On the plus side, translations make available to us books from authors around the world we might not otherwise have an opportunity to read. This helps broaden our cultural horizons, offering us a glimpse of a world different from our own. On the down side, a badly produced translation can distort a work, taking away the author’s voice and, in the worst scenario, altering the message or meaning.
But how can we tell a good translation from a bad one?
I undertook postgraduate studies in translation. There, I was taught to always translate into my native language, from another language I spoke fluently. You need that fluency because translation isn’t just about sitting there with a dictionary. You need to understand the culture and the language’s subtle nuances. There may not be a direct translation of, say, an idiom. The source language and target language may each have their own way of expressing an idea. Consider April Fool’s Day versus Poisson d’Avril, for example.
A good translation seeks to preserve the style of the original while rendering it in a manner suitable for the target language. A translator should never force their own voice over that of the author.
In the Victorian era, translators often weren’t acknowledged, and there are some truly horrendous 19th century translations around. You find them often on sites hosting public domain works, and you can spot them a mile away because the prose feels ‘clunky’ and doesn’t flow.
These days translators are more respected, their contribution better appreciated. Generally, I would put more faith in a translated work that prominently notes the translator’s name and offers a biography outlining their achievements and experience. Most major publishers now include this.
Speaking several languages, and having studied as a translator, makes me particularly attune to whether or not a piece has been conscientiously translated, particularly when it’s a work by an author I have read in the original language, and of whose style I have a good sense. Therefore, I offer these key points to consider when picking up a translated work:
1) Is the translator’s name provided?
2) Is the translator working into their mother tongue?
3) Is there a bio, outlining the translator’s experience?
4) Does the prose flow and feel natural?
Of course, if you can read a work in the original language, that is always best, but if that’s not possible, make sure you seek out a reputable translation, to ensure you are getting the best experience of the work in question.
Do you read foreign works in translation? Do you think much about the merits of each translation?