Reflections on Translation – I: Accepting and Assessing Translations

Like any reader with a sufficiently long career, I have read many works in translation. In doing so, I have been aware of the distance between the author and myself, of being subject to the same constraints as any other reader of translated works is. Still, I have never ceased to be surprised when I hear someone tell me that they have read a work–known only to me in English–in translation, in a language I would not associate with the author. The most dramatic instance of this astonishment came while talking to an Austrian graduate student who told me he had read Orwell in German; I found it utterly bizarre that anyone could read Orwell in German. I had the tables turned on me when I told a Russian friend I was  reading Dostoevsky, and was greeted with the perplexed inquiry, “You’re reading him in English? How can you do that?” Indeed. How could I do that? But my incompetence in Russian meant it was the only option available to me, and so, I’ve had only one window into that entire body of literature, one that has enriched me in more ways than one, an interaction with which has been subject to limitations I’ve acutely been aware of. I have come to reconcile myself to this shortchanging with my awareness that my engagement with those works is still unique because of my particularities as a reader. It’s a minor blessing, but it will do for now. (I find my relationship to Russian literature especially poignant in its limitations because I’m aware that as a young man my father read many Russian novels  in English translations and then later, went on to learn Russian well enough to speak it–or so I am told–reasonably fluently; I often wonder whether he went back  to reread those same works in Russian.)

I grew up bilingual, so I’ve had a chance to bridge this sort of gap. In high school in India, we read the short stories of the Indian novelist Premchand in Hindi. Later, after moving to the US, and during a trip back to India, I picked up a collection of Premchand’s short stories–translated into English. The temporal distance between my first exposure to Premchand’s shorts and this one was too great; when I read them in English, I was aware of a difference, but it was not one I could adequately describe or articulate. I was merely cognizant of the fact that I was reading distinct works and was unable to make any sort of critical assessment of the quality of the translation.

I have a chance to conduct this experiment again; I own three of Premchand’s novels in the original Hindi, and plan to pick up translations in English on my next trip to India. I have often found myself groaning at the quality of the subtitled translations of Indian cinema; if  more than one established translation of Premchand into English can be found, I intend to make those rough expressions of discontent more formal, to finally be the kind of snob that is able to say “I prefer X’s translation to Y’s.” I say this with all due humility: my fluency in Hindi is debatable; I am aware of the indeterminacy of translation; but still, it’ll be nice to be able to turn the tables, to go from being the one on the outside, being told of my separation from the translated work, to being the one on the inside, informing others of theirs.

6 thoughts on “Reflections on Translation – I: Accepting and Assessing Translations

  1. My favourite translation story is undoubtedly Nabokov’s letter to the NYRB in reply to Edmund Wilson’s review of the former’s translation of Eugene Onegin. I haven’t read any translation of Eugene Onegin, and I’m not even sure if I’ve ever fully read Wilson’s review of Nabokov’s translation, but the reply letter is one of the most hilariously scathing pieces I’ve ever read.

    French is the only language other than English that I can read competently in. My French has been neglected for almost 4 years now, and I occasionally wonder if it was ever good enough to justify the strength of some of my opinions on French-to-English translation. Gilbert’s translation of the opening lines to Camus’s L’Etranger still looks awful to me, though, so I feel that I’m justified in retaining at least some translation snobbishness.

    I’ll look forward to your future posts in this series.

  2. David,

    You are not going to believe this, but one of my future posts in this series is about Nabokov, his work as a translator and that exchange with Wilson! Awesome. Great minds think alike. (Wilson’s article is quite funny; well worth a read)

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