Lawrence Venuti has a good essay, “How to Read a Translation,” in the July Words Without Borders.

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.


  1. xiaolongnu says

    I once heard — and I wish I could remember where — translation defined as a “courtship between languages.” In my experience as a translator, there’s a sort of accommodation that has to occur between the source language and the target language, whose moderator is the translator. The thing is that nobody can police that moderating role and there’s no hard-and-fast rule governing the choices one has to make. It makes translation, on a certain level, impossible — which is to say, full of possibilities.

  2. I’m accustomed to the idea that poetry is essentially untranslatable, but I know of a counterexample. In the Penguin book of Spanish poetry I ran across a striking poem by Quevedo called something like “Rome entombed in its ruins”. Then later I saw an equally good French version by du Bellay. Then I read something by Milosz saying that there was a great Polish version, and that they all could be traced back to a late Latin poem by quite an obscure poet.
    Alas, I didn’t like the English versions by Spenser and Pound. Maybe untranslatability is a function of the English language.
    I hate to paraphrase the poem, but the last line goes something like “Everything permanent of Rome has passed away, and only the flowing river remains.”

  3. Zizka — I think some of Emily Dickinson’s poems are better in Spanish (via Nuria Amat) than in English. To twist the words of Shannon Campbell: “Any… fan will know right off the bat that this version sounds nothing like the original. I love it when that happens.”

  4. I do not know about translation as wooing,
    Xiao Longnu,
    But i did hide the words “all is fair in love and war . . . and translation” under the obi (jacket belt found on bks in japan) of my Goyaku-tengoku (mistranslation paradise). I might add that it is much easier to discuss translation in Japanese than in English, for English lacks terms for various types of translation. I try to do so in English in my recent Orientalism & Occidentalism: Is Mistranslating Culture Inevitable? but do not know how successful I was!
    I have, however, partially solved the impossible/possibilities problem you so gracefully broach in Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! by using multiple translations for single poems. With apologies for quoting myself:
    “Multiple translation is often the only way to translate all the faces of a poly-faceted poem in a witty, which is to say, brief manner, when trying to squeeze all the information into one poem would kill it, and not including that information — and this is, regretfully, almost standard with haiku translation today — would constitute negligence with respect to the intent of the original.” (And see WH Higginson’s review in Modern Haiku or visit my site, http://www.paraverse for more information about such translation. You might especially enjoy my “welcome page” which can be found only on a link on the homepage for i goofed up when i started the site and lost the doormat — it has several score translations of the opening line (6 characters) of the Way)
    Zizka and Aron, translations are often better than the original, though only a small portion of those that are better than the original are accurate in the usual sense of the word. As far as ED goes, i would think her rhymes would risk solidification in a language with clearcut vowels, but i will have to check out those spanish translations some day!
    Languagehat-sama, sorry to be all over the place like this — i am just delighted to see a blog not overwhelmed with contemporary fiction and personalities and talking about my subjects! Also, i will only be around for a few days and then must start finishing another book, so please do not worry about me clogging the blog!
    -keigu (written with two characters respect+foolishness = respectfool)
    ps I have an article full of multiple translations of haiku about swatting flies at an online magazine called Simply Haiku — they should be centered but the webmaster was out and there was fear it might cascade all the way through the site to center them, so . . . i would be delighted if you could go peek and comment (here if not there — i do not know if they have a place to comment there!)

  5. From Chinese to English my favorites are Rexroth’s. He gets the concision of the Chinese somewhat, whereas Waley rambles. However, Rexroth didn’t even try to be accurate in some cases.
    Shafer actually believed that no attempt should be made to make translations poetic, or even readable. The guy’s an icon, but I sort of dislike him…. he had a lot of power in the academic world, and his biases were less harmless than mine (though no more narrow).
    My own mentor in the field says that accurate translations are not readable and readable translations are not accurate. Part of the difficulty is the density of reference in even the most transparent poems. Two words can stand for a long story or poem plus centuries of commentary and references.

    Ziska, have you read J.I. Crump’s somewhat rustic(?) sounding rhymed translations? In Songs of Xanadu, he tears apart Rexroth and others in a masterful introduction (I agree completely with his argument and attitude). His more recent bk is hidden behind a plant in my room or i would give the title, for it, too, has some interesting poems as well as argument (re the extent to which the translator should read between the lines).
    robin d. gill

  7. I love the theoretical to and fro, but whenever I start thinking about how I approach translating poetry I discover it has everything to do with the particular poem. What theory, after all, would describe how one should translate both Pessoa and Milton?

  8. I’ll keep an eye out for Crump. My experiences of rhymed-into-English translations are not good, however.

  9. Aaron, your quip about Dickinson reminds me of a long-nursed (and unsubstantiated) prejudice of mine, which is that Gabriel Garcia-Marquez could not possibly sound as pungent and miraculous in Spanish as he does in the English of his translators Edith Grossman and Gregory Rabassa. In their expert hands, his turns of phrase are barely idiomatic and always gleam with a newly forged newness, an advantage I doubt they possesses in the original tongue.

  10. My own mentor in the field says that accurate translations are not readable and readable translations are not accurate.

    Who knows doesn’t talk, who talks doesn’t know. (DDJ 56)

    The Snow of Ignorance remains untrodden. (LHOD)

  11. In the Penguin book of Spanish poetry I ran across a striking poem by Quevedo called something like “Rome entombed in its ruins”. Then later I saw an equally good French version by du Bellay. Then I read something by Milosz saying that there was a great Polish version, and that they all could be traced back to a late Latin poem by quite an obscure poet.

    Quevedo: Rome Entombed in its Ruins (From Spanish)

    (Links to JE/Zizka’s own collection of versions.)

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