David Bellos: what makes a translation good?

In this interview, part of the Conversations with Translators series, I talk to David Bellos of Princeton University about his book on translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, published by Penguin Books. Here’s a transcript of part of our discussion.

Hedgehog & Fox

What do you think makes a good translator? Is it possible to boil it down into some essentials?

david Bellos

Well, I take a leaf out of the book of my friend and publisher Christopher MacLehose, the director of the Harvill Press, who’s often been asked that question and he always says, ‘oh somebody immensely old; a good translator has been around for ages and has read absolutely everything and picks up every allusion and every reference’.

But I would say somebody immensely young as well at the same time, who is completely up to date with where people are at now and with the little subtle changes in the contemporary meanings of words and phrases and turns of language and so forth.

In the English-speaking world, of course, a good translator is also somebody who has got a

handsome income from somewhere else and is doing this in order to do it well and not in order to earn a living, because the living you can earn by only translating is so pitiful you might have to do it a bit of a hurry and not lavish all the care that would be rewarding to you and to your reader.

This isn’t the case in some other languages. In Japan for example translators can live properly as translators, as professionals. So there we are, somebody well-off, immensely old, and immensely young.

Hedgehog & Fox

You just mentioned this business of capturing or of being sensitive to allusions and references. Is it possible though for the translation to render those things, all those subtleties and nuances when it comes to producing a translation, however attuned to them the translator may be?

david bellos

Well, obviously there are two answers to that question: one is no and the other is yes. What our immensely old and immensely young translator has to do is to make a judgment as to which amongst the infinitely many connections, allusions, echoes and so forth he or she can hear in the source text are worth preserving, when that original context is completely changed. Because your original is no longer talking to that audience with that set-up, and how many of them can be brought over and used to educate the reader of the target text in the culture and fabric of the original. That’s a judgment call.

Also, in some cases you wouldn’t even want to try. There are often reasons for a kind of subtle censorship in translation where there are things that are either not relevant to the target audience, or would be irritating to them, or would actually get you the wrong kind of reaction for the work as a whole. These are one-off judgements, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, page by page, and book by book. And that is the art and skill of the translator, to make those judgment calls.

I mean the answer is no for a trivial reason that the echoes and references, allusions and sort of baggage that any sentence brings with it is infinite. There is always more to which it is connected. So that even if you just repeat a sentence in the same language, well, it’s not the same because first of all unlike the first time it’s the second and that’s already has a meaning, that it’s second, secondly the time is not the same and something would have changed in the context that will give a slightly different echo.

So, this is also something that I really try to persuade people in my book, that they have to abandon this idea that in the uses of language any two utterances can be identical. They can’t be. We shouldn’t be deluded by the way we print copies of books to think that saying or writing something a second time, even if it is the same in terms of letters, that this is actually the same utterance. It isn’t.

Hedgehog & Fox

And you make the point early in the book that if you give the same text to 100 translators you’ll get a hundred different translations, you will not get any two versions which are identical. Which raises an interesting point about how you then evaluate those translations, because will some of those translations have been better than others and will that be a subjective judgement based on these these sort of harmonics of language that some people can hear and some people can’t. How does one evaluate what is a better translation?

david bellos

When I make that point in my book I’m not talking about better and worse translations. I’m saying that if you give a page to a hundred competent translators, the chances of their final texts being identical in every respect are close to zero.

This is partly because the English language, like any language, is a pretty fuzzy thing. (Actually English is more fuzzy than most.) I mean you know do you know how to write ‘break-up’? I mean, with a hyphen, one word or two? Translators make different choices at that level. They will put commas in different places, put full stops in different places.

Even where these hundred versions do all say the same thing, are all acceptable translations of the source, language is a sufficiently flexible, indeterminate, and unmechanical kind of thing for the chances of absolutely identical manipulation of a hundred different people to be really close to zero. That’s the point I’m trying to make. The question you asking though is about something much more tricky and that is: who is the guardian? Who is the judge? Who says this is right and that is wrong?

Hedgehog & Fox

Or not even right and wrong, but better and worse.

david bellos

If we’re talking about a really important document like an aircraft maintenance manual, those who can judge which is the correct translation are those who know about aircraft maintenance. If we’re talking about the interpretation of a tearful witness in court on trial for something awfully serious, the only person who can really make a judgment as to whether the translation is correct is another translator, and you have to put your trust in the professional ethics of the corporation of translators. If we’re talking about the kind of classic chestnut I suspect you have in your mind, but which is actually only a tiny part of the world of translation, let’s say…

Hedgehog & Fox

I’m thinking of a Rilke sonnet, say…

david bellos

Yes, the Rilke sonnets, okay, well there’s been far too much argument about this actually. Who knows what an acceptable translation of a poem is? I come down firmly on one side, which is that an acceptable translation of a poem is a poem, and if it works as a poem for you, then it’s good.

Other people, I think imprisoned by a rather more rigid and perhaps almost religious view of the sanctity of the original than I am, would say that if the translation somehow represents in its written form those features of the original that I, the critic, claim to be the keys to the interpretation of this poem, then that’s a good translation. Those two principles sometimes clash, they don’t always overlap, they don’t always meet in the same place.

But you know in the end with the translation of literature, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and since literature is a cultural value, those translations that become part of the receiving culture that enrich it and develop it are to be valued. Those that fall flat on their faces and into a black hole may not be bad translations, but we don’t value them the way we value Constance Garnett or those who really have made a difference to the receiving culture because of their qualities of judgment as to how much and how to bring over something thoroughly different and alien, like Dostoevsky.


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