Translation: An Art, Not a Craft

Last week I wandered on about the delicate balancing act that an author faces when deciding how much detail to provide on a particular subject. In the course of this discussion, I mentioned that I was reading a book on horses translated from German that contained equestrian terminology that I had not encountered before.

A Few Translated Works

A Few Translated Works

This spurred (yes, pun intended) an off-site Comment from a reader who is something of an expert on the subject of horses. She noted that she had never encountered – not even when she had been employed by German equestrians – some of the terms that I cited. We had a fun and lively discussion on the subject, and both concluded that translation involved a lot of decisions on the part of the translators.

Should these translators have noted that certain terms were more common in German equestrian circles than elsewhere? While this might have helped readers draw a line between areas of specialized knowledge, it also would have been a distortion of the original text – and one that could not be done with any confidence without the translators knowing precisely which English-speaking audience they were translating for, since British and American terminology can differ considerably.

My opinion — for what it’s worth – is that in this case the translators did their best. The collection they were translating was a series of short essays, meant to be read out of order, so they would have had to repeat their clarification over and over again. The book was clearly listed as a translation and even a mildly alert reader should have been able to detect that it was written from a German perspective, since the majority of the examples had a German cultural bias.

(Aside: I found this slant particularly obvious in the section on the horse in the Wild West, where the author the German author Karl May was given precedence, followed by the Franco-Belgian comic book character, “Lucky Luke.” John Wayne was mentioned in passing. Nothing wrong with this, just a strong indication of cultural bias.)

I have the good fortune to know several professional translators of literary works, and I decided to ask them for stories about the challenges they’ve encountered in the course of their work.

Rick Walter, whose recent translations of many of Jules Verne’s novels show far better than the stiff translations I encountered years ago why Verne was so popular and so influential, confirmed that even among “English” translators, different choices need to be made to reach specific audiences.

He offered me the following example:

In “20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEAS, penultimate chapter: one of the characters whips out ‘une clef anglaise’ to undo some bolts …

“– My SUNY Press translation renders the term as ‘monkey wrench.’

“ — William Butcher’s Oxford UP translation gives ‘adjustable spanner.’”

I’ve always wondered what a “spanner” was… Now I know what it means to “throw a spanner in the works.” It means to shove a monkey wrench in the gears!

But translators face far more delicate challenges than merely pulling out a dictionary, then plugging into the appropriate slot the appropriate term in a grammatically correct form. Cultures differ widely in forms of address or humor or swearing or myriad other things that, if translated literally, come across as stilted or just plain peculiar. The translator must constantly choose between being what I might call “accurate” in favor of being “right.”

I asked a couple of professional translators for examples of the challenges they have faced over the years. Tiina Nunnally, who became a Knight of the Norwegian Order of Merit for her work as a translator, said: “Translation always involves endless decisions, both big and small, and it takes years of experience to figure out how far to veer from the original without altering the intent and tone of the book.”

She continued: “So one of the biggest challenges — especially when dealing with fiction — is translating swear words. A few years ago I translated a Danish novel that was filled with profanities, and I had to make sure that all the curse words would have the same force in English as they did in Danish. In the Scandinavian languages, the strongest and most searing swear words all have to do with the devil — but the devil has almost no impact in English. Instead, all of our swear words have to do with God or sex or various body parts. So I had to come up with words that would have the same vulgar equivalence in English. The publisher sent the author (who had only a perfunctory knowledge of English) a copy of the translated manuscript, and he immediately sent me an irate email saying “What are all these ‘God’s doing in my book!” He had no idea that a ‘literal’ translation of all those epithets would have ruined his book in English… ”

(Aside: Look for Tiina’s work in Only the Dead by Norwegian author Vidar Sunstol, to be released this October.)

In translating Jules Verne, Rick Walter faced a different challenge.

“For me, the trickiest challenge is translating jokes. You wouldn’t know it from most of their English versions, but humor is a major element in Jules Verne’s novels-not only was Verne a chronic punster, his yarns are full of running gags, black comedy, slapstick, and social satire. Needless to say, these are the scourge of translators everywhere, and many duck the challenge altogether.

“One such mindbender is the witty tagline of Chapter 2 in Around the World in 80 Days. The French valet Passepartout has just met his new boss, a sedentary, robotic, anal-retentive Englishman named Phileas Fogg . . . and he marvels at the fellow:

“Un homme casanier et régulier ! Une véritable mécanique ! Eh bien, je ne suis pas fâché de servir une mécanique !

“A literal translation of the above would be: ‘A home-loving and regular man! A veritable piece of machinery! Well, I don’t mind serving a machine!’

“Well, I didn’t want to chicken out and skip the it; so, after hours of cudgeling my brain, I finally came up with: ‘He’s a homebody, an orderly man! A real piece of machinery! Well, it won’t pain me to have a domestic appliance for a master!’”

As these small examples show, the process of translating is rather fascinating… I wish I read another language well enough to read one of my stories in translation. It would be interesting to find out what I said!


15 Responses to “Translation: An Art, Not a Craft”

  1. Peter Says:

    As a recovered professional translator I loved this one!

    You hit on two of the hardest problems of translation, swear words (“You have dechaliced my tabernacle of a cart” sounds very silly in English; it’s very rude in Quebec French) and target audience – the most famous genre case is probably Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, the American translation of the English original (the rest were also translated for a US audience, but at least the titles weren’t changed).

    Another tricky case (more common in technical translation – my former specialization – than literary, although it can crop up there too) is numbers, measures, and the expression thereof. Does 3/4 in a date mean the 3rd of April or the 4th of March? Is the 28 gauge wire referred to 28 AWG or 28 SWG? Does 3,025 mean three thousand and twenty-five or three decimal zero two five? Does the text mean Imperial pints (568 ml), American pints (473 ml) or American dry pints (551 ml)? One of the worst cases of this I ever ran across was a translation of a French text for an American audience. The original authors had helpfully included conversions of all the liquid measurements from metric…into their Imperial equivalents, so I had to re-do all the conversions into the American system.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      “Does 3/4 in a date mean the 3rd of April or the 4th of March?”

      4th of March of course. That’s my birthday. What else could it possibly mean?


  2. Alan Robson Says:

    Spanner? It’s a word (and a tool) I’ve used my whole life long. What’s a wrench? A lady with an ‘r’ in the month? Never heard such nonsense…

    That’s a sort of ha, ha, only serious moment. Translations are so difficult (even from English to English — Jane and I have had a lot of fun with that over the years). I blame idioms — my father (a complete literalist) had no time for idioms. The French for “April Fool” is “Poisson d’Avril”. Literally that means fish of April (or April Fish). A translation that makes no sense unless you do it idiomatically. My father found that quite bewildering. Fish?

    But idioms are hard. I am told that Stanislaw Lem is a very funny writer — I can believe that, for his short stories have had a brilliant translator who seems well able to bring out the humour (I particularly love the tales of Pirx the Pilot). However I strongly suspect that his novels were translated by someone else for I find them (one and all) quite tedious. I’m absolutely sure that’s not Lem’s fault.

    Then there’s the problem of fashion, of course. When I was young, the authoritative translations of the Russion novelists were all by Constance Garnett. I’m absolutely convinced that she’s the reason I found Dostoevsky and Chekov to be such boring reading. It seems clear to me now that she had a tin ear for language (I find her sentences clumsy) and I gather that she has fallen somewhat into disgrace for it. Perhaps I ought to try again with a more modern translation, though I find it hard to raise the enthusiasm. She spoiled those writers for me.

    Yes. Translations are hard.


  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    Did your friend Rick comment on things like the lost opportunity of Passepartout’s name? It’s worth several smiles, particularly as the name of a servant, but proper names don’t usually get translated.

    It gets even worse when the target language is English, since so few English names – especially surnames – actually mean anything in current English that even the ones that do aren’t really thought about much. Few think about the ancestral meaning of Smith, and not many even know what a Cooper is anymore. Even patronymics aren’t always obvious: my name and Alan’s are variant forms of the same ‘Son of Robert’, but most people never get past wondering vaguely if they’re related, if they even notice the similarity.

    All of which means that names that are compressed phrases in English generally turn up only in farce, and have a ‘made up’ feel.
    Naming Verne’s character ‘Turns up everywhere’ or ‘Moves in the first circles’ just won’t work – but the English reader then misses out on the joke.

    • Peter Says:

      These are the sort of problems that cause translators to curl up in a corner in the fetal position rocking and moaning. There’s an Italian expression (that I won’t bother to translate) that I used to have framed over my desk: “Traduttore, traditore.”

  4. Rick Walter Says:

    > Did your friend Rick comment on things like the lost opportunity of Passepartout’s name? It’s worth several smiles, particularly as the name of a servant

    Ch. 2 of my SUNY Press translation offers the following footnote for Passepartout’s moniker: “French: ‘passkey.’ The literal meaning of ‘passepartout’ is ‘gets through anything.’ ”

    Many thanks for your added insights!

  5. Heteromeles Says:

    I’m sure someone has avenged the crime of translating Verne to English by translating Terry Pratchett to French…

  6. The Great ME! Says:

    This brings to mind my High School Japanese class, particularly second year when we were able to watch more Japanese films in subtitles than we did in first year. A lot of Japanese films, anime, and games in Subtitles will often hear the characters proclaim “Kuso!” what has been translated time and again as “Damn” or “Shit”, and in America a lot of people(especially parents) consider those to be swears you shouldn’t throw around(at least not with children, which is a good portion of who watches anime and plays JRPG’s and such).

    But “Kuso!” isn’t actually swearing the way we consider it in English and doesn’t hold the same weight as if we proclaimed “Damn” or “Shit” in public over here as being something almost taboo or culturally inappropriate. It’s interesting though to see the cultural differences and how greatly they vary over only one little word. It would actually be closer to if we proclaimed “Darn it!” or “UGH” than “Damn it!” or “Shit!”

    These were little generally unknown discrepencies that our teacher had to spend a LOT of time clarifying and talking to us about, but I’m really glad for it.

  7. Rowan Says:

    And then there’s the problem of translating for audience understanding when the pivotal phrase being translated has no good equivalent. I wrote most of a paper on the problems of translating Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” into Japanese, which has no equivalent so fraught with meaning. “To exist or not to exist” and “to live or to die” really do not serve as analogues for the phrase. And sometimes, in translation, you just have to make do, as in those examples, because readers have to be given something, even if it’s a poor substitute.

  8. Heteromeles Says:

    I think that was the classic remark about Klingon. A linguist constructed it without the “to be” verb, just to be alien, and the first thing they wanted him to translate was that soliloquy. And so it goes…

    • Peter Says:

      You don’t have to go as far as Klingon to have trouble with that one – off the top of my head it’s a bear to translate into Korean, Japanese, Tagalog, or Arabic, for various reasons (Tagalog, like Klingon, lacks a verb “to be” for example.)

  9. janelindskold Says:

    And here I thought I was going off into an esoteric topic that would only interest me and my equestrian friend… I love the responses!

    I’m only fluent in English — and my Tangents with Alan have made me doubt even that. One of my hobbies is watching subtitled anime and then hassling friends who are fluent in Japanese as to why something is translated the way it is. (I don’t speak or read Japanese, but I have a good ear for sound).

    This has led to a bunch of conversations about culture that I’ve really enjoyed.

    In a sense, translation is a very skiffy practice, since it involves sensitivity to language, culture, and a bunch of other things…

  10. Paul Says:

    Kudos for Rick Walter for giving us limited-language readers, at last, the books as Jules Verne intended. I once met a man who laid an old English translation alongside one of Verne’s original texts, and he said he thought he’d somehow drifted into a parallel universe where there was a different Verne!

  11. David Sherman Says:

    An art, indeed, well said. I have before me a marvelous book, On the different methods of translation, by Friedrich Schleirmacher (1813), bilingual Greman-French translation by Berman and Berner (Seuil, 1999). I am not a translator, but here is my fair attempt:

    “Leave this aside, and to translations to our own from a foreign tongue consider; so here we may distinguish – not with total precision, certainly, as this rarely occurs, but with indistinct boundaries, that are nonetheless quite clear when we consider the extremes – two different domains. The interpreter indeed performs his office in the domain of Commerce, the true translator essentially in the domain of Art and Science.”

    This is what the book says:

    “Sondern wir nun dieses ab, und bleiben stehen zunächst bei dem Uebertragen aus einer fremden Sprache in die unsrige ; so werden wir auch hier zwei verschiedene Gebiete – freilich nicht ganz bestimmt, wie denn das selten gelingt, sondern nur mit verwaschenen Grenzen, aber doch wenn man auf die Endpunkte sieht deutlich genug – unterscheiden können. Der Dolmetscher nämlich verwaltet sein Amt in dem Gebiete des Geschäftslebens, der eigentliche Uebersetzer vornehmlich in dem Gebiete der Wissenschaft und Kunst.”

    “Laissons donc cela de côté, et restons-en aux traductions d’une langue étrangère vers la nôtre ; là aussi nous pouvons distinguer deux domaines différents, non certes avec une totale précision, car cela se produit rarement, mais avec des limites brouillées, et cependant assez claires si l’on considère les extrêmes. L’interprète, en effet, exerce son office dans le domaine des affaires, le véritable traducteur essentiellement dans le domaine de la science et de l’art.”

    Schleirmacher, the master translator who brought Plato to the Germans, maintained that one translates an argument, a thought, and not a simple series of equivalent symbols. Berman succeeds in using Schleirmacher’s methods to translate Schleirmacher. Even though the result is perfect French, you can hear the German thinking behind it.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      I have to ask if your rendering was from the French or the German – mostly since i don’t really read German. _If_ I’m getting the sense of ‘wir auch hier’ right, there’s a very subtle difference in reading in the 3 versions at that point that is a perfect illustration of the point being made. Something that doesn’t matter at all to comprehension, but would influence subconscious or semi-conscious evaluations of the reliability of the translation – it’s in the fluidity and “nativeness” of the language.

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