McSweeney’s Issue 42, Multiples, explores translation — printing different versions of twelve stories. Its subtitle 12 stories in 18 languages by 61 authors tells what’s going on. Each translation is a version of the one preceding it, so that in some cases you find a sort of Chinese whispers slippage going on so that Kafka’s “Das Tier in der Synagoge” (The animal in the synagogue) after five versions turns into “The animal in the church” via “The creature in our shul”. Not perhaps an earth shattering transformation in this instance.  But the point is that translation is only ever a version — there’s no “right” translation. There are better and worse attempts, but no exact duplicate exists in any other language. Purists may maintain that there’s no point in reading Pushkin if you don’t read him in Russian — and probably not much point if you weren’t born to the language either. But that of course gets us nowhere. Nabokov and Edmund Wilson had a celebrated fight over Nabokov’s determinedly literal translation of Eugene Onegin, which in the end only goes to show us that, as in so much else, one man’s meat will always remain another man’s poison.

In a way what the purist seems really to want is for the translator to create a work which would have the same effect on an English-speaking audience as Eugene Onegin has on Russians. But that would of course just be a different work, one inspired perhaps by Pushkin. Here’s a link from Publishing Perspectives of 16 September about translating poetry, which would allow the (sensitive) translator to alter the original in order to fit it for the target language. Poetry provides the acid test — the extreme maybe illustrated in The Times Literary Supplement 6 September 2013 review of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB, 2013). Marjorie Perloff tells us that Vvedensky declared that bessmyslitsa (meaninglessness) lies at the core of his poetry. It must be hard to work with that, but she quotes the editor of the volume as saying “We opted not to transpose the poetic forms literally but to gesture in their direction and to strive to approximate their effects”.  Maybe that’s what you have to do. A gesture, suggesting to the reader what reading the original is like. Perloff approved.

My friend Jeremy Mynott recently published an edition and translation of Thucydides, the Introduction to which has a fascinating discussion of the inherent problems of translating any classical text, including examples taken from Biblical translation. Thucydides’ style is quirky — even in its day his work was regarded as being “difficult”. If the translator smoothes out complexities he’s open to charges of distortion, but if he leaves in the convoluted bits, others will accuse him of failing to make the original clear. To what extent does the translator have to feel bound to reproduce the stylistic peculiarities of the original, a problem which is especially acute in a case where word order is much more flexible in the original language than in the target? A more down-to-earth problem is how to translate terms which don’t exist in the target language, or if they exist at all, appear in a form which carries a very different freight of meaning. Many translators “throw in the towel” and just transliterate words like demos and polis. Jeremy’s sensible solution is to translate and then use glossary and footnotes to point out linguistic difficulties.

The problem is not just historical. Abdulaziz Sachedina writes in preface to his book Islam and the Challenges of Human Rights (OUP, 2009) — “In 2004 I was overseeing the Persian translation of my book The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (2001) in Iran when I had a rare opportunity to experience the difficulty of translating and conveying Western political culture into an Iranian Islamic one. The translation of my book into Persian posed severe conceptual and cultural problems. The idea of democratic pluralism not only reflected Western influences in my rendering of Islamic-Arabic idiom into English; it also underscored the importance of taking contextual historical perspective seriously in efforts to transmit ideas from one culture into another. Writing in English, I had assumed the inclusiveness and universality of secular political language that dealt with human dignity and human agency, not realizing that for my Persian readers I could not rely solely on usages and political nuances in English.” He expands on the problem in a footnote: “For traditionalist Muslim scholars, the term pluralism, in its Persian and Arabic (takthur-gara’i, or ta’addudiya, respectively) rendering, which smacked of Western liberalism, was more problematic than democracy. Pluralism suggested “decentralized truth-claim” which led to belief in the relativity of the exclusive claim of Islamic revelation, rendering it one among many claims of truth. For Muslim seminarians, for whom pluralism, whether religious or moral, was unacceptable as part of their exclusive claim to the truth of Islam, the critical question was: How can there be many truths when the only truth was what Islam had proclaimed? Moreover, how can one maintain that final revelation from God for Muslims is relative to other similar truth claims maintained for instance, by Jews and Christians?”

An interesting, if unfortunately titled book, is David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything.

My recent post Translation — the business, is related. This link to the 27 September Publishing Perspectives story on Ann Morgan’s year of reading one book from every nation might more appropriately have gone there. In an interesting aside she says that of all the 197 books she read, on only one of them was the translator credited on the spine. Another relevant Publishing Perspectives story by Vanina Marsot is about a (almost certainly) untranslatable book — of course given the point of the book, commenting on the French language for English-speaking readers, a translation might be irrelevant and beside the point.