Translation (Latin, ‘carrying across’), at one level, is a machine activity. Electronic notebooks are available which instantly render handy words and phrases in half a dozen languages, and larger computers can cope automatically with the translation of more sophisticated material (such as computer instruction manuals) with few problems. At a more complex level still, human translators stand beside dignitaries at international meetings, translating a few seconds behind their employers. Like simultaneous translation at conferences or international parliaments, this work requires an ability to do two things at once (listening and talking), but absolutely no creative skill. The translator must be as self-obliterating as the electronic notebook.
Thanks to a centuries-long bias, in the European teaching of classical languages, towards grammatical and syntactical exegesis, it was (wrongly) assumed for generations that this kind of mechanical exactness was all that was required for literary translation. Indeed, the view was prevalent until only about 30 years ago, among academics specializing in foreign languages and literatures, that unless you were prepared to learn the language in question, you did not ‘deserve’ its literature. Fortunately for the majority of readers and theatre-goers, this extraordinary view has not been shared by literary translators. Fine works of literature from other cultures are available in a plethora of versions, and in most cases their inherent individuality and quality are perfectly apparent.
Paradoxically, because the literary translator is dealing not just with superficial meaning but with nuance, the freer the translation the more successful it can often be. An academic specialist in Goethe, for example, is likely to be expert in German and in German literature but not necessarily in the creative writing of his or her own native language. The translator of Goethe, by contrast, needs to be more of a specialist in such writing than in Goethe or Goethe's original: it is easier to find out what Goethe wrote, and meant, than it is to render that meaning in another language in a way which Goethe himself might have used, or of which he might approve. Expertise all round is the most desirable qualification, but even then, ‘fidelity’ to the original is a far less definable matter than it is in technical translation, and (perhaps especially) in the translation of sacred texts, where rendering of nuance has doctrinal, not to say propagandist, overtones. (This is the heart of the debate about translations of the Bible. The argument is less about language, sonorous or otherwise, than about clarification or distortion of interpretation.)
With a few outstanding exceptions (for example, among English literary translations, Urqhart's Rabelais or Rieu's Homer) translations are mainly for their own time, and should be regularly replaced. Even the literary stature of the writer is no guarantee of lasting quality: Browning's and Lowell's versions of Aeschylus, Archer's versions of Ibsen and Burton's A Thousand Nights and One Night, once peaks of the art, now seem laboured and obsolete, neither faithful nor with literary stature of their own. The finest ‘translations’ of all, perhaps, are works like Plautus' reworkings of Menander, or Shakespeare's reworkings of just about everybody (including Plautus): one powerful creative mind engaging with another. In the gaps between such lightning-strikes, the best we can hope for is an author of genius being rendered, for one generation only, by a translator of talent, or vice versa, and for a steady continuum of hackwork of real excellence, such as the translations into English of current South American or European modern fiction which obtrude the translator's personality so gently that we seem to be reading the original. KMcL
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