Skip to main content

Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook

PUBLISHED: February 19, 2014

I create bridges from the Italian language to English, hoping to convey enough of the magic of the original to draw in overcommitted American readers. We might compare the shift from one language to another to the ineffable singularity that Marcel Proust describes trying to capture in the first few paragraphs of his Search for Lost Time: the instant in which he passes from wakefulness to sleep. As a translator, my goal is to carry the reader across that space so quietly that the spell is not broken. To do so successfully, one must follow certain rules.

One crucial rule of translation is that the translator should always work toward her own native language. If you were born in the US but speak good Italian, then you will translate from Italian into English, never the other way around. It is your native language that exerts the strongest, most irresistible gravitational force. Regardless of how close one’s translation cleaves to the original—cleave is an auto-antonym, its own opposite, meaning both to adhere and to divide—a skilled translator must bring her own creativity to the mix, for she is creating a parallel imaginative work.

But how close must this creation mimic the original?

Vladimir Nabokov famously said that the worst literal translation was infinitely preferable to the finest free translation. There should not be an iota of extraneous meaning, Nabokov felt, only the exact bare-bones words of the author. He took his translation theory and—whether because he was going from his native Russian to his learned English or because he was hewing to his theory of minimalist translation—he produced what is generally considered to be a flat and leaden English version of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Whether Nabokov’s translation was a stroke of radical genius or a disaster remains a matter of debate among some critics. It was published to a hailstorm of invective, but also to a few glowing reviews. One author referred to its “legalistic exactitude”—which is fine if one’s greatest loyalty is to the source text. As someone who has made a living for decades as a translator, I have no illusions that I am being hired by publishers in service to the readers, not the author. 

 A singular artist in so many ways, Samuel Beckett wrote his own work in French and then translated it into his native English, not the other way around. Even Beckett recognized that it is one thing to write, quite another to translate. There is a tide in the human mind that flows toward the native tongue, and someone trying to buck that tide risks being pulled under and drowned—or, at least, risks producing an odd and unidiomatic translation.

Another rule of translating the work of a living author is to keep the author out of the process until as late as possible. The author is almost always a dangerous force: “fixing” the English to look more like the original. Yet that author is the only one who really knows what she had in mind in the first place. The trick of translating is to do your best to discern just what that author had in mind and render it in a language unavailable to her. There is never anyone who can look at both texts in her own native tongue. One is inevitably foreign.

You translate one word at a time (or one phrase at a time), letting yourself be guided by the DNA of the text itself—the voice intrinsic in the author’s words. That’s the part of translation that’s most trancelike, most like the inspiration of the daimon that Socrates claimed was, for him, the voice of a higher presence. 

You have to be accurate, and at the same time you have to be strong-minded enough to be unfaithful when necessary. Because no matter what you do, your rendering will be unfaithful to some aspect of the original.

Every “solution” is narrow; any original piece of imaginative writing is large, vast, open, shifting. A good novel is like the mind of a curious child: It’s never done asking questions. Often, in fact, it’s asking two or three questions at once.

An example: Georges Perec was an experimental French novelist who wrote a pyrotechnic tour de force called La Vie mode d’emploi, filled with dizzying wordplay and linguist sleight of hand. One of the best translators now working, David Bellos, Englished it as Life A User’s Manual. Bellos, who is also a professor at Princeton, later wrote a book about translation, Is That A Fish in Your Ear? It was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by British novelist Adam Thirlwell. As Thirlwell points out, Bellos claims that there is no reason that translation should be unable to accommodate humor and even puns. 

Thirlwell cites one adroit rendering of a French pun that Bellos points to proudly. The setting is a Parisian novelty shop, the specific challenge is a joke business card, one of an array in the window featuring names that go with professions, or some punning variant thereon. The business card reads: Adolf Hitler, fourreur. To appreciate the pun, you need to know that fourreur is French for furrier, ostensibly Herr Hitler’s trade, but also a soundalike, at least to a French ear, for Führer. Here’s how Bellos rendered it in English: Adolf Hitler, German lieder. The pun works in much the same way: Adolf Hitler can either be a dealer in German Romantic songs of the nineteenth century (lieder), or a German leader. And since Führer actually means leader, Bellos not only used the same mechanism, he worked in the same basic concept.

Moreover, his translation of fourreur manages to work in a very comparable twist of absurdity. It’s equally silly to think of an obsequious Hitler fitting a woman for a chinchilla or peddling sheet music to a statuesque coloratura mezzo-soprano. In short, a successful translation. Bellos hit all the notes. I certainly couldn’t improve on his solution.

At the same time, there’s something missing, although it feels churlish to point it out. This is a comment on the nature of translation, loss, limitation. Furrier is no random occupation. Certainly, the fact that in French fourreur is a soundalike to Führer makes the pun work. But there’s an extra cog to the clockwork: A furrier in the France occupied by Hitler was as likely as not a Jew. The occupying Nazis gave Jewish furriers special dispensation to continue working, unlike other yellow-star-wearing artisans, as the Wehrmacht prepared its invasion of Russia. Jean-Paul Sartre asked, in his 1947 essay Anti-Semite and Jew, “[Why] hate Jews rather than furriers?” as if the two categories were closely related. The stereotype was hardly limited to France: Joseph Kennedy Sr., a notorious anti-Semite, referred to the immigrant Jewish film producers he was competing against in his attempt to build a major Hollywood studio as “a bunch of ignorant Jewish furriers.” Hitler himself disliked furs, in part, because, he said, “Jewish furriers were so greedy that the most beautiful animals were being exterminated.”

My point here is not that Bellos failed in some way; for the best translation possible leaves out vastness and multitudes. Did Perec have the Jewishness of the word fourreur in mind when he made that pun? Who can say? However Perec, more than most, would have had a reason to be aware of this sliver of missing significance. His parents were Jewish immigrants to France from Poland. The family name was Peretz originally: His father died fighting the Germans in 1940; his mother probably died in Auschwitz in 1943.

If this much loss comes with the translation of a single word, it’s hard to imagine the worlds that are lost with the rendering of an entire novel. But the crucial thing to remember—I often tell myself—is that it doesn’t matter. Loss is invisible; it is what makes it through the net that matters. 

The best translations are at the same time successful and completely inadequate. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle can be applied to translation, too—the minute you pin down a meaning in another language, you’ve shorn away a fanning array of alternate or cognate meanings, loose connections, potential puns, and cunning double entendres. Stop the particle of meaning and you know its position but not its speed; let it continue along its arc and you can estimate its speed but never find it again, as it vanishes into unknowability.

As a translator from the Italian, I participate daily in a largely unconscious way in an old, ongoing dispute about faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language. It is a great paradox that faithfulness and readability are mutually exclusive at times. For example, consider a somewhat outdated English expression: “to take French leave.” It means to go away without saying goodbye. In French, interestingly, the idiomatic phrase is “dire adieu all’anglaise.” To take English leave. (A scene is conjured up: A Frenchman and an Englishman both turn and walk away, each amazed at the other’s poor manners, each calling the behavior indicative of the other’s citizenry.) If one were translating a French book into English for a UK audience, the natural solution might seem to be a change of “English leave” to “French leave”; however, that would not make sense if the speaker was a Frenchman. So, for the sake of clarity and accuracy, one might render the translation more loosely, such as “he left rudely, without a goodbye.” 

Idiomatic phrases, in particular, are difficult to bring successfully from one language into another. For example, I was speaking to my sister on the phone recently. We had come to some point in the conversation where it was time for us to vie in the expression of appalled indignation. 

“Breathtaking, right?” I said. 

She echoed me: “The jaw drops.”

In glee, I said, “Wait. You’ll never guess how you say ‘the jaw drops’ in Italian.”

“Go ahead.”

Mi cascano le braccia. My arms fall off.”

Silence while she tried to picture it, then a roar of laughter. Not only can’t I speak, what’s worse is that I can’t gesticulate.

In addition to knowing idiomatic phrases and slang, a good translator must have a great store of precise knowledge about not just the source language, but also the culture in question. A translator working from the Italian or French must know that when someone takes an elevator to the fifth floor, it’s actually the sixth floor. In these countries, they do not number the ground floor. The buttons on an Italian elevator read T-1-2-3-4-5, etc. T is for terra: the ground floor. And the floor they skip in Italy isn’t thirteen, it is unlucky seventeen. Venerdì 17, Friday the seventeenth, is the day you can probably get cheap plane tickets.

Today, translators have the luxury of the Internet to help them research the meaning and context of various phrases. But there is another process, as ancient as translation, that is unlikely to be replaced by anything computerized. That is the ability to project oneself into the world being described. 

A translator may have spent years in college and graduate school learning the Italian language but still have a hard time communicating the peculiarities of, say, the Italian physical world if she hasn’t spent years living there. This is a place where foot traffic and car traffic is as close and uncomfortable as the personal conversational space, and where people notice, and comment, if your socks don’t match your belt (and if you think belts, and socks for that matter, are brown and black, and that matching means “being the same color,” then there is a book about socks, belts, and color waiting to be written just for you, in Italian). 

In one novel I translated, there was one heartbreaking detail that may or may not have conveyed: a lonely car salesman looked out the plate-glass display windows of the downtown dealership where he worked and noticed that there were actually NO cars parked on the sidewalk. It was late July, the city was emptying out as everyone went on vacation, and once again he’d failed to plan anything, because he had no one with whom to plan a holiday. Sadness at the sight of an absence of recklessly parked cars.

The places where things happen, and the way that things happen, are different from place to place. Does it matter? Do the details matter? Of course they matter, and they matter more in some passages than in others, but the translator’s impulse to footnote endlessly can be more harmful than a few missed details. This is the quandary of translation: As Nick Hornby put it, reading translated literature, even well-translated literature, can be like listening to a radio that isn’t tuned properly. The real imperative—and important rule—in translating a scene of description is simply not to get in the way. Help the reader along where you can, but not at the cost of suppleness and vigor.

In The Lost Carving, David Esterly describes, among other things, the restoration of seventeenth-century woodcarvings following a disastrous fire at Hampton Court Palace in England. Esterly, who is also a woodcarver, tells how he set about trying to recreate the floral reproductions carved by a master long dead. At first he tried measuring actual plants and carving them to size. They looked dead, like wooden leaves. It was not until he embarked on a process of imaginative recreation that he was able to find his way to a semblance of the original creation. Within similar constraints, that is ideally what a translator should be trying to do: While remaining reasonably faithful to the words of the text, he should also glimpse the vision that the author was trying to evoke, and set about evoking it in his own language.

Everything, then, can be recreated in translation, to some greater or lesser extent. A word may require interpolation to make it clear, but it can be explained with a relative economy in the larger context of the paragraph or page. A joke can be cloned, with lesser or greater degree of faithfulness. One famous public figure can be substituted for another (though you have to stop and wonder when the French politician Ségolène Royale morphs into Barack Obama, as happened in Bruce Benderson’s English translation of Delicacy by David Foenkinos). But the real problem comes when an entire setting is alien or forgotten.

Don DeLillo’s book Libra encountered no difficulties in translation, because the assassination of JFK echoed around the world, along with the attendant conspiracy theories. But how well do American readers know of assassinations abroad? Italy has a centuries-long trail of conspiracy theories that have occasionally surfaced in English-language literature: For the most part, though, references to the brigands of the south, the Italian partisans, and the Red Brigades meet with a glazing of the eyes. String all three together, though, and you begin to see what Italians consider as their own national conspiracy theory. 

I could go on for many, many pages about the angles and twists that make this long dark trail of insurgency and conspiracy snaking through the past 150 years of Italian history so unsettling and gripping. But that is exactly the problem. To offer a description of what it is that makes a culture’s awareness of itself so different from that of other cultures, other nations, other languages, is not something that can be done in a mere paragraph or a page. 

To make a map of China—a faithful, accurate, adequate map—as Jorge Luis Borges tells us in his wonderfully brief short story “On Exactitude in Science,” the guild of cartographers created a map the size of China, depicting it point for point. As I have written elsewhere, while there are no untranslatable words, there are untranslatable worlds. My job is to build bridges from them to where we live.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Antony Shugaar's picture
Antony Shugaar · 9 years ago

M.A. Orthofer over at the Complete Review made this observation about this article:


 Shugaar on translation

       At the Virginia Quarterly Review translator-from-the-Italian Antony Shugaar writes about Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator's Handbook.
       Quite a few interesting observations -- though I wonder whether all translators agree with, for example:


Another rule of translating the work of a living author is to keep the author out of the process until as late as possible.


       That an author likely wants to 'fix' "the English to look more like the original" is surely always an issue -- and maybe it's better to get an author's input right from the outset, to better understand what they were after in the original, no ? (Though of course resisting the 'fixes' that are offered and maintaining control over the translation is presumably a challenge every time.)
       Well worth reading -- and see also another recent Shugaar piece, from The New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Translation as a Performing Art.


 I was delighted to receive the notice, but I'd like to reply. Yes, it’s always good to hear from the author but in a very real sense, if you can’t figure out what the author was after in the original from reading the original, then you’re going to have a serious problem. Translating, in a very real way, is the process of resisting the original, as much as it is the process of being guided by the original. Otherwise, you’d be Pierre Menard, rewriting Don Quixote word for word as it first appeared in Spanish. The fixes have to be made in something, which is the finished translation. The idea of setting out to do a translation and then having the author adjust your aim step by step as you go strikes me as the race between Achilles and the Hare: you’d never finish. And I strongly believe that a translation needs unity of mental space. If you start breaking the thing up, you’re going to have a Frankenstein’s Monster. Without naming names, a close colleague and accomplished literary translator wrote me when M.A Orthofer’s piece appeared and told me about her own experiences. One time the author and the agent doubled up on her, trying to change her approach to the translation and “fix” her English. I’d amend the rule to say: hear from the author once at the beginning and again at the end, but what would the author tell you? What could the author say that’s not there, in the book? Of course, when the translation is done, I’m delighted to have the author read it and make suggestions. I often have a list of questions. But that comes last, when the translation is done. Otherwise, it's my experience, it turns into a three-legged race.



Recommended Reading