Is Every Translation Just a ‘Placeholder’?

Brueghel's Tower of Babel

In reading through the rich “Arabic double issue” of the journal Metamorphoses, guest-edited by Mohamed el-Sawi and Hassan & Nahla Khalil, I came across a re-translation of Dhu al-Nun Ayyub’s “A Pillar in the Tower of Babel” by Stephanie Fauver.

Fauver’s comments on the translation precede the story, and they spurred me to read her work with particular attention. This was because of two passages. First, Fauver asserts that a translation that “gives preference to the source language over the target language, and perhaps at the expense of a smooth reading experience, allows for peculiarities of the source to appear as stumbling blocks to casual reading and as pointers to the fact that a translation must be considered a place-holder, always pointing to the need to engage the original.”

And later: “A translation, which essentially can never fully substitute for the original but rather serves as a placeholder for it, always merits revisiting and reconsidering.”

Overall, the translation-as-placeholder seems a rather mechanistic view of the translator’s job, with none of the joy of creating a new object of beauty. Indeed, Fauver almost seems to suggest that a translator should go out of her way to be un-beautiful, that Khaled Mattawa has done us a disservice by rendering Adonis’s poems in such gorgeous English, and that the compliment “it was so lovely that it didn’t seem translated!” isn’t a compliment at all.

Surely I agree that translations always (or, well, often) merit revisiting and reconsidering. A fresh translation might bring out fresh beauties, fresh ideas, fresh felicities. Still, I would hate to have a new translation just for the purpose of throwing up more stumbling blocks and reminding the reader (again) that this is not the original.

Now, if Fauver’s goal was to make an un-smooth translation of Ayyub’s work, I don’t see that she succeeded: “A Pillar in the Tower of Babel” remains an enjoyable, satiric read. And if there are some sentences that are more difficult to parse, I am not sure how — as she suggests — this will “clue the reader in to the flavor of the source language text.” If the Arabic text was smoothly satiric for an Arab reader, shouldn’t the translator try to replicate this flavor?

I do think some of her fresh language choices work — it grounds the work nicely to have more specific religious terminology — but I’m afraid that thinking of one’s translation as a “placeholder” is probably not the impetus a working translator needs to spur her to a great, visionary translation.


  1. A fairly similar discussion has taken place around translations of Dostoyevsky’s and Tolstoy’s work, with the recent translations (which have received awards) conveying some of the roughnesses of the original Russian, especially when (in Dostoyevsky’s novels) some of the characters are using colloquial, ‘street’ language. Earlier translations, some dating from the late Victorian period, tended not only to smooth out the language but also to make it accord with ideas of politeness (so that the translations convey information about the period in which the translations were done). It’s fascinating to consider just how much translations can filter the original to us, so that we have, say, a view of “Dostoyevsky” (and some of his characters) asmore genteel than in the original.

    1. I haven’t read the new translations, but I think if they’re conveying the spirit of the original (vs. the spirit of the Victorian age), that’s wonderful. (I don’t experience Tolstoi as rough, but Dostoevsky, sure.) And if they’re uncovering new aspects of the text, fantastic.

      But I would hate to think they’d be roughing up Tolstoi just to point us to the fact that it’s a translation and not the original.

  2. Really good remark Fauver! I’ve always been in two mind about this. Brings us back to the use of footnotes. In academia, close translation is often preferred but when it isn’t, footnotes explain what the tools and resources of the source language were. But for popular reading it would make dead heavy volumes out of a slim novel. Ahdaf Soueif’s books which are already copious would be published in 10 tomes, gulp! The more I read works in translation, the more I prefer awkward, close translations that do bring me back to the original. Translation should not become the substitute for the original, perhaps that is what is underlying Fauver’s plea for un-smoothness.

  3. How is a translation not a substitute for the original? Isn’t that what a translation is in most readers’ hands? A substitute for an original that the reader cannot access? And then you must ask yourself what it is substituting for, to which question Fauver offers only a crudely reductionist response. My own opinion is that this type of argument – while professing to highlight the problematic nature of the translation process – lacks the courage to admit its true complexity and embrace it. The debate over ‘smoothness’ is a red herring: more likely it’s people who are uncomfortable with intangible, subjective criteria for evaluation trying to come up with a system to help them manage their confusion. Better to think in terms of reflection and mirroring and concede the inevitability of imperfection without surrendering to it preemptively.

  4. To expand on that:
    Smoothness is a red herring – an error compounded by the objectionable assumption implicit in the phrase ‘casual reading’ – because nobody would claim ‘smoothness’ is an essential characteristic of any creative writing. It is merely a quality, which is present or not as the case may be. The entire argument is tilting at windmills as a result.
    Fauver seems keen to highlight the differences in syntax and structure between Arabic and English but I’m at a loss to see why this one difference should be foregrounded at the expense of all those things the writer was actually interested in communicating to the reader (weight, tone, even humor must suffer if this approach is seriously adopted).

    1. And R, let me add that I cannot imagine there are many writers who would like to see this approach taken to their books.

      1. That’s spot on.

  5. not that this is directly linked to fauver’s original statement (which i seem to read a bit differently, but i think that might be because i a. need more context, and b. i am in the middle of editing a text translated from a so confusing original that i need to take a breather after every two paragraphs) and it stems more from my experience as an editor:
    awkward translations are very often the most inaccurate ones. awkwardness usually doesn’t mean that the translator has been following the original closely, but simply that the translator hasn’t spent enoguh time on the translation. in most extreme cases, an awkward translation (of a non-awkward original, let me just make that clear!) might mean that the translator should find another job.

    also, i don’t understand this logic of having to remind the readers that they’re reading a translation and not the original. what, you think they don’t already know that? sheesh.

    so, looks like i’m team mlq and r on this one, although i haven’t read fauver’s original quote as a “rule”, but rather as an observation. i may be wrong on that one.

    1. Let me agree with Bibi that many of the most “awkward” and un-smooth translations I’ve read were that way because of an insufficiency in the translator’s prose or imagination, and were less accurate artistically & emotionally at the very least.

  6. Not only does the translation often *have* to be a substitute for the original, as R says, but if it’s an awkward, clunky translation it’s not even going to be a very good placeholder. People who move from literature to language study do it because they LOVE what they’ve read in translation. They’re not going to love it if it falls flat.

Comments are closed.