By Jeffrey Zuckerman

In GrantaJaspreet Singh recently described how her mother, in translating the daughter’s book from English to Punjabi, “preserved the emotional impact” of the fourteen stories she had written, up until the final piece, which read very differently.

My mother translated the story I never wrote...This new fourteenth story was my mother’s story and not mine. No translator, no one has a right to change my story, I thought. Not even my mother.

It is a strange and unsettling thought that a translator might deliberately or, worse, unconsciously present us with a story only tangentially related to the original-language text. But what, exactly, do we feel if we realize that we've read a false or unfaithful translation? Loss? Rage? What exactly have we lost, if we cannot read the original, and where should we direct our anger, if we have been given something that otherwise we would not have had at all?

Translation is the last remaining vestige of rewriting; it is a career not unlike that of being a scribe in medieval times or a typist in the twentieth century. “There’s nothing glamorous about it,” my friend said of working as a translator at UNESCO in Paris. “I switch the words from French to English, make sure it sounds logical, and then pass it on to my reviser.” 

Readers (and even editors!) often assume that a fluid translation is accurate, and reviewers consistently declare English-language books from abroad "ably translated," without much thought given to the underlying process. Even when the translation is read and annotated by the publisher, questions about the text are usually posed to the translator, rather than being answered by looking at the original. So rogue translations are all the more discomfiting when their dissemblances are discovered.

If the rewriting Jaspreet Singh’s mother performed feels like theft, then where do you draw the line between transducing something and traducing it? Are all translators thieves?

I detest the Italian adage “traduttore, traditore” ("translator, traitor" would be the most literal rendering). There is something available now in the target language whereas previously there had been nothing. That is no betrayal; indeed, it’s a gift. Sometimes the translation is for the better, as when writers like Paul Auster find themselves more famous abroad than at home. Really, attempting to moralize this recalls the recent (and inconclusive) brouhaha over facts and truth in John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact.

I don’t think a question so polarizing can be answered, and the futility of the thought itself only merits satire—as in this piece from Dezső Kosztolányi’s Kornél Esti, translated by Bernard Adams, about a kleptomaniac translator:

In the course of translation our misguided colleague had, illegally and improperly, appropriated from the English text £1,579,251, together with 177 gold rings, 947 pearl necklaces, 181 pocket watches, 309 earrings, and 435 suitcases...Where did he put these chattels and real estate, which, after all, existed only on paper, in the realm of the imagination, and what was his purpose in stealing them?

image credit: Igor Kopelnitsky,