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We meticulous little usual reliable translators

December 6, 2011

I’ve just read and recommend two somewhat similar pieces on translation. I couldn’t agree more with Tim Parks:

[Robert] Robertson also calls on the British poet Jamie McKendrick who, he feels, is “surely right” when he says “The translator’s knowledge of language is more important than their knowledge of languages.” How vague this remark is! Does it mean that the translator has one kind of knowledge of how language in general achieves its effects, and another of the nuts and bolts of the different languages he knows, the first kind being “more important” than the second? If that is the case, then to what degree more important? Wouldn’t the two, rather, be interdependent and mutually sustaining?

Then Russian Dinosaur sympathetically describes a talk by Oliver Ready, on general and specific problems in translating Dostoevskii – concrete enough that he gives several translators’ attempts at “Ну, конечно, бабушкин сон рассказывает, врет как лошадь, потому я этого Душкина знаю […]” (see the original context here, and the translations in RD’s post).

I find Ready’s comparisons fascinating, as I suspect Parks and RD would, but according to Parks, famous poets from Eliot to Pasternak would think we were missing the point.

Here’s how I see the stages a translator goes through: first, the folk belief that there’s one ideal, literal translation out there, and your job is to get to it. You’re never more likely to use the exact word you find in a Russian-English dictionary and twist English into Russian-like syntax. You want mistranslations exposed. No matter what the original is like, your English is pedantically grammatical but hard to read.

Later you start producing more readable translations and become allergic to translationese, where words and constructions rare in English come up again and again as alleged equivalents of common Russian ones. You hear подлый behind every “base,” судорожно behind every “convulsively.” It’s clear no solution satisfies every dimension of a problem – “after all” so often captures the meaning of ведь better than a tag question, which better preserves tone. You’re sympathetic to creative solutions and think it’s a cheap shot when someone goes after “mistakes” in a translation. You’ve gone from naive monolingual to a poor man’s T. S. Eliot.

The third stage is where I’m trying to be and where I think Parks and Ready are (I’m being presumptuous, as they know more about translation than I’m ever likely to). You still like novel ways around hard problems, and you still believe most choices work on some levels but not others (lexical meaning but not register, perlocutionary force but not sound play, a reminiscence of a famous phrase but not culture-specific interpretations of that phrase*). But it bothers you how everyone focuses on fluency. Does the reviewer or even the translator need to know Russian, or is the idea to make the best possible English text using the original as inspiration? Why is it a faux pas to pick at individual sentences in a review in an academic journal? Can’t we agree that nearly every translation has errors, and that every translator has an impossible job, and still want to talk about врет как лошадь or вдруг?

* For this last pair, imagine translating “Uncle Tom” into Russian. “Дядя Том” would keep the Harriet Beecher Stowe reference but might not convey the second meaning here.

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