Education Liberal Education

Lost in Translation? How to Find Your Way Into a Great Book

Anyone who wants to become conversant with the best books must come to terms with the fact that many of them were originally written in foreign languages. For most of us, this means that we must often read books in translation.

Those of us who have tried to translate know how difficult a task it is. And that the greater the book, the more difficult it is to translate. No matter how hard you try, something is always missing in the translation. This experience makes us wonder just what we’re missing when we’re reading even the most acclaimed translation.

In the Introduction to his translation of the Odyssey, Joe Sachs (Tutor Emeritus, A68) says that all serious translations convey something of the original. Using them cooperatively, using them to check against one another, and against the original, can spark real engagement with the work. Thinking about what a translator has gotten right or wrong draws the reader into interpreting the work, rather than simply letting the words make impressions as they fly past.

Every translator has to make judgments about what is most important in a passage. This is especially true about poetry, in which the music of the language plays such an important role. But even what we call prose also has its music. Since the music of one language is often quite different from the music of another, a translator must make decisions about meaning and music. Will playing up one play down the other? Which one should be sacrificed, if sacrifice is necessary?

But translators must make judgments not only about such high-level questions as these, but also about the most basic elements of the text. Indeed, as Sachs points out, judgment cannot even be eliminated in trying to decide what individual words mean. In R. J. Cunliffe’s A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect, Sachs tells us, “there are numerous instances in which the meanings given are preceded by ‘app.’ for ‘apparently’ or even by ‘perh.’ The primary scholarship on which any translation is based cannot exclude the act of judgment, and even the most conventionally literal choices cannot exempt a translation from also being an interpretation.”

Even at the most basic level, then, every translation is an interpretation. There is no such thing as a “literal translation”—even though beginning language learners are often encouraged to try to produce such a thing. The idea is a kind of useful fiction that helps beginners make choices that will eventually become habits. Once the student develops enough such habits to be comfortable with the language, the fiction ceases to be useful.

In fact, for the intermediate language learner, the notion of “literal translation” becomes a positive hindrance. At this point, it becomes a stumbling block to making higher-level judgments about tone and nuance that are the next step on the way to fluency. And these judgments too must become something like second nature. For translation, like most human actions, involves far more choices than could be thought through consciously. If the translator had to work out each and every step of the process, the work could never be finished.

The absurdity of having to consider all possibilities consciously reminds me of an incident from my student days. When I was first learning Greek in my freshman year at St. John’s, we were given a homework assignment to translate a passage from Heraclitus’s fragments. It contained exactly three words. One of my classmates came in the next day with sixty-four different translations, most of which were absurd or meaningless, while each of them was a literal rendering using all possible combinations of definition and syntax. For his trouble, the tutor proclaimed that he would make a fine candidate for a graduate program in phrenology—the study of bumps on the head.

These are some of the reasons, I think, why Sachs says “the notion that a one-for-one equivalence can be established is illusory from the start, and when the words of the original react with and against one another differently at every occurrence, the best service a translator can provide is to discern as much as possible of what the poet is doing and preserve what matters most.”

All serious translators undertake to do just that. They leave behind a record of their judgments about what matters most in the original. They let what they believe matters less recede from view.

Of course, their judgments may be sound or shaky. So, too, the totality of their judgments—which is a finished translation—may accurately reflect the essence of human nature or distort it through the lens of personal prejudice. A translation may uncover the outlines of perennial wisdom or conceal it under the varnish of faddish sentiments. A translation may enchant or offend.

But if it is a serious translation, it will convey something of the original. And compared with other serious translations, it will make us start questioning the work itself. What is really being said—what this translator brings to the fore, or what this other translator emphasizes, or something else? And there is nothing that sparks the engine of the mind like questioning.

That is why Sachs is right when he says that “the friction of one translation against another can be the quickest way for a path to light up for a reader’s own entry into the work.”