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Translators shouldn’t be slaves to the holy “original”

Never an easy task, but where do you draw the line between original and translation?

The annual Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, awarded to the best contemporary fiction in translation, rewards author and translator equally. What if book reviews divided their attention in a similar way? First, reviewers might need a few lessons in what to look for. The ritual genuflections of a single adjective – “smooth”, “supple”, “taut” – would no longer do. Bilingual reviewers might become the rule rather than the exception. Two-thirds of a review might assess the original, leaving the rest for a judgement of how well it speaks in its new voice.

The question of what exactly they’d be listening out for is thornier. What makes a good translation? How is one produced? Young translators are usually advised to find an undiscovered author they might have a good relationship with and whose work they love. Yet both these roads are potholed. Publishers, who simply want to find the best person to translate a foreign book, are usually wary of an author-translator alliance presented to them as a fait accompli. There’s a whiff of cronyism to it. And as for the second point, a translator’s passion for a particular novel can hinder as much as help: a “kind” translation isn’t a very honest one. Lydia Davis admitted that she “didn’t actually like” Flaubert’s Madame Bovary but this didn’t stop her editor judging her to be the person best qualified to render the new version. “A translator is to be like his author,” Dr Johnson said. “It is not his duty to excel him.”

Less controversial is the view that a good translator brings together skills that are analytical (understanding the original) and creative (writing the new text). The married couple Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear co-translate Russian classics and embody this alter-ego balance. She, the native speaker, reads the text and drafts it into English using her superior comprehension. He, the stronger English compositor, edits and revises her text, able to sit the original alongside it for reference. But their Dostoevskys and Tolstoys are often held to be clunky or unhelpfully exoticising. They have overdone it, perhaps, imposing too much order on a necessarily mysterious process.

There is a deeper problem in all this. Our standards for translations usually conceal an impossible demand. We want a clone of the original, only made of different stuff. We invoke the Latin etymology of “translate”, which roughly means to “carry across” – for example, from one riverbank to another. In the absence of a bridge, someone needs to wade in, holding our bundle over their heads. If that’s really the idea, should we be surprised that our treasure is wet and mud-spattered by the time it reaches us? Concealed here is an assumption we thought we’d outgrown: that the best translator is the most servile – the one who will risk drowning to bring you your bounty.

Imagine trying to cook the same meal twice with different ingredients. You wouldn’t man­age it. Which is why the axiom of the triumphant cynic – that “There is no such thing as translation” – could actually be the start of creative good news. If we could get away from our reverence for the holy “original”, we might be freer to enjoy the work of translators. In music, it is perfectly acceptable to arrange a previously written piece for a new instrument or ensemble. When Franz Liszt transcribed a Beethoven concerto for solo piano, no one was about to complain that they couldn’t hear the violins. He was writing for the piano. In the days before recording, new arrangements of orchestral works had a practical purpose, too: to make them manageable for a salon quartet or accessible to those who lived far from the concert halls. Rather like translators, arrangers were adapting works in order to widen their audiences.

Naturally, I’m not recommending putting an author’s name on a work they wouldn’t recognise. Yet there are other tricks. I recently completed a co-translation of a collection of stories with four other translators. It is a new work, combining five stories from an original collection of six, a novella split into its four parts and one previously uncollected piece as a sort of coda. Despite a translation copyright line that reads like the result of a multiple merger of legal firms, and a mammoth editing process, we’ve managed to produce a single, coherent text.

Given that we were dealing with highly self-referential, connected stories in the first place, this was no easy task – but the publisher wanted a longer book than the originals offered, knowing that, as American and British readers, we expect a certain thickness of paper between our fingers. So we wrote a sort of fantasia for anglophone quintet – in a new key, for a different audience. Translations are derivative but they can also be new.

Ollie Brock is a freelance translator. His co-translation of “The Polish Boxer” by Eduardo Halfon (Pushkin Press) is published in October

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special