Should a Translation Improve on the Original?

I very much enjoy Peter Rozovsky’s blog Detectives Beyond Borders and his take on crime fiction from around the world. However, I was taken aback by a recent post on Amateurish prose in a translation from Japanese, specifically this bit:

“But I’m reminded again that a translator is not just a translator but also a writer, with all the demands that entails. If the original lags, the translator should have made it better.”

I have don’t have much difficulty with the first sentence. It’s nice to get some acknowledgement that translators do more than just churn out words in a new language. Yes, we’re writers too but is it really our duty to improve on the source text?

Discussing the reluctance to match dialect for dialect in Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Particular Books, London, 2011, pp. 200-201), David Bellos argues that:

“Grammatical mistakes, malapropisms and other kinds of ‘substandard’ language must not be seen to be the translator’s fault.”

and that:

“Translation always takes the register and level of naturally written prose up a notch or two. Some degree of raising is and always has been characteristic of translated texts – simply because translators are instinctively averse to the risk of being taken for less than fully cultivated writers of their target tongue.”

 This relates to perfectly well written prose or dialogue that happens to be in non-standard language such as dialect or slang. What if the text is just not very good though? Who decides? Surely it’s the height of arrogance to feel that we can do a better job than the original author? Isn’t our role to capture her style, to reflect his voice? But then, on the other hand, isn’t our job also to write as well as possible in our target language – doing justice to the reader? And what does improving a text actually mean? My idea of an improvement might be your idea of a travesty!

A rather fundamentalist evangelical of my acquaintance once suggested, at least half-seriously, “improving” a text on the Galapagos by replacing references to Darwin with references to an “intelligent designer”… Rest assured that even had I wanted to do something so unethical, there are all sorts of contracts and checks in place to prevent it! Obviously this is an extreme example, but it shows how subjective the whole idea is.

For some of my recent translations, I have been lucky enough to have a good working relationship with the author, meaning that where I had a problem with the text, I could ask her advice, check that I’d understood correctly or query continuity errors for example. This has not been my usual experience, however. Normally, as a translator I’ve been on my own with just the text to go on. Of course there are many resources for translators online too. I can also discuss such issues with other translators on internet forums, blogs or Twitter, for example. Ultimately though, it seems to me, all I can do is my best; I will write as well as I can, seek advice where I can get it and trust in my own instincts. Let the reader understand.

For more debate on the subject see also:

Publishing Perspectives: When is a Translation Superior to the Original?
About Translation: Can translators ignore theory?

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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