The Art of Translation

“…the only rule in translation is that there are no rules.” Barbara Harshav

Readers of this blog may remember how much I admired Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. Mercier, the pen name of Peter Beiri, is also the author of Lea a novel that I have been very eager to read. However, it has not yet been translated into English. To find out if the translation rights were still available, I wrote to Professor Barbara Harshav who did the English translation of Night Train to Lisbon. She replied that the rights had been purchased and another person is currently doing the English Language translation.

This was followed by a lively exchange on the art and process of translation. Reading a work of literature in translation, as I often do, is not something we ordinarily think about. And yet, once you realize there are many different styles and approaches to translating, you begin to wonder how true the translation is to the original.

In addition to German, Professor Harshav has translated a number of French, Yiddish and Hebrew publications. She is currently teaching a course on translation in the Comparative Literature Department at Yale and serves as President of the American Literary Translators Association. With her permission I have minimally edited and framed as an interview her responses to the questions I posed to her.

Q How does a reader know when a translation is good or bad? This is a reader, like myself, who does not know the translator, who cannot read the original and knows nothing about what distinguishes a good from a bad translation.
You raise the fundamental question about judging translation. In some ways, you are really buying a pig in a poke because there are no objective standards of quality. Signs of a bad translation would include strange locutions or phrases that are just slightly off. For example, would you write "completely new" or "brand new"? Minor details, but they can give the game away.

Another indication is that something just doesn't make sense, which means that the translator probably hasn't understood the original. More subtly, the rhythm of the English can be off, but it takes a fairly rare sensibility to language to discern that. However, that still leaves the issue of whether the translation is really conveying the original. And I doubt whether there's any way to know that.

As for whether you'd know if you were reading a less than perfect translation -- you wouldn't. In some ways, translation is one of the blindest items we buy (a pig in a poke -- translate that!). For example, if I get sick, I go to the doctor and if I don't get better, I try to find another doctor. The same with an auto mechanic. But we have no way of knowing if a translator has conveyed what's in the original.

Q Have you ever considered a translation a “better” book than the original?
I have had several authors tell me that. That raises a lot of issues about the nature of the process of translation as opposed to the process of writing itself. Aside from the major obvious difference, I suspect that translating a work is a more conscious process. I know that, when I've spoken with authors about their work, we have both been surprised that I often I know it better than they do, pick up connections they weren't aware of.

Translating, as I understand it, is a creative process. I have to live in a work, walk around in it, feel its dimensions, get into it. And to shift the metaphor, I have to feel that every single word is right. So, initially, I work on the leaves, then I get to the trees and from there to the forest.

So it's a tedious, self-conscious process that has to flow easily in the end. I argue that the translator has to be extremely humble and disappear into the text, so that the author says "that's what I wrote" and the reader doesn't know it's a translation.

Q What are the highlights for you of the process of translating a work of literature?
The greatest experiences I've had have been working very closely with authors. Knowing Peter Bieri was a great advantage, especially since, when I got into the novel, I recalled that he and I shared a love of detective fiction, which is an important part of the novel. Moreover, working together was absolute, sheer joy, based on mutual admiration and shared values.

So, to answer your question, yes, I think I got into what he meant. But that's been my experience with all my favorite works. I have to inhabit the work, walk around in it, see out of it. Indeed, as I work, I create images in my mind and translate from them. I hope you saw the scenes in Night Train. In the end, ironically, I know the work better than the author. Another experience with Peter was that, for a good part of it, I read the English aloud while he compared it with the German. Both of us were bowled over by that and found all sorts of connections neither of us knew were there.

Q I also wonder if it is important to have some personal experience with the place, theme, or the work’s central character(s) when translating a novel. Like you, Gregorious was a linguist, devoted to language and knowledgeable in several. Many of your translations are works in Hebrew. Was that helped by your very considerable experience living in Israel?
That is one of the fundamental problems of translation. Translation is not simply a matter of two dictionaries. Don't be surprised: I know many translators of repute, as it were, who claim that that's the essence of translation. The whole translating endeavor, as I see it, is understanding and conveying cultural differences; and that means not just knowing one, but two, cultures intimately to be able to find equivalents.

I think that one of the main attributes for a good translator (aside from humility) is the ability to play with language and not be afraid to push the boundaries of your own language. Walter Benjamin claims that one of the tasks of the translator is to stretch his own language.

And, finally, yes, I do consider translating an art. One of my basic principles is that sentences should dance on the page -- and that applies to literature, history, economics, philosophy and anything else I happen to be translating.