Do books lose their essence in translation?

Andrew Wieteska and Fay Davies 7 February 2014

For – Andrew Wieteska

The translation of a literary work stands apart from the original: look no further than Samuel Beckett for a bilingual writer whose own English translations of compositions in French contain dissimilitude. A translator can be as involved with works as the original authors. It is perhaps a truism that a piece of writing, especially fiction, can hardly pass through the sticky process of translation unscathed. I tend to view translated works as contributions to a conversation beginning with the progenitor piece. The ephemeral ‘essence’ of a book, some say, is lost in translation. Yet I no longer believe that it exists. If books are anything, they are edifices of language. All language is dynamic, elastic and provokes a healthy diversity of response. The ‘haecceity’ of a book is an essentially subjective notion, and purism is probably best avoided. If you feel impoverished by a piece of translation, then you ought to learn the language and read the original. I may do it too, but I don’t deny myself works of translation, because they do widen the scope of our literary dialogue, adding more often than they detract.

Against – Fay Davies

It would be simplistic to say that I am ‘against’ the translation of literature. It’s a useful process. It is the only way I could gain an insight into Dante’s Inferno, for instance, without having to learn medieval Italian. I also think that translations of texts can be good – valuable literary works in their own right. But ‘gain an insight’ is the crucial phrase here, because this is all that translation really allows us. Meaning is so subjective and various that even translations of everyday speech amount to approximations. With literature this is multiplied. The notion of a ‘correct’ translation is therefore redundant. There are also various criteria on which to judge a translation: does it capture the tone of the original? Does it adhere strictly to the original words, without adding its own flair? People often ask whether the ‘essence’ of the original can be retained in a translation. I think it is lost, because the words are lost. If the essential matter of the text is not the words, what is? Ultimately, a translation is not the original: it is one person’s interpretation of a text that will always be distanced from the reader.