the original, but I can’t learn the native tongues of every author worth reading.
    Yes, footnotes are appropriate in some cases, but translation is a worthy art of its own.

  3. This is of course a matter of long-standing dispute among Bible translators, some of whom favour a “literal” and others a “dynamic” approach.

  4. Here’s a question – and if it’s an obvious one, please pardon my ignorance:
    What about translations of poetry, in which the structure (both syntactical and phonological) imposed by the language can play just as vital a role in what the piece communicates as do the (atomic) meanings of the words and phrases involved?

  5. *sigh* You do your best, Ben, remembering that you have to *be* a poet to *translate* a poet. Yes, you *are* pulled in different directions by sense, sound, and structure.
    I was never very good at it, because I’m a lousy poet. Some people are just uncanny, though. IMO Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of them. Scarily good translations of scarily tough stuff.
    One of my personal if-onlies is an alliterative translation of the Cantar de mio Cid. I think it would work, damn it, much better than that pallid lifeless Merwin failure.

  6. Right, Dorothea, but how does that enter into the complete review’s preference for ‘strictly literal translations’, when so much of meaning in poetry isn’t strictly literal?

  7. I realize this is kind of pathetic, Ben, but I always feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth with those original language on one page, “literal” translation on the facing page books, so long as I have the slightest idea of how to turn the original text into noise. (That is, it doesn’t work so well for me with Japanese.)

  8. Ben: It ain’t easy. Like Dorothea says, you do your best. Interestingly, Nabokov, who notoriously railed against anything but the most literal (and, in his Eugene Onegin, recondite and unpleasant-sounding) translations, produced some excellent rhymed English versions of Russian poetry before his attitudes hardened.
    Ray: Not pathetic at all; I’m deeply grateful for such editions (and glad I got my bilingual Cavafy before Princeton UP decided to go with English-only). Of course, it only works for people with at least a smattering of the other language, but maybe if such editions were more widespread people would get interested in acquiring the necessary smattering. The first such book I saw was The Poem Itself, a wonderful collection of bilingual versions of poems in French, German, Italian, and Spanish (and one Blok poem thrown in at the end, which helped decide me to learn Russian); amazingly, it still seems to be in print after all these decades.

  9. How many literalists actually read poetry?

  10. Goddamn. I can’t believe how vituperative some people are getting over this. The Complete Review made a very valid & obvious point, which you will recognize if you read in your native language with any deep understanding & close attention to words & their interactions. What you find there, if you are fully literate, simply CANNOT be translated – it is too deeply language-specific – there are vital etymological relations that can never ever be shown in any other language. But I guess if you don’t see that shit, you won’t notice it missing. Oh well, your loss.

  11. IMO Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of them.
    Yes, he wrote fine translations, but the point is that they are not and cannot be DANTE. You cannot read Dante in English, because English is not Italian. If you really really want to read Dante, but you don’t know Italian, this should be bothersome. But for many it is not, because they have a simplistic view of language & translation – and this is what the CR is concerned with. It bothers the holy hell out of me to read a word and have to suppress all the English connotations while having nothing there to stand in for them – an ESSENTIAL element is absent.

  12. Um, that’s kind of the point I was making, “Baloney.” In a less, um, vituperative way. But thanks for dropping by.

  13. Well obviously it bears repeating. I am sorry I am like this.

  14. And (to clarify?!?!?!) none of that was directed at you.

  15. That is, if someone agrees with you, UM, they probably MEANT to?

  16. Yeah, I figured. No problem.

  17. Baloney: You’re right of course; it doesn’t even make sense to say “exact translation”. But the art of the translator lies in finding equivalent connotations in two languages, so that the reader need not ‘suppress’ anything. A successful translation is a representation of the original, a parallel text.
    Not having the primary text is bothersome, but there’s no reason to stop reading and discussing a translated work as long as it’s recognized as such.

  18. equivalent connotations
    This is the problem, though – 90% of the time, there is simply no phrase with ‘equivalent connotations’, especially in the finest poetry, where (as has been said of Rilke) even syllables are significant. But like I said, if you don’t see these specificities in reading in your own language, you’re not going to see how they go missing, and we’re going to be talking past each other. And neither I nor the complete review said there was any ‘reason to stop reading and discussing a translated work’, because that is obviously ridiculous. But it still surprises me how many people think that a text can be translated into a ‘parallel text’. It is always going to be ‘told slant’ – on top of the etymological details, there are so many minute idiomatic tinges, so many subtle allusions to other works – and besides being fundamentally untranslatable, plenty of these details are going to be missed by a translator (so long as she hasn’t grown up with & read widely in both languages). The argument is a matter of degrees – we ‘anti-translation’ (sic) partisans main beef is that the fidelity of translation is HUGELY overestimated – that they are inherently inaccurate. Translation is something that cannot ever be done ‘well enough’. No translation is faithful. This is no attack on translators – but they must understand that the task is Sisyphean, and not be angry when others point out that they never quite put the stone on the summit – because so many seem to think that they do.

  19. fmr sweety says

    As a totally unilingual reader who is familiar with Ms Armstrong and her early work. I can say that for some there is no substitute for a translation. I would have missed some of the worlds finest literature had I not been fortunate enough to read translations. It is important to note that a translation can never convey every nuance and technical flourish employed by an author. Footnotes keep the translation honest and remind us who the real artist is.

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