Literal or liberal?
Now that we’re all reading so many books from other countries, translation is becoming more and more important. I’ve noticed that I’m often commenting in my reviews ‘translation good but perhaps too literal on occasion’ and I began to wonder where the line is between a literal and a liberal translation.
What triggered this post was a two-word line in The 7th Woman. (First off, I must say the translation of this book is very good and my choice to use this as an example of what I mean should not be seen as a criticism.) The line in English is given as ‘Explain yourself’. The context is that the police chief is asking a technical expert to expand on the information he has just given.
Now, it’s probably a cultural thing, but here when someone says ‘Explain yourself’ it is usually meant as a form of rebuke – the kind of thing a parent or teacher would say to a child. ‘You stayed out beyond 10 p.m? Explain yourself!’ ‘You truanted from school? Explain yourself!’ The use of it in the context in the book therefore didn’t feel ‘right’ to me – it may have been literally correct but it was jarring. I felt it should have read something like ‘Could you clarify that?’ or ‘Could you explain that?’ or even ‘What does that mean?’.
In Arne Dahl’s Bad Blood, there is a sequence, obviously meant to be funny, when one of the big, macho male detectives is using a branded umbrella. Unfortunately the brand name meant nothing to me, and so the joke didn’t travel. I assume the brolly was pink or had pictures of teddies on it or something along those lines, but I really felt this was an occasion when the translator could have gone beyond a literal translation to give us a clue as to why this was funny. (Again, don’t be put off – the translation of this book is also good overall.)
The first time I really thought about the importance of translation was when I read Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. I was reading it in response to a recommendation from a fellow reviewer who had read the Shaw translation. I started out with Moncrieff, quickly found it unreadable, and changed to Raffel. We were comparing translations and it was astounding how differently three people could translate the same sentence. Here’s the French version –
“Ce sont de jeune filles fraîches et jolie qui présentent aux coups de ces marteaux enormes les petits morceaux de fer qui sont rapidement transformés en clous. Ce travail, si rude en apparence, est un de ceux qui étonnent le plus le voyageur qui pénètre pour la première fois dans les montagnes qui séparent la France de l’Helvétie.”
Moncrieff translates it as
“A bevy of fresh, pretty girls subject to the blows of these enormous hammers, the little scraps of iron which are rapidly transformed into nails. This work, so rough to the outside eye, is one of the industries that most astonish the traveller who ventures for the first time among the mountains that divide France from Switzerland.”
while Raffel says
“And it’s pretty, smooth-cheeked young girls who offer pieces of iron to these enormous hammers, which quickly transform them into nails. This operation visibly harsh and violent, is one of the things that most astonishes a first-time traveller, poking his way into the mountains separating France and Switzerland.”
and Shaw gives us
“But what most amazes any traveller making his way into the heart of the mountains dividing France from Switzerland is to find that the very rough task of placing the little bits of iron beneath these hammers is handled by pretty, fresh, rosy-cheeked young women.”
And, just for fun, Babylon’s online instant translation gives us
“They are of girls fresh and pretty who present to the blows of these enormous hammers the small pieces of iron which are quickly transformed into nails. This work, if hard seemingly, is one of those which astonish more the traveller who penetrates for the first time in the mountains which separate France from Helvetie.”
Having once become aware of how huge the differences can be, I now often wonder whether my pleasure or dislike of a book is down to the writing or the translation. And, while with the classics there’s usually a choice of translations on offer, modern novels generally only have one.
So what do you think? Should translation always be literal or is there an argument for it to be liberal? If French to English is this open to interpretation, how can we know how much is down to the translator if reading a novel originally in Chinese or Arabic? What do you consider makes a translation good or bad?