Sunday Salon: Lost in Translation

Earlier this month, I was talking to one of my colleagues at the university where I teach, and he asked me if I could recommend any good English translations for some of the books we were discussing. “I always feel nervous, picking up translations, in case I don’t get the right one,” he said. “They can be awful.” I told him I’d get back to him. But I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It does seem that the “right” or the “best” translation has been getting more and more attention in recent years. There was the Robert Fagles translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote (recommended by no less than Carlos Fuentes.) All the wonderful Russian translations by the inimitable team of Pevear and Volokhonsky: The Master and Margarita, Anna Karenina, War and Peace. The new Penguin translations of Proust, including Swann’s Way translated by Lydia Davis. Margaret Jull Costa’s awards for her translations of Jose Saramago’s work.

But what does the “best” translation really mean? Last summer, I was attending an interdisciplinary conference in Toronto, and was lucky enough to grab some sushi with a woman doing a professional graduate work in translation. (That’s something I’ve always thought I’d like to do if I wasn’t doing what I actually do.) “The best translation isn’t always the smoothest one,” she said to me, jabbing with her chopsticks. “It isn’t always the one that uses the most colloquial English terms, the one where you’re not even aware you’re reading a translation.”

“It’s not?” I said. I guess I had always praised translations for being easy to read, for submerging me in their smooth English.

“What about faithfulness to the original style?” she demanded. “Tolstoy has a unique style in Russian, not smooth at all. Saramago’s long sentences are crucial to the way you read him. If you translated Dickens into French, would you use 21st-century English vocabulary to do it?”

“No,” I said, somewhat abashed. “He should sound 19th-century. Whatever that means.”

“Nabokov was a big proponent of what he called literal translation. But he didn’t mean literal, or anyone with a good dictionary and a lot of patience could do it. He meant accurate. He meant you had to have boundless cultural, historical, and personal knowledge of the text and the world it came from. The translator can’t be invisible.”

That sounded harder than I thought at first. Hmmm.

This has all come up very recently with the latest translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s epic feminist masterpiece, The Second Sex. For years there was only one translation of this work into English, done by Howard Parshley for Knopf. Parshley wasn’t familiar with philosophical terms in French, and Knopf insisted on cutting about 15% of the finished work. The final version, published in the US 1953, was riddled with errors in language and translation, and was abridged. The resulting misunderstandings affected this country’s understanding of The Second Sex, and therefore the development of feminist theory in America.

A new, unabridged translation of The Second Sex has finally appeared, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier for Cape. Is it better? Well, it’s unabridged. But according to Beauvoir scholar Toril Moi in the London Review of Books:

After taking a close look at the whole book, I found three fundamental and pervasive problems: a mishandling of key terms for gender and sexuality, an inconsistent use of tenses, and the mangling of syntax, sentence structure and punctuation.

Moi points out that the correct (that is, accurate) translation of such terms as “femme” versus “la femme” or “une femme,” or the highly-charged term “feminin” is crucial in such a text, and that the translators consistently get it wrong. “Viril” in French doesn’t mean the same as “virile” in English; it means energetic or enterprising. Since Beauvoir’s entire work was a critique of society’s construction of gender, such mistranslations would be devastating. Interestingly, Moi also criticizes the translators for following Beauvoir’s style too slavishly:

Borde and Malovany-Chevallier decided to reproduce Beauvoir’s long sentences connected by semicolons in English, on the grounds that they are ‘a stylistic aspect of her writing that is essential, integral to the development of her arguments’. In French, her long, loosely connected sentences convey speed, passion, and sheer delight in piling up her discoveries. If English sentences are strung together in the same way, however, the impression won’t be the same. French and English differ significantly in their tolerance of relatively vague connections between sentence elements. … In other words, if French syntax is imported directly into English, sentences that work in French may come across as rambling or incoherent in English. This is precisely what happens here.

In other words, according to Moi, Beauvoir has once again been lost in translation.   

I never feel quite comfortable reading works in other languages. How do I know it’s the right translation, or the best translation? How do I know it’s accurate? But, of course, short of learning Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, and every other language on earth, translation is the only way I can do it. How to decide? Do you read books in translation? What are some of your favorites? Have you had any bad experiences? Do you have favorite translators?


Given that I am filling in for Teresa’s usual Sunday Salon post, I won’t give an extended Notes from a Reading Life. But I will say that I am beginning to make plans for summer reading. Last summer, I had a Summer of Really Long Classics, which included The Story of the Stone in 5 volumes and War and Peace. This summer, I think I’m tackling Proust.

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48 Responses to Sunday Salon: Lost in Translation

  1. Fascinating post! I read quite a few books in translation and often think about the translation. Most of the time I don’t have the luxury of choosing between translations, as there is only one, but when I have a choice I normally ask around and someone will let me know which is ‘best’. Normally this is the most easy to read, but I take the point about it not being the most accurate.

    I am currently reading The Tale of Genji and have compared about 4 translations – some are almost impossible to follow. I picked the easiet as otherwise it would be too hard for me to understand.

    For other books I can see that it is important to get a faithful translation – I can’t imagine Saramago without the long sentences!

    • Jenny says:

      It’s really a vexed question, Jackie, on which even scholars don’t always agree. And I definitely know what you mean about the Tale of Genji!

  2. gaskella says:

    Gosh – what a thought-provoking post.

    I find it hard to believe that a translator could mix up Beauvoir’s words so. (Not that I’ve read her I’m afraid). I also get the point about syntax – with the semicolons in French representing a stream of quick thoughts – but coming across as a turgid list in English. That’s fascinating.

    Admittedly I don’t read enough works in translation. One I did read last year and loved though was Beowulf – the edition I had had the Old English original on one side and Shamus Heaney’s on the other – and they were so complementary. (Not that I can read old English, but you could see the structure, aliterations etc etc etc).

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, translators do horrible things to texts. It comes from not knowing context (context is EVERYTHING.) I adore Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf!

      • DKS says:

        The changing of “Hwaet” into “So” was inspired. More coaxing, less bossy, than the usual translation, “Listen!” and less archaic, more natural, than “Lo!” or “Hear ye!” At the same time it does the job of “Hwaet,” that is, it lets us know a story is about to be told. A beautiful and sympathetic bit of translation.

  3. Iris says:

    I have to admit that I’ve never given much thought to translations when reading a foreign book that’s been translated to English. I know that this is going to sound stupid, but I always expected that because it’s a world language, people would take care of it being done properly.

    I do worry about translation when I read a foreign book translated to Dutch. I always feel I might miss the particular style of the writer. That I’m this worried might also have to do with the fact that reading an English book in Dutch is always my second choice and that I prefer reading the original. If you know both the languages, it’s easy to see fault with a translation, I guess?

    • Jenny says:

      Iris, I do think people assume that translation will be taken care of. It’s surprising how influential bad, or good, translations can be!

  4. Kristen M. says:

    Is it time to think about summer reading plans already? Yikes!

    This is a fascinating topic. I am also one that rarely questions a translation because I just assume the translator had a reason for their choice of words and styles. But I think if I was to actually read a book in two different translations, I might start to consider this topic more!

    • Jenny says:

      Of course translators generally do have a reason for the choices they make. But sometimes it’s not a good reason!

  5. Eva says:

    I’m pretty diligent about ‘comparison shopping’ translations before I commit to one (w/ classics at least….w/ modern lit, there’s usually only one choice), and finding out which translators are the most respected in their fields. I think that comes from majoring in modern languages though! ;) I’m also a total fangirl of the translators that I love, and I flag promote them constantly!

    If I’m reading a translated book that has a lot of colloquial English, that’s an immediate redflag to me that the translator might be doing some ‘rewriting.’ That’s also why I try to avoid early translators (i.e.: Victorian ones); their whole translation philosophy was that translators should ‘improve’ the work while translating it. I want a translation that’s as close to the original as possible. Which is why I adore P&V! ;)

    For Russian and French, especially classics, I’ll find an excerpt in the original sometimes, just to make sure that the English has the same feel to it, if I’m getting an iffy translation vibe. I can even do that to some extent with Spanish and Italian since I have a Latin background, but I’m totally adrift with non-Romantic, non-Russian languages, which drives me a bit crazy. heehee

    I definitely read books in translation, since the alternative is simply not reading non-English authors, the idea of which horrifies me. But I do my research first!

    • Jenny says:

      Eva, your posts about translations and your promotion of good translators have been very helpful to me. It’s something I pay attention to when I can, because I also have that feeling of being “adrift” when I don’t know the original language at all (which for me includes Russian, alas.) Sometimes that disoriented feeling can be good for me, though.

  6. My French is decent enough to read books on the level of Le Petit Prince. Once, when I needed to read it for book club, I could only find a French copy of it in the house, and I quite enjoyed seeing the slight differences between it and the very good English translation.

    I can’t say I’ve given a lot of thought to translations, although, of course, a great deal of classics are translated. I’ll stay on my toes in the future about it, I guess, and work on my French so that I can read The Count of Monte Cristo in French.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha! Well, I enjoy reading French books in French, naturally — it would feel strange to me to read one in English — but I think tackling a 1300-page novel in French as your first main project is pretty bold. :)

  7. DKS says:

    I’ve been turning over the problem of translation in my head recently, particularly with reference to the Lydia Davis Proust you’ve mentioned. I saw online, a few days ago, an interview — with the editor of Granta, I think — who praised her Way by Swann’s — saying that it was so clear, so readable, such an improvement over the older versions, and it’s true, when I put her Swann next to Moncrieff, or even Moncrieff/Kilmartin, I see how clean she looks in comparison. Yet there’s a starkness in her that makes me uneasy, because Proust, of course, loved Ruskin, and it seems — I have to say “it seems” because my French is virtually zilch — anyway, it seems that his love of Ruskin leached into his prose, and the white-tile look of Davis’ translation, though clean and neat, is farther away from Ruskin than the other two. “It might be accurate,” I think, “but is it the English he had in his heart when he wrote?”

    • Jenny says:

      This is an excellent point. I really like her translation for my own personal taste. But not every novel is exactly to my taste. I have to learn each author’s style, lean into it, absorb it a bit (when it’s good, anyway, which Proust’s is.) Some authors are ornate; others are, as you say so beautifully, clean and white-tile. Proust is like an orchid, fragrant and rich and somehow slightly impure. White-tile — cold and analytical — I’m sorry to say, he is not.

      • DKS says:

        I think he’s a mixture. Cold and analytical, he really can be, not in a white-tile sense, but look at the way he describes friendship in Time Regained: “friendship is almost a pretence … friends being friends only in the sense of a sweet madness which overcomes us in life and to which we yield, though at the back of our minds we know it to be the error of a lunatic who imagines the furniture to be alive and talks to it,” and so on.* And the way Swann is treated by his friends the Guermantes before he dies — they would rather go to a party than speak to him. But he is “fragrant and rich,” as you say, as well, and “slightly impure” — which is a very nice phrase. I’d like to go into it further but I need to get back to work. (The short, rushed version of what I’d like to say goes like this: I think there was a lot of this fin de siecle impurity around, in the work of Oscar Wilde, for example — Dorian Gray, the contrast between squalid behaviour and exquisite sensibility — and people like Pierre Louys, Huysmans, Sacher-Masoch, etc, etc — and I think Proust benefits from this idea of knife-edge contrast, the collision of extremes — the sumptuous meals and flowers, versus the extreme control he shows in describing them, the precision of those lush sentences, the idea of love, of quivering adoration, versus the coldness of actual human interaction, the selfishness of love. (I’m typing this quickly and it may not make sense.))

        *I’m quoting this translation, which is credited to Stephen Hudson:

  8. Wonderful post. I’m always a little anxious when I read translations. How, in the first place, do I know it’s accurate, since I’ve never read the original? And when I dislike a translated book, is it because of the book or did the translation butcher what was actually a very good book?

    Generally, I like to read as many reviews as possible prior to picking up a translation, just to educate myself about which is the ‘best’ edition available. There are so many bloggers committed to reading translated fiction that this research is becoming simpler and simpler.

    • Jenny says:

      I have exactly the same anxiety, Claire! When I was reading War and Peace, I so wanted to read the original Russian. My Pevear & Volokhonsky translation had the original French bits in French (with notes at the bottom translating them into English) so at least I could get the feel of that. But I do like to do my research.

  9. christina says:

    This is a wonderful post and only points out my ignorance! I don’t think that I’ve ever paid attention to translations before and agree it has been coming up more and more frequently. I guess because I tend to read more YA and contemporary literary fiction it has never crossed my mind.

    I do wonder now about those classics that I’ve read in the past…

    • Jenny says:

      Christina, a lot of contemporary literary fiction is also in translation (Saramago, Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, etc.) I think translators try to make it seem like it’s very smooth and readable. One of my questions is whether that is advisable.

  10. Priscilla says:

    My first experience with this question was in a Bible as Literature course I took in grad school. We used the Oxford translation (an “accurate” translation, in Nabokov’s terms) , and some of the people in the course were pretty miffed that we weren’t using King James. Someone actually dropped the course because she didn’t believe the Bible had versions. It’s very interesting that certain translations of any work can be considered “authoritative,” but really as readers we have no idea what they have done with these works, whether they have modernized them or lyricized them or what have you. Just fascinating!

    • Jenny says:

      I think it’s fascinating, too. It’s a little frustrating in some ways. As Eva says above, I feel a little adrift. But there is some recourse through reading reviews and doing the research. I like your story about the Bible class!

  11. JoAnn says:

    Excellent post! If given the opportunity, I always compare translations before making a decision… unfortunately that isn’t always possible. Just wrote about my first trip to Strand Bookstore in NYC this week. Your post had me checking the loot, and I found 4/9 to be in translation.

    • Jenny says:

      Sometimes there’s only one translation available! Translations cost money, so publishing houses don’t always have the incentive to repair the damage other translators have done.

  12. Steph says:

    I suppose I have never really worried too much about whether a book is faithful to the original language, but I do worry about how it feels to my own ear. I mean, there are tons of books that are written first in English, and yet I can’t stomach the style, so I suppose that even if an author has a similar way about him in a different language, I wouldn’t much want to read those books either. I agree that we might be getting a distilled, less than accurate portrayal of an author, and don’t think translators should choose whatever verbiage they want when doing their jobs, but for me, I don’t necessarily want to pick up a book and have it read like it’s been translated. To me, the writing and the language must be organic and fluid, otherwise, I tend to feel like I can’t connect with the book.

    • Jenny says:

      Steph, my own feeling about this is that I enjoy “modernized” versions of Shakespeare (Hamlet in 1930s Germany, West Side Story or what have you), but if I were reading or seeing the play for the first time, I would want to know what Shakespeare’s language really was. It’s not as familiar to me, it isn’t as “fluid” to my modern ears, but before I see a changed version, I want to know original intent in style and language. That’s what I think an “accurate” translation should do.

  13. amymckie says:

    Great post! I am only just starting to focus more on translated works and am really looking forward to it. That being said, how true that a bad translation can ruin a book or (even worse, in my mind) change the story. I do think it is important that the book retain its original feel – I don’t want a translated work to read as if by a local author, I want to see how that author writes, I want to pick up things that are different, if that makes sense!

    • Jenny says:

      That more than makes sense! It was kind of a new idea to me that authors would have a unique, rough style in the original language and that should come through in the translated version. Dostoevsky shouldn’t read like Nicholas Sparks. :)

  14. When it comes to the classics, I tend to check the translator more before selecting an edition, but I’ve never even thought about it with modern books, or for some reason, with French books. I just realized that when reading this post. I think with the French authors, for some reason I assume they wrote in English. I have absolutely no idea why, because that makes no sense. It’s never crossed my mind in reading Voltaire, Dumas, Zola, anyone. Even when I just read Zola and learned that some of his books are only available in French, I didn’t think about the fact that the book I was reading was a translation. I feel a bit dumb now! But when it comes to the ancient Greeks, I do really like Fagles’ translations. I had an anthology with selections from the Illiad, and it showed several translations side by side, and I preferred Fagles. It was interesting to see how different all of the translations were. I will have to give the Russian translators you mentioned a try. I read a rather bad translation of War and Peace and haven’t picked up another Russian translation since because I’m not sure what was the best. (At least, I’m assuming the translation was bad. I think the edition in general was bad; there were quite a few typos and missing words in addition to the translation just feeling off and uneven.) I will have to check on P&V’s translations.

    • Jenny says:

      Lindsey, you made me laugh, thinking that French authors wrote in English. I totally know what you mean. I think there is a general assumption that everyone writes in English until you really think about it! Definitely try P&V; they are my favorites for the Russians so far.

  15. Nicola says:

    Maybe not a very literary book, but I’m told the translation from Swedish of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is excellent. Certainly, it’s a real page-turner in English!

    • Jenny says:

      Nicola, I read the first of that trilogy, and while I didn’t enjoy the book, I certainly thought the translation was good (as far as I could tell, not speaking Swedish!)

  16. bookssnob says:

    What a brilliant post. Translating literature is so difficult and it’s also difficult as a reader to know when you’re reading a good one, as if you knew the original language to compare it to, you wouldn’t reading the translation! In my experience of reading Russian novels, there’s a definite difference in reading enjoyment between the older translations and the newer ones. I read Constance Garnett’s translation of War and Peace and it was so stilted and 19th century and I wanted something fresher, more immediate, which is what Pevear and Volokhonsky offer. However, as you say, shouldn’t the translation reflect the period the book was written in and the language used? I don’t complain that 19th century novels in English are stuffy and dull, but somehow, because I know a book written in a foreign language can be amended I expect it to be updated to better reflect our modern use of language every time it is re translated. Odd. This post has certainly made me think, thank you!

    • Jenny says:

      This is a great example of what I’m talking about. I read P&V’s lengthy introduction on translation to War and Peace, and they had me absolutely convinced that their use of language was more suitable for Tolstoy than other translations that had gone before. Tolstoy was trying for something completely new, something modern, rather than a stilted 19th-century feel, so the P&V translation is appropriate, and it has a *totally* different feel to it than, say, their translation of The Master and Margarita. Read the intro! I bet you’ll be won over. :)

  17. Jenny says:

    Excellent post, and exactly why I have such a hard time reading books in translation. Because even when I do not find the translation jarring or awkward, I cannot stop worrying that the translator might not have been faithful to the author’s style and tone. The whole thing is that I have no way of knowing whether it’s a good translation or a crappy one, and that drives me up the wall.

    • Jenny says:

      I know exactly what you mean, Other Jenny, and I have those same anxieties, but if I let them rule me, I’ll cut out way more than half of the world’s literature. I just can’t do that. I have to find some way to justify it. So I do a little research and tell myself It’s All For The Best.

  18. Jeanne says:

    With prose, I tend to look at all the volumes available on the shelf and pick the translation that is the most recent, which shows I believe in progress (sometimes wrongly). It’s not a system I recommend, so I came here looking for a better one!

    With poetry, I look for a translation by the poet or failing that, by another poet.

  19. litlove says:

    What an interesting post! I like Antonia White’s translations, although they are quite old now. But I know translation studies have become a big thing – my students can do a translation project as part of their course in which they tackle a passage of a difficult text, but then write an essay about the choices they made and their reasons for them. So much thought has to go into it.

    I tend to agree with Moi, though, that reproducing stylistic devices can backfire because the musicality of languages is different. Style is all about the rhythm and flow of prose, and that can be compromised if the translation is too literal. And then, if you look at French and German, both of those languages can carry the object of a sentence through loads of twists and turns and subclauses because nouns are gendered, so the references are clearer. English is a concrete language, unhappy with abstractions and needing to keep the object of the sentence in view at all times. Languages are so internally different, and i think the differences should be respected, and that the translation should work in whatever language it’s in. So, I guess that puts me in the camp of a freer, less faithful translation. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? :)

    • Jenny says:

      It doesn’t sound bad, but of course there is also more to a translation than style! There’s also the whole cultural weight of meaning behind each word. It seems like such a difficult thing. I always thought I’d like to do it, but I’m rethinking!

  20. rebeccareid says:

    Great post. I think researching translations is essential to enjoying a classic as close to the original as possible. Very interesting information about THE SECOND SEX. I hope someone translates it properly so the English-speaking world can get to it…

  21. Vasilly says:

    What an interesting post. I do read translations though not very many. I love the Sullivan translation of Beowulf more than the translation by Seamus Heaney though it seems to be more popular. Blindness by Jose Saramago is one of my favorite books though it’s a translation.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes — as someone said above, a book can almost seem as if it were written for us when actually it was written originally in a language we can’t read at all.

  22. J.G. says:

    I have to confess ignorance about translations in general (having relied on professors to choose the “best” one–perhaps a dangerous practice). What a great example this is of the influence of the seer on the sight. All kinds of decisions about meaning and nuance have to be made, and even a good translator necessarily brings in some bias . . .

    My only foray has been to collect multiple versions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and have enjoyed comparing them, though not on a serious scholarship level. They all have their merits!

    Wonderful food for thought, all this.

  23. Kristina says:

    This was a very fascinating post and subject. I have a somewhat different point of view from you Jenny and also from most of the commenters.

    My first language is Swedish, a small language! This means that we have to rely on translations a lot. Awards are given to the best translator, reviews always mention the translator and so on. More than 50 % of all translations are from English. There are many very good translators to Swedish. But sometimes there is the difficulty with double translations, i e Amos Oz’s book A tale of love and darkness was first translated from Hebrew to English and then translated to Swedish from the English version. And yet I thought it was a wonderful book and a very good translation…

    When I sometimes choose to read a book in English which is originally in German (because it is out of print in Swedish – a common occurence with a small language) it doesn’t seem quite as good as the Swedish translation.
    I wonder why.

  24. chasing bawa says:

    I find that I’m more critical of translations when I know enough of the language to understand and speak it but not enough to read it properly. Then I will start translating backwards and see if the nuances present in the language still remain. Saying that, I’m pretty impressed with all the English translations of Haruki Murakami I’ve been reading which have been very smooth.

  25. Pingback: The Samurai by Shusaku Endo « chasing bawa

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