Sunday, 18 March 2018

On Appreciating Translations

As translators demand and gain increased recognition, our greater visibility has both pros and cons. It means that while some critics acknowledge our existence with a swift and not unwelcome "smoothly translated by" that might previously have been cut by an editor, others seek to engage with our work but in a negative way, pointing out its flaws. At which point other translators leap to our defence. This week, Emma Ramadan published the first part of a year-long diary at the Quarterly Conversation. Among other very interesting things, she addresses this issue, asking:
Why is it that anyone who dares write a negative review of a popular translation becomes a target? This is a problem. Or is it? Should we only positively review translations so that we lift the boat of translations in general? Should we all form a pact to refrain from reviewing translations we don’t like? Shouldn’t translations be able to stand up to the same criticism as books originally written in English?
For a while, I tried to organize a workshop bringing together critics (paid and unpaid) and translators, with the aim of talking about what makes a good translation, what makes a good review, and what makes a good review of a translation. I'm too far away from the UK, though, so it came to nothing. Maybe I'll try again some time. But for now, I'll gather my thoughts about it here.

I hope that translations are able to stand up to the same criticism as books originally written in English. Emma writes about abandoning a review because she disliked the book, and I know others who have done the same. In fact, back when I was reviewing books regularly here, unpaid, I usually chose not to bother finishing books I disliked – why prolong my misery and then write about it? (Part of this is probably because like many women, I want people to like me, I want to be nice.)

What I would also like, though, is for critics to deal fairly with translations, not treat them like country cousins. That would mean taking them seriously and making an attempt to critique different aspects: plot, style, language and translation. At the moment, critiquing the translator's work often takes one of two approaches, as I mentioned above: the single-adverb compliment – robustly, smoothly, adeptly, elegantly, etc. – and the find-the-flaw game, in which the reviewer points out misunderstandings and poor word choices. In her fascinating book on translation, This Little Art, Kate Briggs addresses this mistake-spotting with reference to two much-criticized (women) translators:
It has to be possible, in other words, for someone, for the critic, for the philosopher, for the harder-working translator, to identify and correct the translator's mistakes. Doing so can be a means of alerting readers to the fact of translation (...) and of preparing the ground for retranslation. It has to be possible to continue this inexhaustible work together: to query and vary each other's decisions, holding to or elaborating alternative measures of precision and care, without quarrelling, necessarily, or policing. And without shaming? This, it seems, is less clear.
My answer would be this: when we write about translations, we should bear in mind that they've been written by fallible human beings – as have all books. Translation is difficult. So is writing. It is hard to move a literary text between languages that don't overlap in terms of semantics, sounds, traditions. It is also hard to write descriptions of things that exist without words, thinks like sex, music, fields of daffodils. Literary criticism assesses how well those difficult things have been achieved.

I think I'm not alone in feeling that negative criticism of translators' work would be easier to stomach if it were accompanied by positive, in-depth appreciation of the occasions when we do well. On Twitter last week, I suggested a short list of positive attributes I look out for in translations, and others, including Frank Wynne – double-nominated for the Man Booker International Prize only hours later – added some more. Here are many of them:
Maintaining a rhythm
Creative word choices
Preserving oddities
Finding (new) ways to bring across cultural specifics
Playful approaches
(Re)creating a viable and distinct voice, authorial or character-driven
Taking chances, intervening more than usual
Recreating humour
Preserving a sense of place/period
Imaginatively dealing with dialect/slang, making them sound natural
Reproducing a sense of cadence
Using calque to good effect
Reproducing the uniqueness of a voice rather than smoothing it out
Recovering rare words
Maintaining linguistic resonances through consistent word choice
Preserving alliteration and aptonyms
I realize it's difficult to spot some of these things if you don't speak the original language and so can't compare, particularly with word choice issues. And I admit that not every translation has to tackle all these difficulties; some writing is simply smooth, so the translator's task is to render it smoothly. But I think we can pick up on many of these positive achievements regardless of our knowledge of the original. I'm currently judging an award for international literature translated into German, reading books translated from many different languages into a language that isn't my native tongue. I find myself quite capable of spotting in these translations both flaws – inconsistency, bumpy rhythm, unconvincing voices – and achievements – language patina, a sense of urgency, rescued humour, successfully solved linguistic sudoku.

And at our monthly translation lab in Berlin, we occasionally take the time to appreciate a specific translation. We compare it to the original and focus only on all its many positives, all the things we might emulate in our work. Sure, there are always things we might have done differently and it's hard to resist pointing them out. But I think if we only have negative role models, we end up aiming only for an impossible notion of flawlessness.

Kate Briggs has a gorgeous, reassuring parenthesis on page 86:
(If you don't want to make mistakes, don't do translations, I was once told – an enabling dictum that I keep close to my heart.)
So instead of pretending there can ever be a flawless translation, let's take translators seriously, celebrate what we do well and find ways to criticize without policing. When we review translated literature, let's aim to review all aspects of it. I'm a big fan of the translation reviews at the Glasgow Review of Books, by the way, because that's what they do.

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I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that critics often have little or no knowledge of the original language and hence of the original text as such.
The argument as to whether a bad text should produce a bad translation will probably go on for eternity.
I think translation has a critique, certainly at secondary or tertiary level, but should be regarded more as an exercise in cultivating the mind of the trainee, in much the same way as programmes like "CD review" on the radio dissect recordings of the same piece of music by different artists from different periods. But again, the reviewer's opinion is subjective, however useful.

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