Literary Translation: What Makes a Good Translation?

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Literary eriters do not only have opinions about their own profession, but they have their own views on translation as well! In an article in the New York Times, two authors express their feelings on what makes for a good translation.

Next to a number of other interesting sections, the New York Times has a books & literature section called Bookends.

In this section, two writers ventilate their opinions about pressing matters that exist within the world of books and literature.

Last week, Daniel Mendelsohn and Dana Stevens shared their views on a topic that we at Kwintessential are very interested in: translation!

Daniel Mendelsohn


Daniel Mendelsohn [left], who has written numerous novels of which The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million is an international bestseller, believes every text is “a bafflement to its translator.”

Here, he refers to Lawrence of Arabia. This author/translator once wrote “He has beaten me to my knees” when speaking of his translation of Homer’s Odyssey as this proved to be very difficult.

Mendelsohn believes that translation can be challenging because all languages have features that cannot be translated, i.e. have elements that are language or culture specific.

According to Mendelsohn, the following elements are required for a good translation:

•    Accuracy. Here, the author gives an example from his own work. In one of his novels, his Italian translator wrongly interpreted a twenty dollar bill as an invoice instead of a bank note, which altered the scene in which the bill appeared drastically. Small changes are OK, Mendelsohn says, but big mistakes like this are definitely not.

•    Sensitivity to formal considerations. One of the most difficult aspects of a text to translate are stylistic elements such as rhythm and rhyme. As difficult as they are, Mendelsohn believes they should still receive the attention they deserve. Professional translators would think twice before translating the lapidary lyrics of Horace, a Roman poet, into free verse, Mendelsohn says. Thus, next to the words of a text, a translator must explore a text’s structure as well.

•    Texture. According to Mendelsohn, you can recognise a good translator by their ability to transfer the “feel” of the original to the translation. A far-reaching example Mendelsohn gives is Richard Howard’s translation of Stendhal’s novel Charterhouse of Parma, that even featured the grammatical errors of the source text.

•    Tone. Mendelsohn believes tone is a very important aspect to translate. Here, he gives the example of the novel Agamemnon, written by Aeschylus. This book is known for its overly correct syntax and detailed diction. Mendelsohn is unhappy about its 1997 translation by David R. Slavitt, who translated the novel using quite a few modern and casual phrases such as “Watch what you say, mister.” Mendelsohn believes this severely devalued the original.

Dana Stevens  

dana stevens smilingJust as her colleague Mendelsohn, Dana Stevens [left] also refers to translations of Homer’s masterpieces when talking about translation. She believes translation Homer is “either an act of hubris worthy of Achilles himself or a gesture of great translatorly humility.” In other words, a very, very difficult task indeed.

According to Stevenson, Homer’s work has been translated ever since it was first written down. In fact, she says, former classics professor Powell even claims the Greek alphabet was created for the sole purpose of documenting Homer’s poetry!

Homer’s work has been translated for centuries and in innumerable languages, meaning the works have been interpreted in many different ways, Stevens says. The Greek tragedians, for example, used the implied incidents from the poems to create their own work. Centuries later, the humanist scholars Petrarch and Boccaccio renewed the interest in Homer when Petrarch commissioned an Italian translation of the books.

Stevens believes that in Western history, Homer is inextricably bound up with the subject of translation and the many ways in which a text can be interpreted. Matthew Arnold, for example, once gave a number of lectures on the difficulties that arise when translating Homer. He believes a good Homer translation must find a good balance of four of the text’s aspects; its rapidity, directness and plainness that can be found in Homer’s ideas and language, and its “nobility.”

Recently, two new translations of Homer’s works have been published. The first is the Iliad by Barry B. Powell, the other it Stephen Mitchell’s Odyssey. According to Stevens, both of these translations occasionally choose speed and directness over nobility. Mitchell, for example, often omits the text’s fixed epithets, which means the stately rhythms of the Greek original are lost. However, his translation strategy did shed a new light on Homer’s poetry for Stevens. She says she now understands Keats’ experience when he read Chapman’s translation of Homer: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken.”

In short, Mendelsohn seems to think translators should be as loyal to the original as possible, especially in terms of style and meaning. On the other hand, it appears that Stevens feels less strongly about altering the source text as this might create a more accessible text that is easier to understand.

With whom do you sympathise more?

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