On the rocky road to a good translation

19 November 2010 | Essays, Non-fiction

You get the picture? A translation error in China. Photo: Leena Lahti

Why just three per cent? Translator Owen Witesman seeks an explanation for the difficulties of selling foreign fiction to the self-sufficient Anglo-American market. Could there be anything wrong with the translations?

I am a professional translator, and I have a secret: I don’t read translations.

I’m not alone. The literary website Three Percent draws its name from the fact that only about 3 per cent of books published in the United States are translations (the figure for Germany is something like 50 per cent). There are various opinions about why this is, including this one from Three Percent’s Chad Post writing at Publishing Perspectives.

Why do I say it’s a secret that I don’t read translations? Because people expect me to read translations, as if as a translator it were my sacred duty to show solidarity with my professional community. Or maybe I can’t be cosmopolitan otherwise.

But here’s the cold, hard truth: there are some 350 million native English speakers in the world, most of whom live in the United States. Among them there are a lot of writers. And while for a very few readers translated literature is a category unto itself, for most of us translated literature is competing with everything else on the fiction shelves.

Does anyone get turned off from translated literature by a Henning Mankell? No. It’s usually a Kafka or Márquez, challenging enough in the original, sometimes made incomprehensible in translation. (Luckily for big names like those, a new translation usually comes along.) We read Mankell for the puzzle – the language just has to not get in the way. We read Márquez for both the story and the language.

Take how many people have had a bad experience with a translation that made the foreign seem alien, add the language barriers between foreign books and domestic agents and publishers, and then put this in the context of stiff domestic competition, and you get only 3 per cent of books published in the US being translations.

The ironic thing about the 3 per cent figure is how tremendously important translated literature is to the Anglo-American literary consciousness. Ask anyone who paid attention in high school who the greatest authors of all time are, and you’re almost certain to get at least two Russians, a Frenchman or two, a Spaniard, two Chileans, and a Brazilian, plus an ancient Greek or three.

Despite my dirty little secret, my favourite novel is a translation. When I was eighteen, I read Narcissus and Goldmund, by Hermann Hesse. However, and with all due respect to the English language translator, Ursule Molinaro (and whoever her editor was), even as a teenager, and without any reference to the source German text, I knew the translation wasn’t the best it could be. But as this is my favorite book, so whatever deficiencies there are in the translation or with the original work, the virtues of both far outweigh them for me. And this is one of the most beloved books by a Nobel Prize winner who had been honing his conceptual expression for decades – what happens to the average book that ends up in a translation in which an eighteen-year-old can see deficiencies? In my case it doesn’t get read. I read a paragraph, I start editing the grammar and punctuation in my mind, perhaps rephrasing the dialogue, and I get bored.

Consider the path a (Finnish) translator walks to arrive at his profession. First comes a connection to Finland, one that surprisingly often comes either by chance or fate, depending on one’s cosmology. Then comes what we might call an infatuation: the nascent translator becomes obsessed with Finnish language and culture, which leads to improved language skills and literary awareness. By the time the literary translator really breaks into the profession, his Finland hobby has likely been going on for a decade. If the translator works with Finnish literature by day professionally, and then continues to read Finnish literature, follow Finnish news, and keep up with Finnish friends during his free time out of old habit, how current is he likely to stay with literature in his native language? Taking myself as an example, I know exactly what’s going on in Finnish literature right now, but I haven’t really the slightest idea about what’s going on in American literature.

Translation is rewriting a book from another language in your own. The author takes care of the plot and the Finnish, and I’m supposed to take care of the English. Reading Finnish doesn’t help with that. Reading other translators’ work probably won’t help either, and may even hurt. However, every word of English-language literature I read can improve my ability to manipulate the English language in the way that Finnish authors manipulate Finnish. To my mind, reading in his own language should be a literary translator’s primary professional development activity.

The importance of professional proofreading and editing cannot be overstated. Publishing translations without multiple reviews by native linguistic experts is professional suicide for everyone whose name is on the title page. A publisher or agent who sends out material without multiple reviews by native linguistic professionals doesn’t want to make money. Sample translations and promotional materials should be top quality, not an afterthought – see this post by Emily Williams.

Literature in translation can and does compete with native literature, even in demanding markets. I don’t expect to see any ‘breakthrough’ that permanently changes the 3 per cent figure cited above, but that doesn’t mean translated literature has failed to find a readership. It just means that there is a lot of competition and that every book succeeds or fails on its merits, not on the reputation of the overall field. Whatever momentum one big hit may create is likely to be short-lived. Yes, there are aspects of the book trade that make breaking in difficult, but every new author faces these challenges. Perhaps the greatest disservice any of us involved in translation can do is to adopt a sort exceptionalist attitude, as if the success of a book or author in Finland, or wherever, should give the book a free pass from all of the normal requirements for finding a publisher and an audience. Hype will only get you so far.

The beginning of this essay is a lie. I do read translations. I want to read translations. But you, the translator, and I, the translator, must understand that I like television and films and music and my bicycle and my garden and my dog as much as I like books. I like my wife and my children and my church even more. I read the books I’m supposed to in order to be literate, but I also read science fiction and fantasy and espionage. I’m not a captive audience. You have to win me over. Please win me over. You can’t say the Finnish or German or Chinese or whatever made you do it. You have to be a translator. Take responsibility. Win me over.

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