Bad Translation?

This week I had intended to review “A Toy City” by Lee Dong-ha. It is an interesting short story, a novella really, with several clever twists on more “traditional” narratives of the cost of post-war social change. But as I read through “A Toy Story” I became increasingly preoccupied with questions of its translation quality. I was encountering something that I hadn’t expected to come across in a translation commissioned by The Korean Portable Library and also something that I hadn’t expected to identify quite so easily – a bad translation. In this post I’m not discussing these issues with specific regard to “A Toy Story,” That will come next week. But the questions that arose in my mind, as I attempted to judge the translation quality, deserve some attention.

As my suspicions I was reading a poor translation mounted, I began to feel uneasy on at least two related levels. The first level is most obvious. How can a reader who is not fluent in the source language of a text presume to feel qualified to judge its translation quality? Michael Cunningham poses the problem, “how can we possibly decide, unless we are fluent in both languages … (what is) … faithful to the author’s intent?” What gives me the right to judge a translation on any level? The second level is a related one – why, if the writing in the translation is bad, is this necessarily the translator’s problem? Perhaps the translation is accurate and it merely reflects some flaw, or flaws, in the original writing which, of course, I cannot detect.

The reductive nature of the first question is obvious upon reflection: The act of review implies judgment and to discard that right is to discard the notion of review or criticism. In fact, really, the act of reading implies criticism (or chasing meaning, somehow) I found myself nodding my head in agreement when I read Michael Venuti who noted that ALL readers necessarily do this kind of critical processing when addressing any kind of translated text, and at the most casual levels, at that. Readers, and therefore reviewers who are a sub-class of ‘reader’, routinely sort through translations to assess and even assert their meanings, particularly when these meanings are multiple or opaque. Venuti notes the sign in the dry-cleaner’s window that demands that the reader, “drop your trousers here for best result.” He argues that any reader immediately and automatically judges the translation quality of the work and, pursuant to that, assesses the form and possible meanings against each other. Then, one hopes, the reader constructs an accurate analysis, both of the skill of the translator and the (possible) meanings of the source text. If the reader assesses the translation to be good, he takes the text at face value and attempts to understand it; if not, he rearranges and re-assigns forms to the translated work in an effort to establish, or create textual meaning. The result of this process is a reader who routinely and automatically attempts to create an accurate analysis, both of the skill of the translator and the (possible) meanings of the source text.

In something as complicated as a literary work, of course, the problems are more thorny and the assessment of translation more difficult. Based on the analysis above, I think it is fair to argue that all readings of translation include a strong critical component and that the task of the reviewer is to assure, as much as is possible, that he or she applies this critical analysis with as much precision, care, and background as is possible to bring to bear. I’m not much interested in the theories of literature translation in these cases. I’m generally opposed to literary and translation ‘theory’ as currently understood and applied (a blog entry for another day) in the service of confusion, and in this case I am focusing on what I would call the ‘common analysis’ that all readers do. In this I observe Anne Milan Appel’s distinction “between literary analysis based on critical theory and reviews aimed at the general public.” Since these twain rarely meet, I don’t feel there is much danger in putting literary translation theoretical approaches aside here.The other non-theoretical point to be made is that judgment of the translation really depends upon the reader and client’s (that is, the person who commissioned the translation) perspective. As a result of the fact that readers and clients are varied, all that matters is, as Douglas Robinson notes, “that the translation be reliable in more or less the way s/he (the reader or client, ed.) expects (sometimes unconsciously): accurate or effective or some combination of the two; painfully literal or easily readable in the target language or somewhere in the middle; reliable for her or his specific purposes.”

The implications of this are obvious, a translation that is “good” for one, may be bad for another, but if one is reviewing translated literature aimed at the general reading public, the measure of the translation’s quality is how well it appeals to them by fulfilling the requirements of the commissioner of the translation, whether that “commissioner” is someone writing the check for a translation, or seen as the reading public in general. This seems to strongly imply that a reviewer’s job is not traduced by the fact that s/he doesn’t know the first language and also that his/her task includes considering the role of translation in the goodness or badness of a translated literary work.

The subsidiary problem for a mono-lingual reviewer is integrally related to the first. Even if the translation clearly is “bad” it is difficult to assign the reason for this. When I, or any reader, damn a translation for being poor, I may well be damning the translator for their accuracy and skill. It is perfectly acceptable, though not required, that a translator approach a work with an eye for stylistic fidelity. If the source text includes poor metaphors, clumsy sentence structure, pointless diversions, bad word choices, etc., then the “ faithful” translator will likely reproduce these structures in the target language. In this case, I suppose, lacking access to understanding of the source text, the only possible approach is drawn from academic writing, the tactic of hedging. This sounds a bit sketchy, but is accepted academic procedure. 😉 The simple version here is that as a reviewer, you should be clear when you think you are judging the translator and when you think you are judging the work. You may be wrong, but at least the reader of the review will understand what is being analysed. Appel (I think), approvingly cites Matt King’s work when he writes, “as rendered by translator Howard Goldblatt, Mo’s prose is often pastoral and guttural, evoking a Manichean world of human ugliness and redemptive natural beauty.” Here we have a reviewer explicitly marking where he believes the translator has added to the work, and in what way. It is certainly possible that Goldblatt is only accurately translating Mo, but in a world in which there may be multiple translations, Goldblatt is explaining the virtues of this one.

Venuti describes translation
as “an attempt to compensate for an irreparable loss by controlling an exorbitant gain,” and this description seems intuitively proper to me. Why is this description of translation important for a review of translation? Because I would say that it is the reviewers job to assess how well a translator has minimized the irreparable loss and to what extent they have controlled the exorbitant gain (the nicest phrase for “made up shit” I’ve ever heard!) in order to do so. Part of this is guesswork, of course, but part of this depends upon approach, what I might call rubric and the rest depends upon experience.

I hate to pull what I affectionately call a James Turnbull, but with this post already approaching 1300 words and my kids calling (wait! I have no kids!). I think that I won’t go into rubrics and experience quite yet. Also, to be honest, I’ve come across a brilliant (and brilliantly self-serving) article by Ross King that I want to think about while it still interests me.

In any case, the arguments I’ve gone over, above, lead me to a provisional conclusion that I was, of course, certain to come to by nature of my own self-service: That is that not only is it appropriate for a reviewer of translated literature to consider the translator as he considers translated literature, but that it would be a disservice not to. Even if the reviewer, presumably serving as winnowing agent for potential readers, is absolutely incorrect in assessing the role of the translator; even if the reviewer does not hedge his comments and analysis; even if the reviewer staggers under some intellectual or theoretical baggage that makes their review suspect; even if all this is true, as a reviewer it is his/her job to explain the text as he or she saw it and as he or she thinks this is, or is not, important to other potential readers.

Then, of course, the critical task continues, but in a different arena – potential readers must assess the usefulness of the reviewer. 😉

2 thoughts on “Bad Translation?

  1. Haha this is really funny. There are a lot of issues on these regarding billboard signs in china. Chinese translations fail. They should have go to translation companies and let these work done good.

  2. Pingback: Translation Services « Washington D.C. Translation Services

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