What’s a Better Translation: Faithful, Literal, Enjoyable?

Suddenly, in certain U.S. circles, translation theory seems to be all the rage. Edith Grossman is out and about talking about her new book.  Issues around machine translation have been rearing their heads. And today, the Boston Globe has a highly interesting interview with Russian-English translator Marian Schwartz.

What is a “good” translation, they ask? She seems to contradict herself here, a bit. Is the Glenny translation “more good”–or is hers?

I think a translation is considered “good’’ when the reader likes it, even if it’s tough going. Bulgakov’s “White Guard,” for example, was known for years in the Glenny translation, which was a pleasure to read but had little to do with the original text and omitted crucial bits; everyone but Slavists loved it. I hope that my new translation reproduces the full range of devices and effects of the original. Incidentally, our capacity — and willingness — to appreciate difficult texts seems to have changed, particularly for canonical texts.

On “foreignizing” vs. “domesticizing” a text:

I think we’ve become more receptive to foreign elements. Constance Garnett, whom I will defend to the end of my days, is now criticized for not being faithful to Tolstoy’s text, for setting his books in what feels like an English garden, but in my view it cannot be bad when a translation gives people access to works that they would never otherwise have read.

She continues: “There is an ongoing debate among translators about “foreignizing’’ and “domestication,’’ but wherever a translator’s choice falls, today it will probably be closer to foreignizing than it would have been 50 years ago.”

I might add that there are different methods of “foreignizing,” some which work better than others. I’ll call one “simple foreignizing” or “familiar foreignizing.” In Elias Khoury’s /White Masks/, translated by Maia Tabet, the phrase “insha’allah” pops up now and again in italics, mirroring  انشالله in the original.

But does this transport the reader into “foreign” Lebanon, or has “insha’allah” become a too-easy shorthand for the Arab world, leading us to certain rather domestic stereotypes?

On the other hand, there’s a more complex foreignizing. For instance, in Elias Khoury’s Yalo, translated by Humphrey Davies, you will find the word kohno, which appears often, untranslated. But this word—changed into an English phrase—would break down its meaning into too many component parts. By leaving it as kohno, Davies holds the concept together, and creates an image of kohno in the reader’s mind. Perhaps even teaches us what kohno means.

Other times, I am not sure. In Hosam Abou-Ela’s wonderful translation of Stealth, by Sonallah Ibrahim, I agree with his choices to leave clothing items, such as kaffeyah, in transliterated Arabic. The one phrase that struck me was “Egyptian Romano” cheese. Or perhaps it only struck me because I’d never quite realized that Rumi cheese (which I eat quite a lot) is related to the Italian Romano.

Another question for foreignizing vs. domesticizing Arabic fiction: What level of “religious speech” does a translator allow into the text—religious speech that would sometimes feel strange and uncomfortable to an American reader? Translator Jonathan Wright said he left a good deal of it out of Taxi. He noted, I’m sure correctly, that for the English-language reader, “religious references are in general problematic.”

However, how much can be elided before the text is a different thing altogether?

Schwartz also had this interesting observation about varying levels of emotion:

Different languages also have different levels of emotion. English favors understatement. We love subtlety and precision. But what comes across in Russian as neutral can seem histrionic in English. Even today, Russian fiction uses “alas’’ regularly, but I’ve yet to be able to keep the word in a translation because it almost always sounds ridiculous.

I would say the same about exclamation marks, and this punctuation !? in Arabic text; I could probably not translate it.