Sunday 14 June 2009

An apple is an apple, or In defence of (good) translation - Part One

Most people who read a translated book are not aware of how important the translation is in their appreciation of the work. I remember a fairly well-read friend who asked me why I had taken on the task of translating Jane Eyre into Italian when there were already five or six other editions available from any good bookshop in the country. “An apple is apple,” he said. “There’s no other way to translate it.”

If this is not entirely untrue for a car or TV user manual (I have translated some of those too, for my sins), when it comes to a work of literature – and especially poetry – it is a completely different matter, so it’s a bit frustrating that a large majority of readers will read a translated book and enjoy it so long as the translation is “readable” and irrespective of how old it is, how many howlers it contains and how unfaithful it is.

But if such ignorance can be excused among readers at large, I find it infuriating to find similar attitudes and preconceptions even among the bookselling and publishing community. The other day I was talking to a bookseller who more or less declared that I was a fool because I had commissioned a new translation of a popular French classic. “There’re already two other editions – I doubt any bookshop will take it on.” He may be right, and I may be heading towards loss and failure, but the “two other editions”, for the record, had been published respectively in 1959 and 1970. There was also a third edition, which was a cleaned-up reprint of a nineteenth-century translation.

Any language – and the English language probably more than many other modern languages – changes enormously year by year, let alone over a period of thirty or fifty years. It’s not just a matter of new words, but also idioms, sintax, and even grammar. So it is narrow-minded not to encourage new translations of old works, as there is no such thing as a definitive translation, and literature needs to be continually retold and readapted for the new generations.


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