The expression lost in translation holds true for many people living in a multilingual society where what one means to say and what one actually says are often worlds apart. Speaking a foreign language can sometimes be a process of cut and paste whereby one lifts familiar phrases from one’s own language, translates them directly, and then offers them around like a host sending out the hors d’oeuvres at a G8 dinner, hoping that they will be to everybody’s taste. Yes, in many cases, such linguistic faux pas do lead to interesting discoveries that enrich a language. Indeed, writers who choose to adopt a foreign language, such as Nabokov, bring new life to literature: rummaging through the lexical attics, they dust of the old words, shine them up and set them newly upon the shelf.
Much then can be said for the creativity of crossovers in literature, where things are found rather than lost in translation.
However, I would argue that this pertains only to freshly baked literature, those first time recipes of a serendipitous nature, and not to a literature that, in the altering, requires a surgeon’s unwavering hand, and a mirror, too.
I would once read the stories of Marquez or the poems of Paz without a thought as to how the English versions might differ from the Spanish originals. It was only in the role of translator that I really began to question the nature of equivalency in books. An unsuspecting reader might assume when picking up Murakami’s 1Q84, that the book they were about to read was the equivalent of the original. However, Jay Rubin, the longtime translator of Murakami’s work, suggests that the opposite is true. In a recent interview with The New Yorker Magazine, Rubin said: ‘I strongly advise people not to read literature in translation because I know what happens in the process […] Everything they’re reading has been filtered through the brain of the translator. And it’s his words they’re reading.’
Most readers would find Rubin’s comment unsettling: a poststructuralist nightmare whereby all the great works of literature from Cervantes to Dostoevsky to Bolaño are only as good as their translators. A bona fide translator may endeavour to transcribe exactly the text of the original author, but inevitably he brings his own interpretation and own language system to that work. In terms of the 1976 Barthes essay, ‘The Death of the Author’, the translated text then is no longer the same text simply because the author is no longer the same author.
The translator is also a reader, albeit one who attempts to step into an author’s shoes – wishing to replace him in Borgesian fashion or at least to imitate him. But the nature of language does not allow for such singular activities and so all that the translator can do is interpret, as best he can, the designs of language, aware of the changes made upon it by time and space. It may seem like a truism to say that translation is determined by language, yet the translator does face the difficult task of interpreting a language governed by the influences of social, historical and cultural constraints, based upon the underlying currents of language itself.
How then should we as readers approach this idea that what we want is not exactly what we are going to get? The work of a translator is one of making ‘choices’ within given perimeters, and as lovers of world literature it is a return to Babel; we must simply trust that the choices are the right ones.