Unless we happen to be some kind of
superhuman polyglot, all of us are going to read a translated text at some
point. Of the thirty highest ranked novels in The Guardian’s much lauded/argued
over “Top 100” list, eight were written in a language other than English. Meanwhile, novels translated into English repeatedly bother the upper reaches of
bestseller charts, proving that literature truly is a beast that transcends geolinguistic
|Tim Mackintosh Smith, author and translator.|
His work with the writing of Moroccan traveller
and writer Ibn Battutah has earned him deserved plaudits
The work of novelists such as Norway’s Jo Nesbø and
Sweden’s Stieg Larsson have proved phenomenally popular in Anglophonic countries,
and the English translations of texts such as “Crime and Punishment”, “Madame
Bovary” and “The Dangerous Liasons” continue to shift copies many generations
after their original publication.
So, does it matter that the book we are
reading is perhaps not the one envisaged by the author?
There are several schools of thought on
this, the most popular being a pragmatic one: of course we should try to read
works of literature in the language in which they were written, but we should
also recognize that this will not always be possible.
Last week marked the 100th
anniversary of birth of Albert Camus, an event that went almost unnoticed in the
author’s homelands of France
but caused the global blogosphere to explode into life. Between the tributes
and the reminiscences on the author’s career, a discussion opened about the comparative
merits of reading works like “The Outsider” (“L’Etranger”) or “The Plague” (“La
Peste”) in English or in the original French.
Lexical cross-pollination is rife between
English and French; both languages are peppered with words that have hopped the
Channel and nestled snuggly in the dictionaries of their neighbours. As a
result, the division between our two tongues is a fluid one: your average
Marseillais would probably be able to order a beer in Birmingham,
while a Geordie would be similarly at ease in the bars and taverns of Bordeaux.
However, getting to grips with a novel –
with all its nuance, subtlety and hidden depth – is another matter entirely.
Such a feat is likely to be beyond the linguistical abilities of most readers
(myself included). As the discussion raged online, an unpleasant level of
snobbery began to arise, belittling the experiences of people who had read
Camus’ novels in English compared with those who tackled the books en Français.
Is this snobbery ever justified? I suppose
it can be argued that the very action of translating a text involves straying
into a dangerous area. By translating a text, particularly a text by an author
who is no longer around to oversee it, we are transposing our own judgment onto
the words of the original. In doing so, we run the risk of adding our own graduations
and variations in content, style and tone.
Barthes’ famous “Author” did not suffer
death just so another one could come along and project his or her own vision
onto a text; we should remember that a text is very much alive and open to
interpretation, and so all tinkering and translating must be done with the
lightest of touches.
A light touch becomes even more necessary
when we encounter words that are unique to a certain language. These so-called
untranslatable words provide something of a quandary for a translator: should
such words be translated as literally as possible – creating occasionally
clunky and awkward sentences but preserving the original meaning – or should
more weight be placed on retaining the author’s intentionally streamlined prose
Milan Kundera – after writing “The Book of
Laughter and Forgetting” in his native Czech tongue – oversaw its translation
into French, adding an entire chapter devoted to explaining the Czech word
litost, roughly meaning a psychological state of self-torment followed by a
desire to equalize matters through physical revenge. Writer Dilshan Boange
describes litost as“a state of emotions that is rooted in the individual feeling himself
to be a singular entity in the face of overwhelming hopelessness and a
painfully evident helplessness.”
Kundera’s litost is by no means the only
example of a word whose meaning does not bridge the social-cultural boundaries
of language. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Waldeinsamkeit” uses 12 stanzas to
explore the depth and complexity of its title; a German word that is can be
tentatively translated to English as a ‘solitary oneness with – or an
abandonment of oneself to – nature’.
Another example – picked at random, but a
concept that many empty-headed internet keyboard warriors would do well to
employ – is the Catalan word Enraonar, meaning “to discuss in a civilised
manner, using meticulous reasoning.”
These words, and the thousands of others
that proliferate across the globe, serve as proof of the richness and diversity
of the human consciousness. In a world where culture is in increasing danger of
becoming homogenized and contained in order to fit with the lingua franca of accepted global
thought, these words provide refreshing new perspectives, allowing people of
all cultures to think outside the constraints imposed by their own language.
German academic, Thorsten Pattberg
recognizes this. In a recent article for The Shanghai Daily, Dr Pattberg warns
against Western media outlets “coercing their authors to hold back non-English
words or eliminate them from their submissions” in an attempt to retain the
purity and readability of their newspapers. Pattberg also calls for an end to
“irresponsible translations of foreign key terminologies” and urges us to “work
overtime to find the untranslatable words in each language”.
Dr Pattberg is correct; as lovers of
literature we must welcome anything that broadens the scope of writing and
reading. We must admit that language is, and forever will be, only a limited
tool of expression, and so must embrace any methods that can decrease those
limitations, both in an artistic and in an anthropological sense.
However, the fact remains that literary
translation is a vital and invaluable endeavour. It democratizes literature,
removes it from the preserve of the few and hands it to the many, while also
facilitating the spread of ideas and debate around the world. Translation is as
much an art as authorship; it requires patience, skill and an astounding amount
of selflessness to produce a successful translation.
Many translations have been derided as
failures, while others have been criticized as diluting the power and impact of
the original. However, the work of translators such as Michael Glenny – whose
adaptation of Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” into English was particularly
lauded – and Giovanni Pontiero, who was concerned primarily with translating
Portuguese texts into English, introduced the British book-buying public to
spell-binding editions of some of the cornerstones of our global literary
The key is to find a balance; to embrace
the heterogeneous nature of language and literature while also promoting the
lightness of touch and lack of egocentricity required to produce a truly
In the coming weeks I
plan to have a crack at Alaa Al Aswany’s 2002 novel "Imārat Ya‘qūbiān". As my Arabic is not fully up to scratch (read: nonexistent) I will
have to rely on Humphrey Davies’ translation. And still the world keeps on
Click here for more information on untranslatable words.