Literary Translators: Rah or Bah?

M. A. Orthofer responds today, in The Literary Saloon, to Tim Parks’ Observer paean to translators.


You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then he sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to his experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness.


Yeah, maybe some translators do that; a lot of others … not so much. (And their editors and publishers seem all-too-fine with that …..) In addition: best intentions and effort (and that ‘maniacal attention’ (which I find especially hard to credit, much as I’d like to …)) do not necessarily lead to successful translations.

It’s clear—even to those of us who greatly respect translators—that Parks is living in lollipop land, wearing candy-pink glasses, guzzling from a river of sugar-filled drink.

But if we can say that Arabic-English translation is often done less beautifully and less seriously than one would like, we can also say that Parks has nailed the ideal translator. And—for whatever scorn MFA programs reap from writers—I think they could do budding literary translators a great deal of good, helping them reach for this Platonic ideal Park’s created. They have an MFA program for translators at Iowa, I believe, although it’s hard for me to suggest that someone should choose to live in Iowa vs., you know, Cairo.

Park also notes:

Harvill Secker and Waterstone’s have teamed up to launch the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize. This year Spanish is the chosen language…. The winning entry will receive £1,000. To enter visit

I hope Arabic gets a turn.