The Bright Elusive Butterfly of Translation

A widely accepted “truth” of translation is that it should be a faithful representation of the source text. Unfortunately, most translators who try to follow through on this end up peeling back their eyelids or chewing on their keyboard as this faithful representation eludes their bloody grip. What they should do is ask the question whether a faithful translation is possible or even desirable.

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Perhaps they are familiar with the “translation analytic” of 20th century French translation scholar Antoine Berman because they actually studied translation. Berman proposed “absolute fidelity” to a source text and bellowed that this was an “ethical obligation” for translators. Of course, this incorruptibility has a lot to do with a very long history of Bible translations, which strove to convey the original “message”, even if this required the use of pompous prose or made no sense at all.

When he wasn’t writing novels or chasing butterflies, Vladimir Nabokov spent some time translating Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin along these lines. The poem itself took up a fraction of the 1,895 pages of the translation as Nabokov got side-tracked, mercilessly attacking previous attempts to do Onegin justice as “free translations”. Nabokov famously favoured “utility” over aesthetics and demanded that readers experience the original language in their own, which meant bending words sinisterly out of shape and not really giving a damn if reading his translation was a pleasure. He ripped words out of some old dictionary and splattered them all over the page, resurrecting such gems as mollitude, ancientry, shandrydans, agrestic, muzzlet and scrab all in the name of fidelity to Pushkin.

At the other end of the scale are writers who turn Nabokov on his head and rewrite texts in their own image. The style, subtleties and even language of the source text are minor considerations when the translator decides to improve on the original and create their own masterpiece for the delight of the reading public. If you ever wondered why there are so many translations of the same text, this is one of the reasons: there’s always someone out there who thinks they can improve on the past and rewrite it in their own image.

These two extremes are pretty much the standards by which all translations are judged, although most translators spend their time shuffling about somewhere in the middle, worrying about being faithful but also not wanting to sound obtuse. Since most of these translators aren’t nearly as famous as Nabokov, and don’t follow his lead, they are often satanised for their attempts to make texts readable and accused of different degrees of “evil”. They make errors because they’re ignorant or don’t know how to research properly, they skip words or passages because they can’t be bothered with the difficult bits (just like Constance Garnett, the famous translator of Dostoyevsky), or shape and mould texts to suit an imagined or anticipated audience, which means you out there.

Despite their foibles, these translators are expected to at least master the languages they are fiddling about with, understand the cultures involved and possess the gift of mimicry. They need to understand contexts, the basic rules of language, registers and, of course, something as simple as meaning, otherwise they will write things like this and bewilder tourists in Huatulco:

Please turn off your cigarette

Or offer deals that can’t be followed through, even in Spain:

Locals for sale or rent

Or make people snigger as they open the door to a shop:

English well talking / Here speeching American.

While the professional translator, slogging out the words on a daily basis, may seem far removed from the giddy heights of the professional fiction writer, they deal with these problems every day. Technical translation accounts for roughly 90% of all professionally translated work and all of those technical translators face the same dilemmas as the literary translator: should I be faithful or creative?

Just like any linguistic professional, technical translators deal with specialized texts and require subject knowledge, a mastery of technical language, the support of dictionaries (that are hopefully recent), encyclopaedias and glossaries, as well as familiarity with the writing conventions of their given field(s). They need to strike a balance between theory – what they studied – and practice – what they have learned on the job.

No translator worth their salt will simply throw it into Google translate for a nice bit of word substitution because they don’t want to be held responsible for nonsense and do take some pride in their work (really).

These translators will never ask you to “drop your trousers here for best results”. Rarely will they advise you that “the manager has personally passed all the water served here” and we hope they never say “please leave your values at the front desk”.

Believe it or not, similar to the debate involving Nabokov’s idea of absolute fidelity and “free translations”, the field of technical translation now cares a great deal about the  purpose of translations and the poor souls who have to read this stuff.

So, all translators have to decide at some point how much misery or joy they wish to inflict on those poor souls called readers before chewing up the source text and spitting it back out in another language, making sure to never say “we take your bags (or translations) and send them in all directions”.

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