“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Calque/Three Percent

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

My our window on the world is awfully small… It sounds as though there's a fascinating discussion on translation in the latest issue of Calque, a journal of literature in translation, but we wouldn't know if it weren't for Three Percent, who have posted a bit of it:

"To tell the truth, I suspect that readers who can compare translations and originals actually tend to be worse judges of the quality of a translation than people who are unable to read the original. [. . .]

"Of course, readers who can access both the original and the translation are able to find obvious mistakes, and that’s something only they can do, and that can be important. But surely that’s not what we mean when we ask what distinguishes good translations from bad? We’re interested in something that runs deeper, I would hope—not something so superficial that any old multilingual reader can come along and point it out after a hasty comparison of the two texts. [. . .]"

Comments

# 1.   

A bit frustrating, as I can't find the full exchange on Calque!

There are two topics that stand out -- for me -- in the excerpt above and in the abbreviated discussion on Three Percent.

One is the discussion re: how translated fiction is edited. Personally, I find a lot of opinion about the editing of a translation to be overly centered on the author, the translator and the original work -- as if they were a holy trinity of sorts.

In the China context, it must be pointed out that editing is 90% about ensuring a text published in China is politically correct; the other 10% deals with the readability of the text. This is outrageous, and explains why so much of what is published in China makes for such a bad read.

And it also means that most anything coming out of China badly needs editing, regardless of what language it will appear in!

So I think it makes perfect sense for publishers in the West to buy the rights to a Chinese book and insist on the right to edit it as they see fit. Who can honestly say that the occasionally preachy and repetitive "Wolf Totem" would not have been a better book in English, if it had been more aggressively edited?

One might ask: why is that standards that apply to editing writing by native speakers of English, somehow NOT apply when a translated text is undergoing editing?

The other idea that catches my eye in the discussion above is this one: "...what distinguishes good translations from bad?"

I certainly don't know the answer to that one! But the question is an intriguing one, because, like it or not, when given 2,3 or 4 versions of a book in its translated form, the public often strongly prefers a particular version. Academics can argue for years (and will!) about the accuracy, veracity, dynamic equivalence and so forth of a given edition, but the reading public tends to home in on what it likes.

And to the consternation of those academics, one may find that the "popular" version of a translated book is clearly not the most "accurate." That's a matter of what is called "reception," i.e., the way a translated text is perceived by its readers, most of whom will not have read the original.

As I explained in my piece on the Chinese translation of "The Kite Runner", today's busy reader often prefers that the translator and editor package a story in a highly readable format, even if that might mean losing some of its unique flavor.

The original text aside, the role and intentions of the translator, the patron (editor and publisher), and the reading audience's preferences, all need to be considered too if one really wants to get to the bottom of what "distinguishes the good translations from the bad."

Bruce

 Bruce Humes, July 31, 2008, 2:01a.m.

# 2.   

From what I understand, the English version of "Wolf Totem" was agressively edited by both the translator and the editor - it's shorter and less discursive than the Chinese original, and some of the lengthy passages on theory appear to have been cut down (or done away with entirely).

Of course, you could make the argument that they should have pared it down even further.

 Cindy Carter, July 31, 2008, 10:29a.m.

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