There has been a lot of discussion recently by and about translators of novels, the fact that they do not get the credit they deserve and are not recognised. This intelligent article on the subject by Katy Derbyshire, a blogger and translator from the German, is one example. She mentions the sort of things we should look out for when judging whether a translation is good or bad but then adds what is for me the crux of the matter: I realize it’s difficult to spot some of these things if you don’t speak the original language. I would go two steps further. Firstly, it is not just difficult, it is well nigh impossible. Secondly, even if you do speak/read the original language, how many non-academics read the original and the translation side by side?
I read a lot of translations, both translations into English and translations into other languages (where a work is not available in English translation). If I do read a translation, it is either because the work was written in a language I do not read (or do not read well) or, in the case of books I read in translation where I do read the original language, because the original is difficult and/or expensive to obtain or, yes, I admit it, sometimes out of laziness. However, in all cases, I read only the translation, not the original. Only once have I ventured to compare the original with the English translation and that was because I read something in the translation which I did not understand and referred to the original to see what was meant. In my view, in that case, the translator had misunderstood the original.
Let me give you two examples of why, despite Katy Derbyshire’s suggestions, I do not feel competent to evaluate a translation when only reading the translation. Both come from my previous professional life as a translator. The first concerns a translator who is long since deceased but, nevertheless, I will try to be as vague as possible so as not to identify him. We worked for an organisation which did not deal with fiction but with technical, economic, administrative and related texts. He translated into his mother tongue, i.e. from English into this language. His colleagues of the same language praised his texts for the beauty of the language and compared his writing to that of a famous (long since deceased) writer of that language. I once had occasion to consult his translations to check on how some specific text had been translated and I took advantage of it to read his translation. It was indeed beautifully written. I am not competent to compare it to the author mentioned. However, I soon noticed that however beautiful the target language was, it did not always reflect what the original English text said. Indeed, there were quite a few errors in translation. However, unless you compared it to the original English, you would not have been aware of these errors. Was it a good translation? Of course not. But only I knew.
On another occasion I was called on to judge a translation competition. A selection of books were submitted that had been translated from a foreign language into English. One of the books I reviewed was written by an author known for his streetwise, one might almost say punk style in writing. The translation was technically accurate. However, it read as though it was written by Jane Austen and not by a streetwise punk. However, unless you knew of the original author and/or had access to the original and could read that language, you would have been none the wiser.
There is one way I feel able to evaluate translations and that is in their use of English. I am, sadly, finding too many translations that use English solecisms. These are solecisms often of US origin but unfortunately creeping into English English. These include such usages as different than, between you and I, most well-known and off of. These are not repeating the bad grammar used by characters in the original but appear in the descriptive text, Presumably the translator does not know his/her language as well as s/he should or is not aware that these are solecisms. Presumably there is also no editor to correct the errors.
Another example of where I have been able to spot what I think might be errors is the tone used. Not so very long ago, I read an English translation of a book written in a language I do not know. It was clear that many of the characters spoke in slang in the original. The translator had endeavoured to convey this slang but, in my view, did not do a good job. The book was published some time ago and, for me, the slang seemed very outdated. Secondly, it was English regional slang, which would have undoubtedly jarred with those not familiar with it, even more than it did with me. I fully appreciate how difficult this is for a translator. How do you convey the slang and idiom of one place with the slang of another? I certainly would not be able to do so. As a result, I did not comment on this in my review as doubtless the translator was trying his/her best to convey the flavour of the original.
In her article, Katy Derbyshire says critics seek to engage with our work but in a negative way, pointing out its flaws. This post seems to be what I have done. Let me say that I really appreciate all the translators out there, particularly of course, those translating from languages I do not know. Without them, my reading life would be very much the poorer. The greatest compliment I can pay them is, I think, to point out that, on the whole I do not notice them, by which I mean reading the translation is like reading the original. Apart from the examples I have mentioned above, I am sure that most translators of novels do a first-class job. However, I can only repeat that I am not competent to judge the quality of any translation I read. I can judge whether it reads well, whether it contains grammatical infelicities and whether the tone seems to jar but, without reference to the original, I cannot judge its accuracy and would not presume to do so. So it would be quite wrong of me to say that such and such a work is a good translation or bad translation and I do not intend to change that view. So thank you very much, Katy Derbyshire and all the other translators of novels for making available these novels to me. I am sure that 99% of you are doing a good job but I am unable to say whether you are in the 99% or the 1%.