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Notes Regarding the Editing of Translated Literature

The following is a talk given at the British Council in February 2008. I was part of a forum sponsored by the Arts Council England, where editors and translators convened to discuss the issue of translation editing. The results of this forum are currently being edited and will be made into a “best practices” guide for translators and editors. 

Martin Riker
The role of the editor

One of the major issues among those who discuss the state of literary translation today is that translators are under-recognized by publishers, who, for example, will intentionally not list the translator’s name on the book jacket to try to hide the fact that a work is translated. Publishers do this because they perceive that a work’s status as a translation will discourage readers and so hurt sales of the book. This problem is probably overstated by publishers and does not address the consequent problem of the additional costs of publishing translated work. Nonetheless, one unfortunate effect of such practices is that readers know little and understand even less about the art of translation.

If even the translators’ art is not recognized among readers, how much more hidden is the process of translation editing? Of course in some ways a successful editor strives for anonymity, as does a successful translator—you do not want the work to read “like a translation”—but even people within the publishing industry often misunderstand the role editors play in the publishing process. Even translators do not always understand this role. As a result, there remain in the literary community a number of assumptions and misunderstandings that work against best translation practices.

To what extent should a translation be edited?

A misconception that is harmful to translated works is that the editor of such works should only edit and improve the quality of the translation, not the quality of the book.

That is, the act of translation often seems to “canonize” a book as it appeared in its original language. This is something rarely discussed but, I think, widely felt by editors. The types of editorial decisions that are made every day for works written in English—to rework a weak piece of dialog, for example—become unthinkable with translations, simply by virtue of the fact that the book, having already been published in one language, is perceived as being “done.”

This is particularly problematic when, as often happens, the book was not edited well in its original language, and will contain obvious logistical problems: someone walks out of a room and then, in the next scene, is still standing in it—or of course any number of less obvious problems that nonetheless work against the book’s succeeding at what it is trying to do.

We should think of the editor of a translated work as playing two editorial roles: editor of the translation and editor of the book. There is no reason why a book should not be edited simply because it has already appeared in another form (language), if the original form is flawed, and assuming that the editor is proceeding responsibly. Our experience at Dalkey Archive Press is that foreign writers are most often thankful that problems in their work are being caught and addressed, and are happy to work with us on improvements.

What is the goal of the translation?

Making the best book possible, a book that evokes the spirit and particular energy of the original, has to take precedence over making a book faithful (literal, word for word) to the original.

Translators sometimes worry that steering from a literal word for word translation will “corrupt” the original text. The fact is that a work in translation has already been corrupted by the act of translation itself. The new work, the translated work, is always already an interpretation of the original—unavoidably so.

So the question should rather be: what sort of interpretation conveys the experience of the original, it’s particular stylistic energy, most accurately? The translation should not preserve literal words and phrases for preservation’s sake. To treat a translated book in this way is to treat it more as a museum piece than as a vibrant literary work.

Another issue is the extra time and resources needed to edit a translated book well. Although low sales is usually cited as the reason why English-language publishing houses publish so few translated works, high costs are also an obstacle. This is one important sense in which the process of editing is not well understood—the hidden costs associated with it.

Does the editor of a translated work need to know the language of the original work?

At Dalkey Archive we publish books from over 30 countries. If we could only publish books from languages someone on our editorial staff knows, the number would be perhaps half as many.

But this is not even the key issue. The issue again is what must a translation achieve? Do we prioritize word-for-word accuracy with the original, or do we say that what is more important is that the spirit and the particular energy of the original be conveyed, rather than just the words.

An editor need not be an expert in the original language because the editor’s primary concern must always be toward the quality of the work in English, that it creates for an English-language reader an experience approximate to the experience the book’s original readers had. An editor needs to know English, and needs to know how to edit. There are far more people who have competence in a foreign language than there are people who know how to edit a book well, yet when it comes to making a book the best book it can be, skill in editing—in other words, skill with the English language—is by far the more important attribute. The editor first and foremost must be a reader of English, and a person for whom the translation must read, in English, like an original work—which in many senses it is.

Translators as artists

It is not even always necessary that the translator know the original language. Some extraordinarily successful translations have come about through a native speaker working closely with an English-language writer. The success of such partnerships lies in the fact that writers, if they are good writers, can bring to the translation the subtlety and energy of a literary stylist. They understand that if the book is to be responsible to the original, it has to be creatively inspired like the original.

One of the obstacles facing English-language translations today is that so few of our best creative writers are also translators. This does not seem to be the case in other countries where literary translations are more widely read. Fortunately, we do have excellent translators with the stylistic facility of a novelist—which is, in fact, a large part what makes those translators excellent.

In short: there are good translations, bad ones, and then there are uninspired ones. The latter are those in which nothing is wrong except that the entire spirit and sense of a style have been lost: this is where the translator is either an artist or not.

The British translator Barbara Wright has time and again taken great liberties in her translations of the French writer Raymond Queneau. If she did not take such liberties, if she did not see herself as an artist who takes artistic risks, readers of her translations would have no way to access the playful brilliance of Queneau. Translated word for word, Queneau would fall flat.

Why translations fall flat

In fact Queneau’s work offers an excellent example of many of the potential pitfalls into which a literary translation can fall. I’ll list a few of the literary qualities Queneau is known for that make his work such dangerous material for translation:

1. Puns/wordplay, jokes. Humor is incredibly subtle and often culture-specific, while plays on words are obviously specific to their original language. An equivalent has to be found in the new language and sometimes these simply don’t work or need to be cut, or a completely different play on words has to be invented to retain the liveliness of play. In such cases, the translator and editor might have to decide which is more important to the passage, the literal sense of the phrase or the playfulness that it brings to bear.

2. Slang & colloquialism. Probably the most important issue with slang is timeliness—will the approximate slang chosen by the translator remain relatively current? With some translations you can almost identify the year, if not the month, in which it must have been translated. Another issue is appropriateness to the situation in the book, and here the problem is often that a translator will “clean up” the foul language in the original, often without even realizing, simply because he or she is not comfortable using such foul language, even though the original writer was. This happens more often than one would expect, and translators tend to realize it only after an editor has pointed it out.

3. Translating a baroque style. How do you make the translation sound baroque rather than just awkward and clumsy? This is typically a systematic problem, and the translator of such a work has to be extraordinarily creative and resourceful, or else should not attempt the translation.

4. Purposeful awkwardness in the original that simply does not work in the new language, that falls flat. You can try to convey the sense of awkwardness in other ways—by subtly referring to it, for instance, or moving direct dialog into indirect, etc.—although sometimes you simply have to leave the passage out. In leaving it out, you lose something, but then in any translation you always lose something. The important thing is that the translation not call attention to itself in a way that will destroy the reader’s experience of the book.

5. Cultural, historical, and geographical references. If references are not obscure or difficult for the original audience, they should not be obscure or difficult for the new audience. Of course there are real limits to the extent to which it is possible to make such references familiar, but certain simple tricks can contextualize for the reader without damaging the reader’s experience of the book. For example, you can add an inconspicuous explanatory phrase, or mention that So-and-so is a “town,” or add the word “Avenue” where it was left out of the original. Here as elsewhere the translation editor has to assume the position of the reader, and should consider the overall experience of reading the original and how best to approximate that experience for readers in English.
Martin Riker - Dalkey Archive Press - Context 21
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