Sunday, December 17, 2006

How to Critique a Translation

Not long ago, I linked to an article about translator Robert Fagles. Today’s New York Times includes another article about his most recent translation, of The Aeneid. The article, by Mount Holyoke professor Brad Leithauser, mentions how many people have translated this work over the years, and then goes on to compare Mr. Fagles’ translation to that of Robert Fitzgerald.

Of course, it is always good to see translation highlighted and made more visible, but I do wonder about Mr. Leithauser’s methodology. Although he does mention metrical issues involved in translating Virgil’s work, he basically just compares short quotes from the two translations. He does not, unfortunately, include quotes from the original (which, obviously, would require back-translations). Perhaps he had strict space limitations for his article, but since the quality of a translation is not just about how it sounds in the target language, but also how it relates to the source text, I think a critique of a translation has to include a more in-depth analysis of the original document as well as of the finished product.

After all, what does it mean to critique a translation? It doesn’t mean just reading the end product and deciding if it “flows” well in the target language. A translation has to have some sort of connection to the original text, and it is impossible to judge the success (for lack of a better work) of the translation without referring to the work it is a translation of. And yet, many reviews attempt to do just that. It is likely the case, especially in English-speaking countries, that most critics don’t know the language/s of the book/s they are reviewing, or at least not at the necessary level, but that is a failure of the educational system and ought to be rectified.

In an ideal world, reviewers, like translators, would have a firm grasp of the source language and culture, including general literary history and specifically in terms of the writer in question, as well as of the target language and culture. Otherwise, they are, frankly, not capable of truly critiquing the translation, and are just reviewing the book as though it had been written in the target language.Just as reviewers are supposed to make public any ethical considerations related to their reviews of specific books (for example, if they know the author, or the book was published by the same company that publishes their own work), I think they should also make it clear whether they know the source language and whether they actually have read and analyzed the work in the original.

The next post will look at reading a translation in general.

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