The Complete Review’s M.A. Orthofer on Translated Fiction

Orthofer was a great interview subject, and the feature came out great, I think. Fascinating stuff. Here’s a snippet:

To what extent can you forgive a bad translation of a good book? And can you see the quality peeking through?

M.A. Orthofer: A bit of forgiveness is always necessary: the process of translation always seems to entail some (and often a lot of) loss, and there are many days and books where I think it’s only a matter of…degrees of badness. My personal preference is for a more literal translation, where you can ‘hear’ the original (language) through the translation, as it were, even if that can sound awkward in English. Most publishers and editors (and, I guess, translators) prefer to English (or Americanize) the texts, which I suppose makes them more readable–though when the approach goes wrong the results can be pretty disastrous. (What I find more problematic, however, is when there is more extensive editorial interference at the translation stage, and books are ‘reshaped’ (generally by trimming away a lot) for the English-language market–Wang Gang’s English is one example from last year’s crop of books.)


  1. Nemone says

    It must be so hard to judge.I often find clunky bits in translated books(if i speak the original language) but at least on a couple of occasions, i encountered books that were improved in translation.I know because i read the original later and was dissapointed.

  2. says

    Best Lovecraft I ever read was a French translation.

    (cf Shakespeare in “the original Russian” (Nabokov) or “the original Klingon” (not Nabokov))

    I don’t agree with this idea of “hearing” the original language at any cost – how are you supposed to do it, anyway? You might hear your own peculiar idea of the original language’s sound in a translation, but you’re never going to hear the thing itself. And what about culture-specific words that don’t have a direct translation? Either use licence in replacing the original word with a close equivalent, in which case you lose some of the meaning, or translate the word with two lines of minutely explanatory waffle, in which case you lose all the feel of the original and probably some of the meaning as well. Also, there’s a fine line between “awkward” English that tries to capture the original phrasing and the pat-pend Agatha Christie Comedy Foreign Accent. Pardon, the Accent Foreign.

    And it’s possible to damage a text just as much (possibly even more?) by translating it too literally as by translating it too freely. The prime example for me would be Nabokov (there he is again) insisting that no English verse translation of Eugene Onegin could ever do the original text justice, because of the need to fudge the words to fit the metre. So he took a beautiful verse original and translated it into an unreadable extrusion of stodgy prose. I’d rather read one of the many beautiful English verse translations any day. If you’re a linguist, you can read the original instead or as well; if you’re a student, you can derive some benefit from the ugly over-literal translation; but if you’re Vanya Average and you want, out of the finest readerly motives, to try some of this great Russian literature you keep hearing about, you’re going to want something readable, surely? Isn’t it better for the text and for the non-native reader to create a translation that captures the ideas, the form, the beauty of the original rather than the absolute literal lexical meaning of every word? I mean, yes, ideally it’d be possible to do both, but language tends not to work like that.

    I think it might be a hot idea to go the film/TV adaptation route and label translations as “based on” or “inspired by” the original. Put the translator’s name on the spine. Market them on their own merit. It’d be more honest, at least.

  3. says

    I agree with most of what he says. Particularly, that it is good to carry some of the original langauge into the translation. The worst is when things are overly Englished, and for colloquial expressions in the orginal language, English cliches are used. Another often time done thing, is that in poetry, translators often use poetic words in place of simple ones.

    I have recently been re-reading Water Margin in the bad translation obviously done by a Chinese and a “good” one done by a native english speaker. In the older one, there are many grammatical errors, but it retains a great deal of charm, where as the new translations try to anglicize even the names, so much of the flavour is lost (though it does have the good point of being unabridged).

  4. says

    John T: I’ve read the Nabokov and it’s perfectly readable and has its own lyricism, so I totally disagree with that example.

    Brendan–best example I can think of is an updated translation of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita that stripped out the “Sovietisms” that were part of the original satire. (At least, this is my understanding of the original translation.) I didn’t think stripping out those things made any sense.


  5. says

    Jeff: That is basically the way this new translation of Water Margin does. In the original, the names of the characters were in Chinese, with each one having a very cook nick name (Black Whirlwind, Speedy Courier, etc.) In the new version in 5 volumes, the translator dropped the original chinese names in the second volume because readers had been complaining that they were confusing. Then for the nick names, he comes up with ones that are just much less cool. He also decides to take the flatness out of the speech by making rough characters talk in a cockney sort of way and constantly say fu.k.

  6. says

    Well, OK, what about comical texts? Translate wordplay literally and you destroy it. Eugene Ionesco’s plays are full of wordplay – some of it childish, some of it filthy – but I’ve never yet seen any of it in an English translation. I’m not sure some of it could be translated (certainly not easily), but even so – I harbour a suspicion that the translators looked at it, thought “Ah well, it’s supposed to be ‘absurd’, isn’t it?” and left it at that, and readers who haven’t read the original texts didn’t give it a second thought for the same reason.

    To give a counter-example, Terry Pratchett’s French translator is quite happy to change funny lines (provided the plot doesn’t depend on them) when the literal translation wouldn’t be funny in French and he can see an alternative that would be. Damn good translations.

  7. says

    “Translate wordplay literally and you destroy it.”

    Some translators take that route, and then explain the wordplay through footnotes. Personally, I hate having my reading interrupted like that, especially if the translator is more interested in showing off his research skills than doing his job properly. (Endnotes or a good fore-/afterword about the process are fine, though.) Still, I can’t declare these terrible translations if they were based on a conscious decision to remain faithful to the original text rather than try to duplicate its effect. It’s a very delicate balance to negotiate, and as a translator you *have* to take sides. I try to have it both ways whenever possible, but in a pinch I’m not afraid to rewrite stuff in order to make a pun (or an alliteration, or whatever’s particular to a language) work. In my experience, most authors have been fine with this, and some even trust translators to make these changes without their input.

  8. Jeff VanderMeer says

    John: I agree with you and with Luis about humor, and about some things needing to be changed. I was simply commenting that I liked the Nabokov translation


  9. says

    And then there are those who feel like they have to explain everything to the readers. Such as the one who put a footnote on “Nine Inch Nails” to explain what the words mean and that it is the name of a band.

    But those aren’t translators, they’re a waste of perfectly good air.

  10. says

    Jeff: Your mileage may vary. But while Nabokov focused all his attention on the literal meaning of the words – and by his own admission *wanted* his translation to be awkward and stilted, the better to reflect the foreignness of Russian phrasing – he threw away the structure of Pushkin’s verse. If you find lyricism in his prose, that’s great, but it’s not Pushkin’s lyricism, it’s something that Nabokov has introduced by changing the format of the work from verse to prose. Or possibly it’s an incidental effect of that kind of rotating drum translation that you find pleasing (a kind of “found lyricism”?). Nabokov was trying to be true to the Russian language, but I don’t think he was being true to the actual work itself. It’s more than the sum of its semantic parts. Or to put it another way…

    Luis: I believe that duplicating (or attempting to duplicate) the effect of a text in translation is *more faithful* than duplicating (or attempting to duplicate) the exact wording. I’m not saying literality is just plain bad, but I’d rather read something that translates at the level of the phrase or the idea than at the level of the word. When I read, it’s not the words I’m interested in so much as the ideas behind the words (this is a simplistic generalisation, but it applies more often than not).

    To take an example, what about cliche? If I as a native reader come across a cliched phrase in a book I’m (probably) not going to stop and consider the lyricism of that phrase and the insights it offers into my culture – I’ll just read it, maybe tut a little, and move on. As a non-native reader, I’d rather see that cliche replaced with an equivalent cliche in my own language than translated literally – an exact rendering, a calque if you like, of that cliche isn’t going serve the same function in the translation as the original phrase did in the original book, and I don’t believe it would give me anything more than the barest caricature of the original language and/or culture. And if I struggle through a translated text because I’m constantly cracking my shins against awkward prose, that ruins my reading experience.