On Indirect Translations and L2 Translations

A few years ago, when Haruki Murakami’s novel South of the Border, West of the Sun was translated into German, I was really surprised to find out – after having read it – that it had been translated from the English and not from the Japanese. I hadn’t even checked before buying it as it didn’t occur to me that something like that would ever be done. Since then I’m more careful and if I read a book that has been translated from a language I don’t speak, I buy the version with a direct translation. In the case of Murakami I could have read it in French.

Meanwhile I’ve seen that this is something that is done far more frequently than one would assume. I’m currently reading David Bellos’ excellent Is That a Fish in Your Ear? and found out that he does exactly that in the case of Ismail Kadare’s work which he doesn’t translate from the original Albanian but from the French. As Bellos writes, Kadare is involved in the process of translation. The reason for this indirect translation is the fact that there are no English – Albanian translators.

This brings me to a slightly different topic, also mentioned in Bellos’ book, the so-called L2 translation. Usually translators translate from a foreign language into their native language which is called L1 translation. If it is done the other way around, it is called L2 translation.

I’m my case, being bilingual, I can translate from German to French and vice versa and it will still be a L1 translation but when I translate into English, which I’ve done quite often, it is L2. My question is really, why is that so bad? A native speaker could go over the translation. In Kadare’s case, an Albanian translator could have translated his work into English. Some people are as fluent in a foreign language as in their own, why would they not make good translations, as good or even better than some L1 translators? There are a few writers, like Nabokov, who wrote excellent books in foreign languages which just illustrates that one can write as well in a non-native language. This may be an exception but frankly, not every L1 translator is a born writer and there are really bad L1 translations out there.

Funny enough, L2 translation doesn’t seem to be acceptable. What is done however is double translation. Hiromi Kawakami’s books for example are translated from the Japanese into German by a German and a Japanese duo of translators.

What if there are really no translators for a given language combination? Biblibio commented for example on a review of Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mother that the Hebrew was translated from the English which doesn’t even seem to be a good translation. What should be done in a case like this? Not translate it at all? My suggestion would be to evaluate different translations in European languages, choose the best and translate from there. If one would choose a completely purist approach there would be no indirect translations and, in this case, that would mean that some readers wouldn’t be able to read Korean books unless they learn the language or are bilingual and read it in another translation.

Of the two options, I think I prefer a L2 translation to an indirect translation.

What do you think? Do you care whether a book is an indirect translation? Do you think it is more problematic to translate indirectly or when a L2 translation is done? Would you rather choose to read it in another language in which you are less fluent but that would at least be a direct translation?