Wednesday, December 20, 2006

How to Read a Translation

The last post looked at critiquing translations. But let’s take a step back and think about simply reading translations, without any intention of critiquing or reviewing them. How should we do that?

Look at this article by translator and academic Lawrence Venuti; appropriately enough, it begins with a translation of The Aeneid, the very work that spurred the writing of the last post.

Mr. Venuti, as is well known and has been mentioned on this blog before, is a critic of fluency, and he writes “[p]ublishers, copy editors, reviewers have trained us, in effect, to value translations with the utmost fluency, an easy readability that makes them appear untranslated, giving the illusory impression that we are reading the original. We typically become aware of the translation only when we run across a bump on its surface, an unfamiliar word, an error in usage, a confused meaning that may seem unintentionally comical.”

Mr. Venuti believes readers should understand what translation is and what a translator does “as an attempt to compensate for an irreparable loss by controlling an exorbitant gain.” His essay offers five rules for reading a translation that aim to make readers aware of the very fact of the translation, and, through this, come closer to the original text while also learning about translation.

His first rule is: “Don’t just read for meaning, but for language too; appreciate the formal features of the translation.” Since translators carefully choose each word, Mr. Venuti suggests that paying attention to linguistic features brings the reader closer not only to the original text, but also to an understanding of the translatorial choices.

But what linguistic features are there in a text? Well, the second rule is: “Don’t expect translations to be written only in the current standard dialect; be open to linguistic variations.” Translators might use temporal or geographical dialect/slang, or foreign words, or other features that somehow deviate from the norm, and this might surprise or confuse readers who expect a smooth, fluent text.

That relates to Mr. Venuti’s third rule: “Don’t overlook connotations and cultural references; read them as another, pertinent layer of significance.” Along with the linguistic choices, cultural references may also be part of the translator’s strategy, and can help the reader come closer to the original text, even if they affect “easy readability.”

His fourth rule is: “Don’t skip an introductory essay written by a translator; read it first, as a statement of the interpretation that guides the translation and contributes to what is unique about it.” Introductions, afterwords, footnotes – any paratext that a translator adds to a document is useful to the reader, because it helps explain the translator’s thoughts, processes, and choices.

And the fifth rule is: “Don’t take one translation as representative of an entire foreign literature; compare it to translations of other works from the same language.” Here, we could add that readers might even want to compare multiple translations of the same text, and various translations by the same translator. These are all useful ways of learning more about translation, as well as about other cultures and specific translators.

Mr. Venuti reminds us that translators do not just make copies of the original document in a different language. He writes, “[t]o provide this sort of experience, a translator would have to endow us with a lifelong immersion in the foreign language and literature.” And, of course, if we had that “lifelong immersion in the foreign language and literature,” we wouldn’t need translation anyway!

So as we read translations, we should keep Mr. Venuti’s rules in mind, and in general try to remember that we are reading translations rather than books that were written in that language. That will give us a better reading experience while also making translation and translators more visible.

The next post will look at reading from a translator’s perspective.


Anonymous said...

Brett, what do you think about PEN's guidelines for reviewing translations?

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks so much for the link, Erika. I had not seen those guidelines, and I am glad they exist.
One thing they mention that I didn't in my post is that it is essential (not to mention respectful) to give the name of the translator when reviewing a work in translation. I've seen reviews that skip this, as though the book just suddenly appeared in the new language.
But PEN's question "For instance, at the simplest level, does the language flow naturally and smoothly?" is rather simplistic when it comes to translation (and to literature in general), and Mr. Venuti, whom I quote extensively in the latest post, would certainly disagree. Language doesn't need to "flow naturally and smoothly" in order to be correct or well-written, and that should NOT be a criteria reviewers use.
And, as I tried to say in my post on critiquing, I do think the best review would be one in which the reviewer knows the original language and can discuss the translator's choices with some authority. I recognize that this is not always possible, so PEN is right to say that translation is "integral" and to encourage even those reviewers who don't know the source language to still attempt to grapple with linguistic aspects in the review, and not just by criticizing small choices on the word level.

Best wishes,

Dani Fai said...

Love your post on "How to read a Translation".
It opened my mind for many questions I have concerning Translation, as I´m not familiar at all with translation and the field of translation studies.
I´ve just started a post graduation course here in Brazil.

B.J. Epstein said...

I'm glad you found it helpful. Enjoy your course!

Best wishes,