treachery, forgery, or the sincerest form of flattery?

I’ve been over at Cantueso’s blog again, looking at translations of a poem by Hans Magnus Enzensberger and wondering about some of the phrases. In the blog comments, Cantueso says:

[the English] translation is much better and much more faithful than [my Spanish]

Not knowing any German, it’s hard for me to comment on that, but the coupling of the two adjectives ‘better’ and ‘faithful’ catches my attention. It makes me think of the Italian expression traduttore, traditore – ‘translator, traitor’.

I was in Nottingham at the end of April, at ‘It Gives Us the Other’, a conference and work day about literary translation and poetry, organised in conjunction with the Nottingham Poetry Series. One of the papers – Poetry Translation: a surveyable representation, given by Philip Wilson, from the University of East Anglia – started with the quotation:

[Literary translation] designs a text to be read by someone in no position to judge either its reliability or its quality; in this sense, translation aligns itself with the arts of forgery, a logic borne out by the lure of pseudo-translations. (Scott, 2008;16)

A lot of the translation I do – particularly travel and lifestyle journalism – is more recreation than translation: the original texts are adapted to fit the expectations, knowledge and cultural background of the readers. This is usually no problem, as I am paid to adapt and create. Even with literary texts I think a degree of ‘initiative’ is appropriate on the part of the translator, although I’m never sure when I’ve gone too far and made the new text an imitation rather than a translation.

So, what is translation? Is it treachery, forgery, or imitation? And since so many translators claim it’s an impossible task, why do we continue to attempt it?

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

2 thoughts on “treachery, forgery, or the sincerest form of flattery?”

  1. Without translation most of the greatest works around would not be known, e.g. the great Russian novels, Gabriel Marquez, Kafka, Proust, Plato (=Socrates),Sophocles,Aquinas.

    Nothing is known about Chinese and Japanese literature conceivably because up to now publishers did not feel like financing any translations.

    And what about the wonders of Google translations?
    The other day “it is worth the click” came up as “es la ampliación de la pena”. Why, God knows.


    1. Perhaps we don’t know those works. Perhaps we only know the translations. And even if we can learn the language to read the original, we don’t have the cultural base to comprehend. To be honest, I can read an American novel, but I won’t understand/appreciate it as an American would, although it is supposedly written in English, which is my mother tongue.

      Realistically, we have to make do with our limited comprehension and other people’s translations, of course. If not, we might as well just talk to ourselves and read our own diaries.

      As for Google Translate, well it manages to brighten my life most days with its occasional random interpretations of simple phrases. I particularly like the way it translates names – the ‘centros de belleza Felicidad Carrera’ become ‘Bliss Beauty Career Centers’.

      My post Translation Fail gave another fun example.

      It’s an incredibly useful tool, but shouldn’t be trusted implicitly.


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