Why let good writing get in the way of a good translation?

I’ve just read something about the art of literary translation:

“It is more difficult to do a brilliant translation than a good book. A translation has to retain the texture, idioms and metaphors of the source language rather than flattening into homogenised English.”

So far, so the type of thing you can read about literary translation any day of the week.

Only I was struggling with this very question while working on my translation of a play just last night. My problem, I think, was that I wasn’t trying to flatten the language into homogenized English. Rather, I was trying to make the English sing (a little too much), in places where it was just standard (slangy) Québécois dialogue.

This is always a tricky process for me. Striking a balance between being faithful to the original in front of you (which is already beautiful in its own right or you wouldn’t be translating it in the first place, would you?) and crafting a translation that is equally beautiful and draws attention to itself for all the right reasons is also a typical translator’s dilemma that you can read about any day of the week.

My problem this time around is that I am translating the Québécois slang into Canadian slang. And I am Irish. My natural reflex would obviously be to translate into Irish slang. But even then, which type? Southern Irish, while welcoming and familiar, is almost as foreign to me as Canadian English, and I have spent many more years in Canada than in the south of Ireland. (If I walk into a shop and order something, my accent sticks out in Dublin just as much as it does in Montreal.) Northern Irish would be most familiar of all, but even then I’d like to run it by someone who still lives there.

The result is that all these years I have spent in Québec have made me increasingly comfortable in the language I am translating from and increasingly… questioning about the language I am translating into. This is, obviously, not an insurmountable problem and probably no bad thing (which is just as well or else this might as well be a resignation note). After all, surely every translator should question every word choice in his or her mother tongue to find the perfect fit?

My frustration in writing Canadian English as an Irishman arises from my own desire to write Canadian English that sticks out for the right reasons. After all, why should every play from Québec sound as if all the characters grew up around Toronto as soon it’s performed in English? Which should I flatten my sparkling Québécois dialogue into homogenized Canadian English? How about a few accents from the Maritimes in there, while we’re at it?

My friend – so often the voice of reason – came up with the answer this morning. How come it’s fine to use words like movies in Scottish dialogue, I was moaning to her on the phone last night, but you can’t say films in American dialogue? In other words, why as a translator who loves language do I have to deprive myself of all these colorful expressions that come to mind as perfect equivalents for my Québécois French? For me, describing children as mustard in the sense that they are hard to handle is a fantastic expression. I think it’s a crying shame that because I grew up saying it, it has to be filed away as a regionalism and is unfit for consumption in the rest of the world. How come expressions can flow down from “accepted” standardized language but so few ever make it in the other direction, even when they are colorful and not automatically associated with some part of the world or other?

The answer, my friend said, is this:

“Word choices are not necessarily right or wrong – when something works (regardless of whether or not it comes from the local vernacular) it doesn’t jump out at you. I think words shouldn’t jump out at readers.”

In other words, while the process of translating is a self-conscious as they come, the end result shouldn’t be. My favorite writers don’t let good writing get in the way of a good story, I’m fond of saying. And from now on, I’m not going to let good word choice stand in the way of a good sentence.

4 thoughts on “Why let good writing get in the way of a good translation?

  1. Bonjour Peter, C'est très intéressant ce que tu écris. L'idée d'une traduction qui a de l'impact — de termes qui ont de l'impact — est séduisante pour le traducteur pendant qu'il traduit. Toutefois, lorsqu'il entre dans la peau du lecteur, quand il se relit, c'est d'abord le rythme qui prime. Et là, on réalise qu'on laisse tomber des expressions qu'on a beaucoup aimées à une étape antérieure, parce qu'elles sont soudain devenues trop lourdes, trop encombrantes, ou trop voyantes. On est maintenant centré sur le "flow". Sur la vitesse de lecture, aisée. Donc sur le lecteur. On est passé de traducteur à lecteur.Tes entrées de blogue sont toujours stimulantes.Bravo.Robert Blouin, C. Tr.

  2. Merci, Robert. Je suis tout à fait d'accord. You're right… I think the key is distancing ourselves enough from the text to be able to put on our reader's hat and say, "This is a great word or turn of phrase but it just doesn't work here." I find this much easier to do with shorter translations, but for literary translation you become so much more attached to the text that I find I really need another set of eyes from generous friends to save me from myself!

  3. Peter,Very interesting to learn that you are originally from Ireland! Ah, the things we learn about bloggers through their posts over time.I love your friend's comment that "words shouldn't jump out at readers"… What a succinct way of putting it! As I revise the novel translation I'm working on there are a few occasions where I've found (what I think is) just a fabulous word, but it doesn't fit. It jumps off the page. So off it goes and I find one more appropriate to the text, rather than one I happen to like. 😉

  4. Thanks for the comment, Lisa. (And yes, the Irish are everywhere!) It's a case of different tools for different jobs, I suppose. I just discovered a recent NYT column on Words We Love Too Much: "Still, when a fancier word keeps popping up in spots where a down-to-earth alternative is readily available, it can draw undue attention to itself. We may seem to be trying too hard." Quite.

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