When right is wrong: On the universal importance of translation

4th August 2015 at 11:32


I was having dinner with Lee Child in the Union Square Café, a time-honoured hang-out of writers and publishers in Manhattan. We were talking about translation, specifically the translation into Spanish of his 19th Jack Reacher novel, Personal, which had just won some big prize (for the novela negra) in Madrid. He'd already got the title, of course, cunningly conceived to work in multiple languages. 

Translation is often dismissed by language teachers, particularly at school, as irrelevant, absurdly esoteric, an indulgence of academics. They prefer to focus on listening and speaking, which is somehow deemed more 'real'. But the practice of translation is what teaches us to know language intimately, and is one of the most efficient methods of learning the craft of writing. Translation requires us to read closely, to read repeatedly, to consider context but recognise specificity, to mull over alternative readings and weigh them in the balance, to exercise judgement, to discriminate and make informed decisions. It provides disciplined parameters for creative writing, and an invaluable principle of exclusion, rather than the no-holds-barred anything-goes randomness of 'free composition'.

The rendering of Personal was great, for sure, with a command of Hispanic idiom I could only dream of. And despite the occasional misreading, the translator's knowledge of English was clearly very good. So good, in fact, that he felt the need to correct the great man himself, to smooth over the rough edges and tie up the loose ends of Child's prose.

I wasn't - at first - comparing the two texts side by side. It was just that somehow, the Spanish didn't feel right. Something had happened to the rhythm, the flow of the writing, the music of the text. Then suddenly, like Reacher himself, I uncovered the nature of the crime: the whole thing had been sinisterly normalised, thereby losing the defining features of authorial style which account for much of the pleasure of reading.

Personal is a 1st-person narrative: everything is filtered through the hero's point of view. Reacher is notorious for being a man of few words (famously, 'Reacher said nothing'), but this is balanced by him being an outstanding observer. As he zeroes in on enemy territory, his impressions, his reading of clues, are registered in an accumulation of fragmentary non-sentences which not only builds dramatic tension, a sense of imminence, but also shares with the reader the experience of immediacy, of being there, if not in his size 12 boots then at least as his sidekick. And his laconic speech is subtly echoed in the sometimes extreme economy of the writer. Meanwhile the translator helpfully joins short sentences, reduces the number of single-word paragraphs, and restores the missing main verbs, following grammatical decorum faithfully as though under the benevolent dictatorship of a primary school English teacher.

Here is the simplest of examples.

English: 'Something in her voice.'
Spanish: 'Había algo en el tono de su voz.'
Revised translation back into English: 'There was something in the tone of her voice.'

Something has been added, unnecessarily, but more has been taken away. Without the verb, we are inside Reacher's head, tuning in to his sensibility, hyper-sensitive to his evolving relationship with his partner, Casey Nice. With the verb, we retreat to the cool detachment of the omniscient narrator. And surely the explanatory noun phrase just insults the reader.


English: 'Safe enough.'
Spanish: 'Era bastante seguro.'
Revised translation: 'It was safe enough.'

One is lapidary, and keeps up the pace of the narrative. The other is slow, and by comparison lethargic, especially when the effect is cumulative.

I realised, as I was reading, that the Spanish could so easily have stayed much closer to the original, had the translator been brave enough or had the confidence to do things 'wrong'. Doing things wrong, in fact, was the only way of getting it right. 

In his lyrical essay Between the World and Me, published last month, Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliantly conveys the shock of the new as he reveals that he first left the States to travel abroad in his mid-thirties. He went to France, which as a schoolboy grappling with French conjugations he had discounted as 'a rock rotating in another galaxy, around another sun, in another sky that I would never cross'. In Paris, he finds himself in a 'storm of French, drenched really', and was both afraid and ecstatic. 'For the first time I knew not only that I really was alive, that I really was studying and observing, but that I had long been alive - even back in Baltimore. I had always been alive. I was always translating.'

To live is to translate, not just for Coates, but for all of us. We're doing it all the time, without knowing: sifting through information, reading and interpreting signs and clues and translating them into our own terms to communicate with others. In every social interaction, we make a choice of register, selecting from among various ways of saying the most banal things, depending on whether we are talking to our best friend or our grandmother. When we are taught to find a 'better' or 'stronger' word for 'nice' or 'good', whenever we search for 'another form of words', we are practising translation. And perhaps one of the most useful exercises for teaching children to write in any language is to show them how or require them to express the same basic message in as many different ways as they possibly can.

Lee told me how he had once been badly translated from English into English, when an editor politely substituted the word 'became' for the more rebarbative 'got', in the first line of Die Trying, when a minor and expendable character 'got brave'. This made me laugh, because one of the most clichéd directives handed down to teachers on the perennially sore subject of report-writing is to avoid (at all costs!) the awkward use of the 'ugly' verb 'get'. But sometimes ugly is exactly what is needed, or wanted, just like starting sentences with 'but' and 'and' and 'which'. 

Writers all have a bit of Flaubert in them, choosing their words with supreme care and stringing them together just so for a reason. The impossible challenge of translation teaches us to appreciate this, to become connoisseurs of fine writing, to savour what is left out as much as what has 'got' in. 

Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist, and assistant head (curriculum) at Kensington Prep School.