I happened to find an interview with translator Joachim Neugroschel, who has translated from French, German, Italian, Russian, and Yiddish, and also to German. I found some of his ideas about translation a little different from those of other literary translators. For example, he never reads a book before translating it, because he says he has “[n]o reason to.” How, then, does he decide what to translate and what to turn down? Apparently, money is the answer, as he says, “If the publisher pays me enough, I will do the translation.” Many translators say they need to feel they have something in common with the authors they translate, or at least some feeling of empathy and interest, but Mr. Neugroschel doesn’t feel it is necessary to even have much knowledge of the author’s work, because he can just “get the style” by reading a page.
Interestingly, he also claims that you can tell a bad translation just by reading it, which suggests that all you need it the target text and then you can judge the translation. Obviously, I disagree with that, and feel that you do need to know an author’s work and the source language to be able to truly judge the quality of a translation. Bad grammar could be part of the source text on purpose, so if it is in the target text, that doesn’t necessarily mean the translation is poor. Also, many other things could make a translation bad, such as if the translator has misunderstood the original document or has tried to improve it, or if the word choices don’t accurately represent it. And it is difficult for a monolingual reader to judge any of that.
As a side note, I wonder if Kafka really would find Mr. Neugroschel’s translation excellent. It isn’t that I doubt the latter’s abilities, but if Kafka didn’t even want his work published, what would he think about it being translated and made available to even larger audiences?
Here are some excerpts from the interview with Mr. Neugroschel.
Interview with Joachim Neugroschel
EG Do you read a whole work before translating? Do you translate the words literally?
JN I never read a book before translating it. No reason to. I do not translate the words literally. Only a bad translator would translate literally.
EG In order to not write a literal translation, don't you have to have a sense of an author and their work? How do you capture that uniqueness of an author and transfer it to another language?
JN You don't have to have a sense of the author's work to translate. I read a page and get the style. It is a question of music and rhythm. It is like being an actor. An actor can take on different roles. A translator takes on different roles.
EG Does anyone go over your translations before publication?
JN Yes, often a copy editor. One copy editor changed the words spiral crack to spinal crack. If you get hit in a certain way the crack is spiral.
EG How do you recognize a good translation?
JN Just read it. Grammatical blunders are a clue. Example: when it comes to adverbs, first you have place and then time.
“I went to school yesterday.” To school is an adverbial phrase of place. Yesterday is an adverb of time. This is correct usage. A phrase such as, “I'm going tomorrow to school,” is bad grammar. Poor grammar is obvious in bad translations.
EG You are taking a little of the mystery of translation away. I don't speak a foreign language; thinking about the art of translation is new to me.
JN If you don't know a foreign language, you can only judge a translation by its use of English. Think about this. Most of the books you've read are translations.
EG I never thought of that. When you think of it you are not getting the direct voice of the author. What if Kafka was around today and he knew English, what would he think of your translation of "Metamorphosis"?
JN He would find it excellent. I've captured the flavor and the quivering of his voice. He would be very grateful to me.
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