Tim Parks, fluent in Italian as well as in serious thinking, wonders in his NYR Daily piece, Why translation deserves scrutiny, whether a reviewer is in duty bound to point out linguistic errors in a translation. He maintains that the experience of reading the book which provoked his thought piece was great, despite clangers as extreme as mistaking a bench for a bank. People tend not to like their reviewers to dwell on the negative, and he does emphasis that it was a good read. Obviously to some extent any translation is a new book, and needs to be judged on two dimensions — as a book in its own right, and as a version of another book.

One problem he indicates is that any new translation of a modern work is likely to remain in sole possession of the field for several years. Copyright law means that to translate a recent work requires permission, and publishers are unlikely to want to authorize lots of competing versions of their books. So if it’s been done wrong, we’ll end up having to live with it for the rest of our lives.

I tend to shy away from reading books translated from languages I know, mainly, I like to claim, because of an almost moralistic belief that I should be reading a French or a German book in the original language. But, under Mr Parks’ stimulus, I now see that there’s also at work a good dose of that tiresome effect of reading a translated sentence and recognizing a point where that slightly unusual word choice almost certainly conceals a misunderstanding on the part of the translator. This, and a sort of echo of German or French word order, often lead to a gradual loss of confidence in the translator, which can begin to destroy the enjoyment of reading the book. Now, as I am a rather lazy chap, this means that I rarely read the books in question, as it undoubtedly take me longer and calls for greater mental focus to read in a foreign language rather than in English. Cynic that I tend to be, I find myself importing this suspicion of odd word order, or occasional unlikely word choice into translations from languages I know nothing about, and thus upsetting my reading balance. So I certainly subscribe to the view that translators should be fluent in both the language they are translating from, and that they are targeting.

When it comes to poetry one is hit by a different set of desiderata. Eliot Weinberger boldly tells us at the start of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, that “Poetry is that which is worth translating”, adding later “Great poetry lives in a state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation: the poem dies when it has no place to go”. I believe that the aim of any translation should be to replicate in some way the experience a reader of the original would have when they read it. Dumb maybe in that every reader is liable to have a slightly different reaction to any work, and individuals will also react differently when reading a book at different ages. Still, otherwise, I can’t really see any reason to translate poetry, well, lyric poetry anyway. The meaning of the individual words is just that, not the poem; this is why Nabokov took the literal route in his Pushkin. Maybe a sense-only translation of Os Lusiads is enough, though Camoens might object that he spent a lot of care over the form, and would prefer that English-speaking readers should be able to appreciate something of that. I’m not altogether sure how I feel about team-translation, for example Ezra Pound’s translating classical Chinese poems under the title Cathay, using notes on the meaning provided by Ernest Fenellosa. In the end I have to conclude that we have to value these things not as translations but as as poems. With a poem maybe the ideal might be that every translation took two forms: one a straight literal version, and the second a “real” poem endeavoring to evoke the same reaction in a reader of the second language as many readers of the first might have felt.

Publishing Perspectives of 12 November, 2014 featured editors discussing the special task of editing translations.