Dispatches from an angry translator.
Italo Calvino once said, “Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”
While this sentiment is touching to the oft-under-appreciated translator, those who know more than one language and wish to build bridges between literary cultures quickly learn that for every kind word like Calvino's, there are 10 disparaging comments about the craft. These are a few of my favorites, some of which I’ve encountered personally and some that have cropped up throughout history:
“Oh, translating — that must be easy because it's already been written.”
Yes, of course it must be easy because there is always a direct word-to-word, literal translation, and of course we needn't worry about the cultural or linguistic distinctions between situations, objects or intentions (or, you know, sarcasm).
In actuality, people who speak more than one language delight in the untranslatable. Take “schnapsidee” from German, which is an ingenious plan hatched while drunk. Got a quick-fix for that one?
“Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, then it is certainly not beautiful.” – Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russian poet
Discrediting a masterful craft and half of the population in just three sentences. Way to go, Yevgeny.
“I don't trust translations.”
Probably one of the worst things somebody can say regarding translation since it limits all literature, resulting in no Shakespeare outside England, no Kant beyond Germany, no Sun Tzu further than China. The sentiment focuses only on what’s lost in translation, not what may be gained. Even the late great Gabriel Garcia Marquez admitted that Gregory Rabassa's translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude was better than the Spanish original!
“Translation is sin.” – Grant Showerman, American scholar
Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride and mastering languages to better inform the world — definitely all on the same level.
“I'm sure it's fine, but I'd really rather read the original.”
The most obvious response to this is to ask how the speaker intends to learn every language of every book he or she might ever want to read. And while that is a very worthy endeavor, it may be a little time consuming and potentially frustrating, especially when there are already qualified and enthusiastic people ready to bring a text to you.
“Translation is much like copying paintings.” – Boris Pasternak, Russian writer
While I'm hesitant to criticize a Nobel Prize-winner, one of the greatest Russian poets of the last century and the author of one of my favorite books (Doctor Zhivago), I can only assume that Pasternak was given special paints with his Nobel. If we follow his metaphor — that is, if translation is anything like copying paintings — then it’s like starting with Raphael’s Madonna and ending up with Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato's: both beautiful, both of the same subject, but certainly not crude copies of each other.
“Isn't Google Translate going to put you out of business?”
Check out this Google translation of the song “Let It Go” from the Disney movie Frozen:
No, I think we translators are going to be just fine.