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?
68 thoughts on “On Indirect Translations and L2 Translations”
I have to be honest, I’ve never considered that a translated work would not have been translated from the original. I need to be more careful when I buy books. This is just asking for a bad translation, especially if the first translator wasn’t that great. The problem will be perpetuated.
I wasn’t aware that existed until I held that Murakami translation in my hands. Bellos is an excellent translator and if he has, on top of that, Kadare’s help, I’m sure they are doing something that is close to a great direct translation. On the other hand, not translating certain books would be just too sad.
I agree, but it is hard to believe that there aren’t translators for certain languages. Dead languages I understand, but Albanian that’s a different story. I used to work with a woman from Albania. I loved listening to her talk to her family on the phone–such a beautiful language. I’m not trying to argue with you. I’m just sad that some languages don’t have reliable translators. I guess I never really put a lot of thought into it.
I found it stranger in the Murakami case as there are many Japanese books that have been translated directly from the Japanese into German. Why not that one? I suppose that good literary translators are quite rare. There are not all that many Albanaina writers who have a chance to be translated, what would that translator translate the rest of the time?
I couldn’t imagine the difficulties of being a translator. I would never want the responsibility. You make a good point about Albanian translators. The only Albanian author on my list is the one mentioned above, Ismail Kadare.
There are certainly Albanian – English interpreters but that’s an entirely different type of work
Regarding translators from Albanian to English: the most famous and active one since more than 30 years is Robert Elsie (www.elsie.de). He has translated dozens of books from Albanian to English (and a few to German), and he has also published and edited many books related to Albanian literature, culture, history, etc., and on top of it he works also as a translator and interpreter on a political level (government negotiations) and in the International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia in The Hague (Milosevic trial et al.); a really busy man I guess. For me it is a bit ridiculous when Bellos (who knows better) claims that there are no translators from Albanian to English. The reason why the Kadare translations were made from the French and not from the Albanian have nothing to do with the lack of translators and a lot with the fact that the French texts of the pre-1990 Kadare novels are extensively revised and changed compared to the Albanian texts. (There is of course also an additional financial reason why Kadare and his agent Andrew Wylie prefer the translation of the pre-1990 novels from the French)
I hadn’t seen it like that. I suppose there are always many reasons.
I had the impression though that B ellos was a very reliable source.
As fasr as I know the German translations are also from the French.
The Kadare edition that is on the market right now in Germany is translated by Joachim Roehm without exception from the Albanian. Also other Albanian authors I know, like Fatos Kongoli, Beqe Cufaj, Migjeni, Ornela Vorpsi, Asem Shkreli, Ali Podrimja, Rexhep Qosja, Besnik Mustafaj are exclusively translated directly. Maybe I should mention that Albania didn’t join the Berne Convention on Copyright and Intellectual Property until 1994, with the effect that books originally published before that date are not protected by copyright – which means that foreign publishers have no legal (only a moral) obligation to pay royalties to the authors if they publish new editions or translations of these books. Kadare (and his agent) wouldn’t normally receive a cent for his pre-1990 (or more correctly pre-1994) books if he wouldn’t rewrite, publish and translate them in France or get them translated from French language.
I don’t know where I got that wrong information from. I just checked my copies and, of course, they are translated by Röhm.
That about the copy right is very interesting.
It happens also to me quite frequently, Caroline, no big deal 🙂 As for the copyright issue I remember a quite famous case more than 20 years ago. The Soviet Union had joined the Berne Convention at some moment in the 1950s, but books that were published before that date were not protected by copyright. Suhrkamp, the German publisher of Chingiz Aitmatov, never paid a penny to the author for his book Djamilja, a big commercial success. When Swiss Unionsverlag published with the consent of Aitmatov a new translation in German and even voluntarily paid royalties to the author (the book was even sold a bit cheaper than the Suhrkamp edition), Siegfried Unseld, the Suhrkamp publisher, was furious. But instead of doing the decent thing, accept this and pay royalties to Aitmatov, he published another edition of the old translation for an even cheaper prize than the Unionsverlag edition, just to undercut them and get their edition off the market. Moral: book people are just like everybody else – some are nice people, some are not.
I’m glad I’ve got the Unionsverlag edition. A wonderful writer, btw. I don’t think a lot is available in English. I wouldn’t have pictured the Suhrkamp Verlag of such doings.
I had the same double-take moment when I read my first (and so far, only) Murakami novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, also in German.
I have no idea why indirect translations are fine but L2 ones aren’t. I suppose many people can’t imagine that a non-native speaker would be able to translate well enough into their second language to capture all the subtleties of literary writing. I disagree, but it seems to be an assumption people make.
Why, however, this makes indirect translations OK even when translators are available, I have no idea.
In the case of Murakami, when I reviewed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (here: http://wp.me/p1gPfH-5Y), knowledgeable people told me in the comments that the English version was actually truncated! Apparently this truncation was carried over into the German translation. I feel severely cheated.
I have that same translation too! I bought more than one of his books at the same time without knowing this. It is bad when the source translation is bad on top of that. I have no clue why they do it. the German market is speedy. maybe that’s a reasons. Guess it’s faster to translate from the English. His last was translated from the Japanese I think.
I have done some great L2 translations and some frankly bad direct ones (not literary – technical but still).
Usually the word bilingual is reserved for people, like me, who have two or more native languages but I know people who are perfectly bilingual in a foreign language. Especially when they have been living in the counry for years. I would not feel comfortable, as a translator, to translate indirectly.
I think in the case of indirect translations it depends on the translation from the original. So I wouldn’t discount indirect translations in favour of L2 ones.
L2 vs. L1: I don’t see a big difference. With L1 you can miss an underlying meaning or some connotation in the foreign language just as much as you might be unable to bring your native language’s meaning into the foreign one. The ability of the translator is the key in both kinds of translation.
If you read the process that Peavear and his wife Larissa Volokhonsky go through when they translate from Russian into English, it seems that they have the perfect method.
I think that a translator duo is the most perfect way but I have to admit there are outstanding translators. It all depends on the language combination. French/Italina Englsih/German, that’s feasible for a L1 translator.
I agree. I think it’s sad that time is a key issue. If one translator did the biggest part and another one could fine tune we’d see so much greater translations.
As I am not bilingual, I’m just grateful if it’s been translated into English, although quality of translation is a worry. If I have a choice of translations I will try to get the best one.
I didn’t think that they would translate a book not from the original language self – I haven’t come across one yet myself. Maybe as the English language is probably the most common it is more likely to happen with other languages?
I really wish I could learn another language – I’m quite bad at languages. I tried to learn German at one point but all it did was make me realise how bad my understanding of my own language is! One day I’d like to learn another just to try and make up for it.
Maybe I would learn a language which lacks a lot English language translations?
I’m not sure your last point would sufficiently motivate you to keep on learning although the readers would be grateful. 🙂 You need an affinity for languages or it always stays a patch work thing. I think that there are indirect translations into English as well but maybe less. And there will be more chances of finding at least someone who can do an L2 translation, I agree.
I would almost always prefer an L2 to an indirect translation, I would think. All other things being equal, at least inadequacies in the L2 translation would be the result of the translator and not an altogether different translator’s errors passed on down to another generation. Stanislaw Lem’s English version of Solaris is another famous case in point; for many years, the main “Englishization” came from a French copy and not the Polish original. Of course, you have a similar problem with ancient and medieval works and other pre-invention of the printing press texts. There’s often not a “master” work approved by the original author but rather many partial works that a modern editor has to compare to decide what the original manuscript must have looked like. This is sometimes scientific and sometimes guesswork from what I understand.
I perfer an L2 translation. I bought Solaris not too long ago but I’m not sure now which translation. That is a problem I realized when you buy online. It rarely says from what language it has been translated. That’s interesting what you say about the medieval works, I hadn’t thought of them. It reminds me that translating sometimes feels like doing a puzzle.
I believe you know where I stand regarding this issue. Since I have the ability to read full novel in English, I always try to read the original if the book is written in English.
The problem comes when I want to read books from other language….ALL books from other languages are L2 translation and I hate that! It gives double interpretation. I like them to be L1 translation.
Funny thing is, all manga here are translated from Japanese but novels are translated from English not from its original Japanese language.
Great post, Caroline. I wish all books can be L1 translation version.
Thanks Novia, yes, I know your position. I wish all of tem were L1 but that doesn’t even guarantee that the translation will be a good one. I suppose Bahasa is another of those languages. Not enough translators for all the different languages. I think that in your case I might read an English translation right away instead of the Bahasa that has been translated from English. Seems pointless.
Translating a novel is more time consuming, maybe that’s why the mangas are direct translations.
I guess you are right, Manga has less words than novel and that might be the reason for translating it dirrectly.
Yes, I always read the English translation for books from other languages, except for one that doesnt avaiable here like Moribito
i wonder now, I have a feeling the German mangas have been translated from the English and not from the Japanese… Very probabae.
I also read this book and loved it a lot. see my review: http://wordsandpeace.com/2012/01/10/is-that-a-fish-in-your-ear/
I consider myself bilingual, and I am a translator, mostly from English to French, so L1.
But interestingly enough, when I was an English student, I always had far better grades at L2 translations than at L1, because I could embrace very well English syntax and would forget the usual grammatical forms in my own language!
I’m doing tons of translations now, so hopefully though living in the US, I still use my french grammar correctly.
If you remember, Dallos mentions in his book that in Asia, they actually do prefer L2 translators!
If both authors have lived enough years in the country of the language they translated the book into, I’m open to indirect translations. The thing is, you really need to know extremely well the culture to translate more the tones than the words themselves, that’s what makes a good translation, to my opinion.
Some years ago, I was doing simultaneous translations for a very large group of people, and there was an intense discussion on some spiritual points. The Japanese speaking group did not have any translator for French. So I had to wait for the Japanese-English translator to do his job, and then would translate into French. And vice versa: another translator would translate into English what was said in French, and then that was translated into Japanese. All simultaneous, or almost! We were all amazed, translators and participants, at how well the whole thing worked: we ended up with a very interesting conversation that did make sense!
long post in defense of indirect translation.
Thanks for your excellent questions.
Thnaks, Emma. I completely agree with you. I have done a few L2 translations that are far better than L1. Living in an English speaking community for a long time makes you a bilingual in the end.
Maybe you are right about some indirect translations. I found it very interesting that such a great translator as Bellos does that. Thanks for the link to your review.
I haven’t finished the book yet but remember that part on Asia.
I think there is more flexibility in a simultaneous translation as you can go back and frth (not saying it isn’t a challenege), all the parties are present and you can clarify immediatel. Thanks for your comments from a translator’s point of view.
The problem of translation never bothers me until I get to a part in a book that doesn’t sound quite right and then I ask myself if that’s what the author really meant or if something got lost in the process.Last year I read a book by a Thai author – it was translated into English and the author had said something along the lines of : “it’s not translated word by word but everything I wrote it’s there”. Well, that’s all I needed to know, and it’s true that I couldn’t find any fault with the writing. It seemed very natural and easy flowing and I enjoyed the book a lot.
I do prefer to read a book in its original language but that’s not always possible, of course.
I’m not often shocked by translations but I have found out I cannot read books traslated from languages that I know anymore (I do sometimes because it’s time-consuming depending on the language). I seem to hear the original underneath the German/French and that bothers me. I think sometimes the translators want to keep the falvour of the original, all very well but what I ten get to readis not really German. No, it’s not always possible to read in the original but I have a tendency to avoid translations if I can.
I’ve noticed that in popular fiction (especially the Icelandic mysteries I enjoy) if the author is “hot” the translation will often seem “rushed”- the last Indriðason novel I read was filled with typos and errors- and it was done by an otherwise competent L1 translator. I fear that I will die before there is a proper English translation of Halldór Laxness’ Salka Valka, the only English verision available was translated from the Danish- in 1936!
That’s a very good point and exactly what I have noticed. The Murakami at the time was the result of the Geman market wanting to sell right away. And yes, especially in genre writing you find sloppy translations. I don’t think it’s the fault of the translator but if they have to rush. And they may use those translating systems that generate weird sounding stuff. I could translate the one of Laxness books that deosn’t exist in English from the German… That would even be an indirect L2 translation. Better not, I guess.
I wasn’t aware of indirect translations at all, Caroline. It seems like a lot would be lost that way.
My biggest gripe is with truly terrible translations. I find myself correcting the text in my head and it’s very distracting. I used to do translation, so I know it’s possible to do it right.
You did? From the German or the French? Yes, you can do it right but you need time as well. We always assume than an indirect trabslation will be bad but if boths translators are excellent… Who knows? Ther are so many translators out there and surely they are not all good. And some language combinatiosn are just better than others. I’ve read a Dutch-German translation because I couldn’t find the Dutch book. Now Dutch and German are similar. What happend is that the translator messed up the structure of the sentences. The words were German bt some structures were plain Dutch (closer to English) – and in a Cees Nooteboom novel at that. Bad.
Yes, in another life I translated French patents into English. Sounds dry and boring, but it was very interesting. Challenging at first, because I didn’t know the lingo of mechanical engineering. Once I got that down, I loved it.
But I would not have felt confident doing the reverse, especially with fine literature. I think that requires submersion in the culture for years to get all the fine nuances. In life we have so many cultural references that we’d get only by living in that particular milieu. And I’m not a good enough writer to do justice to prose like that of Proust. When I read his works in French I try to imagine how I would put the words in English, and I can’t. But the original translation of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu stood for years before it was corrected. I always wondered why the title was Remembrance of Things Past. It may have been taken from Shakespeare, but it wasn’t accurate.
I’ve translated a fair amount of technical documents and especially patient information leaflets and the like. It can be interesting but the language is much easier, it’s more the vocabulary that is important, not the style. I’m more of a writer than a translator, I’d like to write my stories or books and not spend too much time translating what others have written but I would really like to translate poems.
The translation of titles is a mystery to me. In the case of Proust’s book it seems more an interpretation than a translation. Occasionally literal translations don’t do a book much justice. That’s something Bellos writes about in great detail.
I think you’d do a wonderful job, Caroline.
I would definitely prefer an L2 translation to an indirect translation. My gut response is that indirect translation would be more “watered down” than L2, less nuanced. Thanks for the reminder about the Bellos book, it will be first on my library holds after the TBR Dare.
I’m still reading it but it’s one of those books that contains such a lot of information, one can very well write more than once about it. I’m sure you will like it.
It seesm really hard to imagine that an indirect translation would work. I liked the Murakami I read but I have no idea how good it really was.
I’m looking forward to reading David Bellos’s book , when I get hold of a copy. As for translations, I would rather they were done by someone with a real flair for the language into which the book is being translated. I believe Bellos himself says that a translation has to be understood ultimately as a creative act in its own right, not just a scientific act of taking words out of one language and putting them into their equivalent in another. The equivalent itself so rarely exists.
Oh that is so true. I just made a similar comment. He says that the most literal translation is often not the best. You need a feeling for the language that’s why I think someone can mess up an L1 translation despite the fact that his skills are great. I’m sure you will like his book. It’s about so much more than translating.
This is such an interesting post! It is not something I have really thought of before, but I don’t think I’ve ever been aware of reading a book that wasn’t a direct translation. I have read some very bad translations that have been direct so I guess I’d rather have a skilled translator, that brings life to the text, rather than one that is simply able to do a direct translation.
Thanks, Jackie. Maybe it is far less frequent when you read English transations than in other languages but, as the Kadare example shows, it does exist. I think I haven’t read alll that many books from languages spoke by only very few people. It could explain why a lot never gets translated at all. Unless you have someon as experineced as Bellos and a translation at least in another European languga, indirect translations are not done. But the, gaian, as has been said, there are some bad direct L1 translations to be found.
I think this is out date as there now is a translator from Albanian the last kadare was a direct translation ,Belios had done a good job even indirect from the French but suppose it is like looking at a film through two sets of lens not getting the full picture ,us english speakers are the worst on translation far behind french and german but hopefully we’ll get better ,all the best stu
He mentions it in this book, I thought he was still doing it. I wonder whether they are going to retranslate them. “Like watching through two lenses” that analogy is spot on. I think there are more translated books available in German but many are indirect.
there are Ithink it treble what we have in english ,
I think it’s getting better but it takes an awfully long time. When I think of some of the Japanese books that I read 10 years ago and they are only just translated to English.
I discovered the issue of indirect translations when Richard told me about the translation of Solaris. I went to my library, picked up a book from almost all the foreign books I had (Spanish, Italian, Japanese, German…) and I couldn’t find one that wasn’t a direct translation.
It’s not a scientific survey but it seems we’re fine with translations into French.
I’ve never translated anything but the quotes I use in my posts and I find it a very difficult job. It’s easier to do L1 translations, I think.
I think you are indeed safer in French. My apparoach is that I buy a book in a translation that seesm closer to the original language – sound wise. For some reason I don’t want to read Japanese or Russian in French translations but since I saw how often the German markets does this indrect translation thing, I’m more reluctant.
I’m the opposite, I find it easier to translate to English than German. Not sure about French. That’s somewhere inbetween, I guess.
Why wouldn’t you read Japanese translations in French? I guess that there’s a good chance that an Italian book is easier to translate in French than in English. But for Japanese? It seems as far from French than from English or German anyway.
Did I get mixed up with the L1 & L2 thing? I meant that being French it’s easier for me to translate English into French than the contrary. (“Version” is easier than “thème”)
That’s totally subjective, it’s the sound of the labguage that I find hard therefore colser to te very hard sounds of the German language. No other reason. Italian I hardly ever read in translation, Spanish often because the originl is hard to get and it is my weakest language, takes longer to read. Usually I would always read a French translation. I am, as usually contradicting myself again and ordered a whole bunch of great looking Japanese novels and short stories. I’d like to get into it more systematically as Jaapanese, Italian, French, English and American seem my favourites. German comes last after all.
No, you didn’t mix up L1 & L2, I seem to have less of a problem doing L2 translations.
I had no idea–I always assumed that translations were either L1 or L2 (and only by reading your post discovered that is what they are called). I guess it makes sense with certain languages that it may be difficult to find a lot of good translators, but you would think that Japanese would be a language that could be translated directly. Translations are so interesting–and I never know if a book feels clunky whether it is a matter of a not very good translation or one that perhaps wasn’t written very well to begin with. One of my favorite translators is Anthea Bell and she has said the best translations are the ones that you didn’t even realize were translated (I suppose that is common sense, but often times even a pretty good translation still feels translated).
I learned that this was called L1/L2 in the Bellos. 🙂
The whoe issue makes me think that this may very well be a reason why not al that many books are translated to begin with. You need good translators. There aren’t people like Bellos and Anthea Bell for every language. In the case of Bell, I’ve seen a few pages of her translations from the German, compared the German with the English and I wasn’t that thrilled but that’s what Bellos says. Take a piece of writing and 50 translators and you will get 50 different translations. If I would have translated it din another way, I’m bound to think it’s not that good.
Many people commented about the book Please Look After Mother. I only read part I, so I can’t say for sure but everyone emphasized how bad the English translation was. I’m surprised, how would they know? Maybe that’s how the original is.
This has been done for decades. In Portugal, the Russians were all translated from French translations. Direct translations only started showing up in the last decade or so, thankfully.
I also think L2 is OK if the translator is fluent enough. It’s a strange prejudice.
Thanks for your comment, Miguel, that’s interesting. I’m sure there are great French translation still I’m grateful this doesn’t happen anymore.
It’s a prjudice about L2 translations. I would like to be able to cmpare, read a short story translated by a L1 and an L2 translator. Would be interesting.
Wonderful post on an interesting topic, Caroline! I agree with you that sometimes (in these days even many times) a non-native speaker might be as fluent in a language as a native speaker. In such cases, a L2 translation is as good as a L1 translation. The indirect translation is an interesting thing. I thought all books translated into English where translated directly from the original language. Then I was reading a book of poems by Rumi compiled by Coleman Barks and someone told me that it is an indirect translation. I couldn’t believe it! It did put me off a bit but Coleman Barks’ book was still good. I can’t believe that there are no translators who can translate from Albanian to English. There are many books which are translated into my own language and they are normally indirect translations and the source used is the English translation – for example 19th century Russian novels, Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’, Jostein Gaarder’s ‘Sophie’s World’, Roberto Calasso’s ‘Ka’. We have come to accept that and have learnt to live with that here.
Thanks Vishy and for your commnet. It’s intersting to know how it is in Tamil. It seems similar to the situation in Indonesia mentined by Novroz- It seems as Stu wrote that they have found an English translator who can translate from the Albanian by now.
I think that classics were often translated indirectly that’s why new translations get such a lot of interest. I would have to compare two translations but it’s hard to believe that not even more gets lost when thy chose this approach.
Nice to know that they have found an Albanian-English translator now. Stu is a real expert in translated literature 🙂 I liked what you said about new translations. I remember sometime back that Lydia Davis’ new translations of ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Swann’s Way’ created a lot of waves and so did Richard Pevear’s and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of the 19th century Russian classics.
Stu is an expert, that’s for sure. There is a German translator who taslates all the Russians, she is far over 80 now but every time a new translation comes out there is quite a reception. I need to read her memoirs (not translated I’m afraid).
This post has been so educational for me. I had no idea of the terms L1/L2 translation.
Just last week, I was searching for a translation of Chekov’s short story The Lady with the Little Dog and found several English versions. The differences in word choices were subtle but important. One example, I remember, was about a type of hat the woman was wearing. The author may have had a very specific intention in telling the reader that the lady was wearing a certain type of hat.
I can only imagine if one of those English versions was then translated into a third language how far away from the original we could get.
Thank you for this interesting and informative post.
You’re welcome Jacquelin. I wasn’t aware of the terms before starting Bellos’ book. And I thought that indirect translations was something that is very rare. For me it is important to know what type of hat an author chose to describe. I also hate it when translators transpose elemenst into the other culture. I think you should maintain it, and explain it in a footnote.
The way books are translated has changed a lot.
Fascinating post. I’ve read several Kadare’s in English, and not the more recent ones, so I must have read those indirect translations without realising. It was I admit before I started paying more attention to translations.
Sandor Marai’s book Embers (I think it’s that one) is also a double translation in English, but by all accounts still pretty close to the original.
My concern with L2s isn’t insurmountable, but it is there. It’s I think an issue of idiom, of capturing how a native would actually use language, which is very hard.
The poster child for this is Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin. Famously accurate. Famously lacking in any sense of poetry or style. Admittedly that was a knowing choice on Nabokov’s part, a political choice even, but it illustrates where the issue can arise.
On a less literary note I’ve dealt with a lot of L2 translations in legal work – contracts translated out of the native language into English. They tend to be nearly unreadable as a rule, which I admit may have left a lingering prejudice.
Still, much better L2 than no translation at all, and while a double translation can yield good results it’s clearly an extra layer of filter, so the risks of getting further from the source must be greater.
Thanks Max. It’s an incredibly fascinating topic. It does look as if you had read the indirect or double translation of Kadaré. I have Embers in a German translation. I will have to see where it was translated from.
I just read that bit of Nabokov’s translation that Guy posted and liked it but there you go… I’m not a native. I wouldn’t dare do an L2 translation of something literary completely on my own and I understand your concern when it comes to L2 translations as a general rule. I must say I did some L2 translations and don’t think they were bad at all but purely pharmaceutical and clinical language. I manage well in English but have made some French translations and got the comment I was too literary. In any case, supervising translations being part of my daily business, I’ve seen awful things happen in the domain of specialized languages. If you have a great L1 translator with zero knowledge of a specific language…
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A fascinating blog post and discussion! I need definitely to get my hands on a copy of Bellos’ book. Since I have been thinking about exactly the same question for quite a while before I read your post, I intend to write something about this topic on my blog soon. What counts for me is in the end the quality of translation, be it L1, L2 or indirect – though chances that the translation is good are higher when it is a direct translation. L2 translation can be excellent, but that depends from the translator. Also the Kadare case is very interesting. Will write about it soon more in detail.
Thanks, Thomas. It’s an interesting question. I’ve mostly done L1 translations but occasionally also L2 but not for literature.
I’m very interested in your post. I’ll look out for it.
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