'Traduttore traditore,' the translator is a betrayer. In other words, every translation is an act of treachery against the loved original, a stab in the back. If this Italian proverb is right, the translation I have just offered of the proverb itself must be just one more betrayal. Indeed, the case against me is strong. The Italian phrase gets much of its force from the jingling assonance of the two words, but one finds swiftly that it is no good trying to reproduce this with the weaker assonances available in English: 'translator traitor' and the like. Yet by a bald rendering something is achieved: the point or burden of the proverb really can be set out in another language. One is tempted to draw a conclusion of premature simplicity: matter is translatable, manner not. Therefore, jokes, puns (apart from lucky accidents), allusive titles and, above all, poetry will translate less well than, say, motorists' manuals, left luggage information and realistic novels. It has been said that the natural unit of the 'transparent' novel is the event, set in a sequence of other events, while the natural unit of the poem is the word, in association with other words. That is why Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are read all over the world while Pushkin, despite the efforts of John Fennell, Antony Wood. DM. Thomas and Vladimir Nabokov, remains primarily a writer for readers of Russian. The myriad imperfections of rendering in any translation of a novel do not seriously impede what looks like genuine literary enjoyment: we weep for Anna Karenina and tremble at Raskolnikov. Don Quixote found readers everywhere: centuries later Lorca remained trapped in the brilliant liberty of his native Spanish.
LRB 16 November 1995 | PDF Download