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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  1. Lola Rogers

    Thanks for this interesting piece. I agree that, aside from marketing and distribution, perhaps, the quality of translation is the most important element in the success of a foreign work of literature in the United States, and that quality English translations can only be achieved with quality editing in English. Too often, particularly with sample translations, editing is left entirely to the already hurried and often underpaid translator, to the detriment of the final product.

    I don’t agree, however, that reading translations is of no use to me as a translator. Reading an excellent translation into English is, in my opinion, just as useful as reading an excellent non-translated book in English. Michael Henry Heim’s translations of Milan Kundera or Gregory Rabassa’s translations of Marquez are simply very good writing in English, and well worth reading, as I hope my translations will also be.

  2. Owen

    I think my point is more just that it’s important to read good English. Reading translations because they are translations and reading translations because they are written well (the English that is) are a little different. Of course, what makes the most sense, which you do in your comment, is to treat translators as authors, to choose what you read based on all of the authors, not just the original language author. Translations are such a mixed bag that you can’t just pull one off the shelf and expect it to be written in real English.

    My other point, which comes up in the third paragraph of this version, is that no one should expect translators to read translations because they are translators. Unless you’re comparing the original to the translation, there’s no particular point for a translator any more than for anyone else. Being well-versed in world literature is certainly important for a translator, but no more important than knowing that a Glock doesn’t have a normal safety or any number of the million random things that come up in translation. Jack of all trades, master of none, I guess.

  3. Eric Dickens

    Thanks, Owen, for that. I’ve only just found your article just now while browsing on the internet.

    Personally, although I agree in principle that one should try to read books in the original if you can, you would be shutting out a great deal of world literature if you didn’t read other people’s translations – while expecting people to read yours.

    One good reason for reading translations is to review them. I, for instance, am going to review an Open Letter Books novel by Ingrid Winterbach called “To Hell With Cronjé”, because I can read the original and can therefore compare original with translation. (Open Letter Books is the same set-up as Three Percent, and also run by Chad Post.) This is an important part of reviewing, as most reviews are done by people who cannot read the source language.

    I also prefer to read novels that do have some degree of language prowess attached, i.e. not Mankell. Because it would be naïve to think that the English version of a crime novel is a close rendering of the original. The main thing is to sell the book, so translators and especially publishers cut corners, and edit out inconvenient parts, alter unpronounceable names, etc.

    Owen makes a good point that you have to read widely in the target language as well as the source one. That is one of the faults of fledgling translators: they are so in love with the source language and its culture that they neglect the target language – mostly their mother-tongue, and their own home culture. You can always ask a native-speaker about things in the source language, but if your English is no good, you can’t advance as a translator.

    A translator should also be very aware of the difference between general tastes in the source-language and target-language country. For instance, some German, Finnish, or Swedish humour doesn’t always click with Brits, who have their own brand of humour (e.g. not all British humour is bottom-smacking slapstick, like Benny Hill). So you have to be careful when you choose books to translate – if you choose, because translators are often told by the U.S. or U.K publisher what to translate. This is ironic, as the publisher often only knows the quality of any given foreign book by hearsay. This is because most British and American publishers don’t even read one foreign language – not even French or Spanish – to a sophisticated level.

    Just out of interest, I have “Puhdistus” in Dutch and Swedish translation, as well as the original. In order to expand my knowledge of that difficult language, Finnish (difficult for everyone in the world except for native-speakers of Estonian). This allows me, if I have the time, to read parts in Finnish, then have a look at the other two languages (which I know better than Finnish) where I don’t understand things. And (as I haven’t yet got hold of Lola’s translation) I would plump for the Swedish translation, as it is likely to be translated by someone who is familiar with Finland, often a Finland-Swede (Janina Orlov?).

    The word “Finlandic” doesn’t exist. I wish it did, because in Swedish you can distinguish between literature written in the Finnish language (finsk litteratur) and literature written in Finland in any language (finländsk literatur). But you can’t change English language usage by diktat.

    Finally, being paid for excerpts is a nice gesture. They can then be used by yourself and FILI for promotional purposes.

  4. Owen Witesman

    The topic you raise, Eric, the choice of what to translate, is something I thought a lot about while writing this essay. I think it’s critical and perhaps just as important as translation quality in terms of the 3% statistic. One of the biggest traps for a domestic publisher or agent trying to sell rights abroad seems to be assuming that the things the native audience likes are the best choices abroad. In Finland, writing about Finland and Finnishness is so prevalent that much of what makes domestic books popular is irrelevant in translation. Sinuhe the Egyptian was the most successful Finnish book of all time in the UK/US markets after all. There isn’t any guarantee that there will be anything in a given year that will really have appeal abroad.

    I would take issue with two points you make. First, I am a translator, not a reviewer. In a way, I even question the utility of having translators be reviewers. I haven’t always thought this way, though. I used to be endlessly irked by reviewers commenting on the “quality” of a translation when they can’t read the source. But really the problem is just that they are assuming that the bad writing in the English isn’t a reflection of the Finnish (or whatever). In fact these reviewers are doing exactly the right thing (reviewing the English); they’re just describing what they are doing imprecisely. They should just be saying, “The English is poor. I don’t know if this is a reflection of the Finnish, but it doesn’t work for me.” Who really would be the audience for a bilingual review of a translation? Is it relevant for the monolingual reader? Almost every author I’ve ever worked with says essentially “Just make it good,” so who exactly is the “loose” translator transgressing against? What if the “mistakes” a bilingual reviewer finds are things the translator and author agreed on to fix problems they saw? I am as great a believer as anyone in the ethics of translation, but I think there is a great danger for translators to treat their work as an academic exercise rather than a creative one. Of course it’s a balancing act, but I suspect the educational backgrounds of translators tend to tip us in the wrong direction. If all authors had the backgrounds translators do, I imagine literature would be a very dull art indeed.

    The second thing I would take issue with is the idea of tit-for-tat among translators. Are other translators an important audience? Certainly there are books that are translated for an academic audience, but every single publisher, author, and agent I work with is trying to reach the general reading public. One of the driving thoughts behind the original essay was how can it be that translated literature is failing to reach even me, a translator?

    What do you think? Great discussion!

  5. Drew Meredith

    “Why can’t all of life’s problems happen to us when we are sixteen and have all the answers?”(uncertain of who said it – could it have been Will Rogers?) I am reminded of the need of youth to begin the process of intellectual maturation and individuation by seeing the errors of adults. Even when that adult may be fluent in eight languages, able to understand three additional languages, served as an esteemed translator in the early years of the United Nations, and published numerous plays, short-stories, and novels as well as held faculty positions in creative writing at multiple excellent universities, still an impertinent eighteen year old is able to perceive his favorite book as not the best translation it could be. The relationship between the author and translator of the favorite adult book of little Owen is as unknown to him as is his awareness of the exceptional comprehension of idioms, puns, and allegory in a multitude of languages in the literary command of Ursule Molinaro. Perhaps the only thing she may have had in common with Mr. Witesman was the view that translation work was time consuming and not commensurate with the pay. She did it more for the love of literature in multiple languages. May Mr. Witesman have a mere fraction of the powerful influence Ursule had on so many in her career as “a writer’s writer.”

  6. Owen

    Hmmm. Ad hominem, appeal to authority, and genetic fallacy (appeal to age), all in so few words. Nicely done. And the superior tone? Excellent. You beat me by half.

    The point was not that Molinaro’s work was bad or that I can do better, but rather that translation is difficult and translations are never perfect, but that many or most could be better and that these things matter vis a vis the success of translated literature.

  7. Bill Brunelle

    Owen, I stumbled across this page while Googling to find the best translation of “Narcissus and Goldmund,” since I had already determined that the Molinaro one was not that great. Have you ever found one better? I’m tempted to try the Leila Vennewitz one since it came later and was up for an award. I fear you never returned to an English edition of the book and may not know, but I though I’d give it a shot. Many thanks.

  8. Owen

    Bill: funny you should mention this other translation. I just barely got my own copy in the mail less than a week ago. I haven’t had time to do more than flip through it, but it looks *very* promising. The bits I’ve read and compared with the old translation do have a more fluid, natural feel to them. Like I said, I haven’t read the whole thing though. And to be clear, I don’t think the Molinaro one is terrible – just a bit translationy (and much less so than so many others!). Vennewitz does seem to have something to add though. I’m a bit curious why the new translation doesn’t seem to have more circulation.

  9. Bill Brunelle

    Owen: Thank you so much for your input on this. I am very happy to have your confirmation of what was only my instinct about this. Since the publisher Peter Owen is in Britain, I checked Amazon UK just now, and at least there you can find seven reviews for this edition contrasted with zero on Amazon US.

  10. Michael

    Narcissus and Goldman is one of my favorite books as well. I have only read the Molinaro translation, however I too am interested in the difference in the other translations and your thoughts (Bill or Owen).

    The early translation by Geoffrey Dunlop is again in print, which I just have ordered. However, I have not found a copy of more recent translation by Leila Vennewitz.

    Note: The following was written about the Dunlop translation on Amazon – which I thought I would share (since it is about the translation). I look forward to reading it and would also love to hear any thoughts on the Vennewitz translation.


    “I had read the Molinaro translation 5-6 times and assumed it was an unquestionably good translation because of it’s wide distribution and predominance in the English version. I have loved Narcissis and Goldmund, but have always noticed a certain tone in the dialogues that I considered somewhat condescending (though that may not quite be the right word.)

    I read German, and recently began reading it in the native language (slowly, been a while since I used German) and found the tone of the writing was quite different than I experienced in the English reading.

    I just found this translation by Geoffrey Dunlop (originally printed as Death and the Lover (transl. by Geoffrey Dunlop, 1932)). I am about half-way though the reading, and it has been a total joy, like reading it for the first time, and now the slightly annoying “tone” is not present it this translation. Curious, I went back and began a word-for-work comparison of the translations, and I find they are not even close enough to compare. The Molinaro actually follows the German text much more closely, Dunlop’s approach is freer, he seems to read the passage (paragraphs) and then writes the equivalent in English as translations. It is much freer, he is not so constrainted to have a sentences match sentence per sentence, he even moves parts of a sentence to the next paragraph, but he organized the thought/descriptions in a much more convincing way.

    It has been like hearing a famous symphony performed at a new tempo, or seeing art that has been restored…. I find it a much superior work when compared to the other translations… when it come to the impact and the self-consciousness of the writing style. I may read Molinaro’s translation again, but this will be my favorite, and has deepened my love for this great masterpiece.

    Why it has been so overlooked is a puzzlement to me. It at least equals Molinaro’s and at least should be read as a complement.”


  1. On the Rocky Road to a Good Translation – The Finnish-English Literary Translation Cooperative

    […] An abridged version of this essay was published at Books from Finland. […]

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