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Comments on Dimissing Translations

Yesterday’s post about how to dismiss translations caused a good deal of discussion in the comments section, ranging from Monica’s question about whether other cultures have this same authenticity/accuracy/I-can’t-judge-without-knowing-the-original language issues (I doubt it, but would love to hear from international readers about this) to Paul Verhaeghen’s spot-on critique about how all culture is translation and that these issues don’t come up in regard to music or visual arts.

There’s also a comment from Dan Green (the inspiration behind the initial post) reiterating that in addition to wanting more translations, he also wants more informed critics writing about these books (I totally agree). He also responded to part of my argument about treating the book as a book rather than questioning it’s accuracy, etc.:

“If you don’t think a part of a translation is up to snuff, point out what you don’t like about it.”

But how am I to know what’s not up to snuff in the translation itself if I don’t have the ability to judge it against the original?

(I do want to point out one thing here—I think Paul Verhaeghen’s amazing Omega Minor is a book that Dan can review, since Verhaeghen wrote it in Flemish, but also translated it into English. That said, the Dalkey version is not exactly the same as the original . . . )

My belief is that you simply have to treat the book as it is. A translation isn’t the same as the original, and can be/should be evaluated on its own terms. If a sentence is poorly written, or a chapter overly muddy, it’s a moot point to debate if this was the fault of the translator or author. It’s part of the book as it exists in translation and can be criticized as such.

The real reason I’m writing this today though is because his comment reminded me of a response Michael Emmerich gave in a recent interview in Calque. The interviewer asked, “what distinguishes a good translation from a poor one?”

The reader. This sounds like another dodge, I know. But that’s the best answer. Unless we’re talking about a particular translation, and considering it in relation to the context within which it came into being, trying to determine how well it meets the needs it was designed to meet. [. . .] We tend to assume, for instance, that readers who are able to compare a translation with the work that inspired it are best equipped—are perhaps the only ones equipped—to judge its merits. And yet translations aren’t designed to meet the needs of readers who . . . I can’t think how to say this without slipping into tautology . . . who don’t need a translation.

To tell the truth, I suspect that readers who can compare translations and originals actually tend to be worse judges of the quality of a translation than people who are unable to read the original. [. . .]

Of course, readers who can access both the original and the translation are able to find obvious mistakes, and that’s something only they can do, and that can be important. But surely that’s not what we mean when we ask what distinguishes good translations from bad? We’re interested in something that runs deeper, I would hope—not something so superficial that any old multilingual reader can come along and point it out after a hasty comparison of the two texts. [. . .]



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