During the too-brief period when I worked in a bookshop, a colleague told me about an argument he’d had recently about reading the latest translation of Don Quixote (yes, booksellers are actually like this. I was pleased too). The other party in the argument was a native speaker of Spanish, who opined that if my colleague wanted to read Don Quixote then he had better learn Spanish first so he could do it properly. My colleague disagreed, saying that even if he learned Spanish he wouldn’t gain the cultural knowledge that would enable him to experience the book as a native speaker would, and he didn’t see why losing nuance in inter-lingual translation was different from losing it in inter-cultural translation.
To me, the most intriguing thing about this argument is the implication that reading ‘properly’ is a matter of getting as close as you possibly can to what the author really meant, and that this in turn entails getting as close as possible to what the author actually was. So if readers of Don Quixote in translation understand and appreciate the book less well than readers in the original Spanish, who understand it less well than native speakers of the original Spanish, then those native speakers presumably understand it less well than native Spanish speakers living in the early seventeenth century, and so it goes on in ever-decreasing circles of understanding, until the only person who can fully appreciate the novel is Cervantes himself, who is dead. And while admittedly he was (when alive) in the best position to understand his own intentions when writing the novel, I can’t help but feel that this argument misses the point of reading slightly.
I wonder whether anybody seriously attempts to get themselves into the mindset of an early-seventeenth-century Spaniard (whatever that may be) when reading Don Quixote? At the very least, that would mean eschewing any introductory notes, comments, criticism and interpretations that have built up around the book over the centuries, and trying to read the thing as a straightforward comic novel (which is how Wikipedia tells me it was perceived when it was first published). Although even if you attempted this, you wouldn’t be able to get rid of the awareness that the book is now considered to be a foundational text of modern European literature, and this would (inevitably, I think) lead you to take it rather more seriously than its first readers ever did.
In my experience, the more usual way to read this kind of text is to take a good look at the introductory notes, think about the text as you read it, maybe find out a bit more about the ways in which it has been read and interpreted over the centuries. All of this may give you a different reading experience from that ‘intended’ by Cervantes, but it is seen as a way of enriching the reading experience rather than detracting from it – a way of gaining a greater understanding of the text, rather than distancing oneself from its author.
When it comes to inter-lingual translation, though, we have a very different attitude. We do not ‘gain’ in translation, we only ‘lose’ – we mourn the fact that we cannot hope to experience the book as readers of the original language do, that we’re peering through distorted glass at whatever perfect vision the author wanted us to see. When we read works ‘in the original’ we feel free to talk about subjectivity and reader response theory, about how we interpret the author’s intentions and about whether these intentions really matter as much as our interpretations do, but somehow all this is forgotten when we’re talking about inter-lingual translation. We become preoccupied with guessing the translation’s possible flaws, and upset that we will never be able to see into the author’s brain, and somehow we forget all of the many other factors of time, place and personal circumstance that make all of our reading experiences – even those ‘in the original’ – subjective ones.
So no, when you read my translations, you are not reading my flawed interpretation of what the author really meant to say. You are reading your subjective interpretation of my subjective interpretation of what the author really meant to say. Perhaps my interpretation went far away from what the author originally intended, but you interpret my interpretation in a way that is closer to the author’s intention. Perhaps my interpretation is very close to the author’s intention, but the way you interpret my interpretation is very different. Can we ever really be sure? No? Then why does it matter? Maybe translation just throws into relief the fact that we can never be sure if we’re reading a book ‘right’, if we’re getting out of it the same things that the author was putting into it, and that makes us nervous. Maybe the thing that really gets ‘lost in translation’ is our sense of security.
I spoke to Michael Emmerich about this at the masterclass last week, and he observed that in a sense, ‘the translation creates the original’, that a work of literature only becomes an ‘original’ when there is a translation to compare it to. He told me the story about the English translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in which the translator, Jay Rubin, was required by the English-language publisher to cut several chapters of the Japanese novel (at that time only available in hardback) for the English edition. Rubin consulted with the author, Haruki Murakami, and together they worked out which parts could be cut. Murakami was so pleased with the result that he implemented the same cuts in the Japanese paperback edition. So now I wonder which counts as ‘the original’ – the hardback edition which formed the basis for the translation, or the paperback, to which the translation conforms more closely, and which is preferred by the author? And again, does it really matter?
I’m not sure I really have a conclusion for this blogpost, but I’m sure I’ll come back to this idea in future posts – it’s something I think about a lot, particularly since I started doing Translation Studies. For now, I’ll leave you with this excellent article on a similar topic, The Making of Originals by Karen Emmerich, translator from modern Greek (one of these days I will try quoting a translator who isn’t called Emmerich).