Lost in Translation

Friday, April 3, 2015

Although I've read many books that were originally written in another language, I’ve rarely paid attention to who the translator was. There are a few notable examples that immediately come to mind. All of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's books have been translated by the same woman, Lucia Graves, whose father is also an author. Zafon’s writing is so poetic and beautiful and I doubt that I would've loved his books as deeply if it had been badly translated. 

I also remember reading War and Peace a couple years ago and everyone was buzzing about that particular translation, done by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and how good it was. Granted, I've never read it in any other translation, so I have nothing to compare it to but it was excellent! Another one that stands out is the Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary 

When I read Don Quixote everyone asked which translation I picked, and I was almost embarrassed that I hadn't put more thought into it. I picked the one that was available at my library. That being said, I think there are so many things that can be lost in translation when the book is taken from one language to another. 

If the translator takes things very literally some of the poetry and beauty of the language can be lost. For a long time I've wondered what it would be like to read some of my favorites in their original languages. I'd love to learn another language just to be able to read some of those books as they were originally intended. 

How about all of you, do you put a lot of thought into what translation you pick? Do you have any particularly good translators that I should keep an eye out for when I am selecting an addition of a book?


Bryan G. Robinson said...

I read a lot of crime fiction and with those translations, you don't have a lot of choices (or any) in who the translator is. You get who you get.

However, in terms of more "literary" works, I have thought about it when I was trying to read Proust. I always had the C.K. Scott Moncrief translation, but heard of others. However, I gave up on it so not really worried about it now. :) In terms of poetry, I always preferred Stephen Mitchell's translation of Rilke over any others.

Cleo said...

I've been having conversation on Goodreads in the last couple of days about translation and just how difficult it is. There is ALWAYS compromise. How closely does a translator stick to the original text, especially if a close translation makes the story sound wooden and uninteresting? With poetry, does the translator focus on form or on content, or try to get a balance between the two? It's so difficult.

As for my knowledge of specific translations:

For The Divine Comedy (this is from an Italian lit professor whose English is better than mine), Mandelbaum is closest to the original, yet Ciardi, while making sometimes quite wild changes, is the only one of the many translators who captures the "flavour" and tone of Dante (something she thought could never be done in English). I had to read the new Hollander translation for a course and really, really disliked some of their word choices, so I would avoid theirs, if possible.

The Iliad and The Odyssey: -- absolutely Richard Lattimore who manages to stick closely to the original while keeping the majesty and grandeur of the poetry. The complaint about Fitzgerald is that, while being very readable, the poem sounds more like Fitzgerald than Homer (C.S. Lewis has an essay on some of the difficulties with Fitzgerald). Fagles simplifies it too much and is more like a re-telling than a translation, however for kids it can be a gentle introduction.

With Russian translators, it's often difficult to choose. I highly disliked Pevear-Volokhonsky because I find their translations wooden and lifeless. I really like Constance Garnett but she apparently takes liberties that some readers dislike. I read the Aylmer-Maude translation of War and Peace and found it excellent. They knew Tolstoy, so I figured it was probably the best version to go with.

If you don't read the language yourself, it's best to rely on opinions of scholars and experts (and even then, they sometimes don't agree). Other venues, such as newspaper or journal articles, can simply be marketing tactics, which often have little to do with the quality of the translation; they are just trying to sell the book (I felt this with the Pevear-Volokhonsky fad --- they simply have great marketing). But if you can get some expert information on the pros and the cons of each, it can help you make an educated choice on which version you think will be right for you.

An excellent question, Melissa. I can't wait to read what others have to say!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Bryan - I'm so glad you said that about Rilke. I've been wanting to read some of his poetry for a long time! I'll look for that translation.

Cleopatra - Wow! What a wonderful resource of translation options! Thank you for sharing them. I think I may have to try a different translation of The Odyssey the next time I reread. I believe the last time I read Fagles.

Jillian said...

Interesting topic. I think that there are many things lost in translation - the humor, the poetry behind it like you said, and the flow. I think when the best books with great translation are those that not only translates literally, but writes itself in the same way.

o said...

I was just thinking about this earlier: this afternoon I started re-reading L'Assommoir and I'm really into it, far more than the first time because I got myself an Oxford University Press edition with a different translator. Me getting into Zola made me realise just how important translators are. Aside from L'Assommoir, on the whole I loved nearly all of his novels, however his Three Cities novels I read were a pain to read all because I was reading an old translator determined to 'clean' Zola up a bit. Of the other Zola novels I wasn't keen on - all of those were by that translator or another one from the 1960s / 70s.

Yet - to complicate - there's a Zola translator I'm not fond of (Tancock), but I read his translation of another book (I *think* it was Voltaire's Letters on England, but it may have been a Diderot) and really enjoyed it.

My general rule (which should be taken with a pinch of salt I dare say) is buy OUP editions of translated classics. I loved their War and Peace, and passionately hated the Penguin edition. That said, I loved Penguin's Les Misérables, yet I have heard that particular translator (can't honestly remember his name) isn't up to scratch. Never yet felt uneasy about an OUP, that's all I can say! :)

Anyway, those are my thoughts!

bzee said...

English isn't my native language, so, in my case, I could make a comparation for works written originally in English and the translation version in my language (Indonesian). I guess there will always be something lost in translation, even the tiniest thing, the unimportant detail. But, as my English isn't qualified enough, I can't tell how good/bad non-English works that translated into English.

I only trust 2-3 Indonesian publishers for translated works, whoever the translators they chose. But lately, I pay more attentions to names, because some of the good ones may work for many publishers.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jillian - Agreed. I think being a translator could be such a difficult job!

o - Wow, what a great resource! I have been meaning to read Zola for so long. I'll have to make sure I'm careful with the translation I choose.

bzee - I love hearing about the translation side of things from the opposite point of view. I would guess that there would be fewer options when it's English being translated into your language, so having publishers you trust is key!

Jeanne said...

I first read Rilke in what must have been a rather bad translation from my local public library, because I've never found it since. I loved that translation--it spoke to me. But I'm guessing it wasn't that good, since it's no longer read.

I don't read a lot in translation, because now I always have the sense that there are other ways to say this, and I don't much like it. My son just finished translating a recently-discovered short story by Chekhov, so I'll read that and think about the word choice.

When I first read Madame Bovary--in the translation chosen by my college professor--I laughed out loud at some of the word choice..."Romance! Adventure! A Horse Ridden to Death on Every Page!" I got the gist, but couldnt' resist taking it literally and writing a book in which a horse is ridden to death on every page.

Alisa said...

I've never read the same book by different translators so I never tried comparing. Once I did try to read online which translation of a book I should get, but ultimately the price made the deciding factor.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jeanne - Ha, I think I would notice if the translation was that awful! That's hilarious.

Alisa Wilhelm - Price usually decides it for me as well.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

I never paid attention to this until I hosted a readalong of The Odyssey and was browsing through different translations of the text. They really were quite different and I noticed what a difference it made in reading. I was kind of jealous of those who had the other translation (I'd have to run to my shelves and see...I had Fitzgerald but I ended up getting The Iliad by the other translator).

I've also wondered if some of my struggles with Brothers Karamazov was due to the translator. I've heard that the Lydia Davis Madame Bovary is fabulous!

I'm reading one now by Banana Yoshimoto and I've wondered how the original might compare in Japanese! Great topic Melissa.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Trish - I never thought about what a huge difference this could make in a readalong! That could completely change someone's reading experience.

Brona said...

I've become interested in the whole translation thing recently thanks to Zola and Dostoyevski.

I found this site that allows you to compare the different translations of various classics. They provide the first page or so of all the possible translations - you can then decide which one works best for you.

The link for the site is in my Zoladdiction post below :-)


Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Brona - I'm bookmarking that site! What a great resource!