If you’ve ever received a basic introduction to the translator’s craft, it was probably accompanied by a cautionary finger pointed at the concept of word-for-word translation.
You don’t get to question the omission of this or that adjective, you don’t get to criticize the violence English translators have to do to Kafka’s original paragraphs in order to give a semblance of the flexible word order of German which delivers the punch right at the tail end of the sentence. Translators are concerned with higher goals than a transfer of vocabulary — which, let’s be honest, could be produced by anyone who can navigate one of those cumbersome bilingual dictionaries. In order to achieve a semantic, stylistic, and philosophical continuity that flows from the original text to the foreign facsimile, indeed to prevent the translation from becoming a facsimile in the first place, translators have to make sacrifices. They have to twist and omit, tear apart and reassemble, circumvent and run right through.
I’m no expert on this: I don’t study translation; I’m an English student. People often confuse the two when you’re studying for an English degree as an ESL speaker in a non-Anglophone country, but make no mistake: I prefer living inside one language at a time. Two at once is way too stressful. That said, literary studies will always, at one point or other, confront you with issues of translation.
A notable example from my own reading history is Italo Calvino’s 1979 postmodernist novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller — or as it is called in Italian, Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore. For some reason, I decided to read the English translation of that book. (That reason being, of course, that English is way closer to any Romance language than German, lexically speaking.) I recall Calvino’s prose as being so effortlessly poetic that I couldn’t help thinking the translator had taken a lot of liberties. I even caught myself wondering whether the translator had ever written a novel of their own (which I never did any research on); but then again, maybe the book I held in my hands was their own in some sense. Maybe the book I was actually reading was If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by William Weaver. I mean, he wasn’t just some small tweak on a literary assembly line. A translator can definitely claim ownership of their translation, albeit with a definite restraint on intellectual property. So we do have to acknowledge that they manipulate the contents of a book, we even have to say that’s part of their job, but the extent of that manipulation doesn’t amount to originality? It shouldn’t amount to originality? Never mind what’s lost in translation, we should be talking about what’s born in translation!
Of course, we can’t separate a translator from the vast interpretative community that is the book’s readership, but there’s no denying that they occupy an incredibly powerful position compared to a mere “consumer” of the narrative like me — a position second only to that of the original author (and editor). In the same Barthesian vein that we declare author and translator dead — that is, take an intellectual dump on authorial intent — I think we have to take their posthumous power into account. An author shouldn’t be centre-stage, much less so a translator, but there’s no way around the fact that they’re some of the most powerful readers around. After all, they dictate both the nature of and access to a text, which are two vital first steps to enabling interpretation.
Maybe it makes more sense to use a “filter” metaphor for translation rather than just discuss its power dynamics, though. Even in a work that hasn’t (yet) been forcibly moved across linguistic boundaries, there’s a lot of mediation going on. The process of writing in and of itself, the formulation of an idea, requires translation of a kind. Reading a book like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, then, is just a way of adding a few layers (read: “a shitload of layers”). When you look at these meaning-making processes closely enough, the seamlessness with which language runs through cognitive-linguistic filters is quite astounding. Perhaps it just seems so natural to begin with because we, as readers and listeners, are not at all involved in the translation processes that precede the printing or utterance of a phrase we pick up. We don’t get to witness the author’s encounter with the rigorous linguistic structures their thoughts have to submit to before they can become words and punctuation. We can only observe our own encounters with language — countless efforts to “get across” what we think and “grasp” what others are saying. There’s so many compromises to make. But don’t let the fact that they’re compromises be an excuse to shy away from them.