May 16, 2018

“Reasons We Hate Translations So Often”. Excerpt from “What Bestsellers Tell Us” by Galina Yuzefovich

“What Bestsellers Tell Us. The Workings of a Book World” by Meduza book reviewer Galina Yuzefovich is coming out in May, published by Elena Shubina Editors. The book explains the reasons behind Harry Potter phenomenon, our love for Fandorin, similarities between Great American Novel and a Russian one, details on children reading and what one gets a Nobel Prize for. 

“A major point is missing from your review of The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay – the translation is terrible. The whole novel is in present tense! It is impossible to read, I threw the book out. And it was big and pricey!” This was an angry reader’s message I received on Facebook. My other subscribers wholeheartedly agreed and immediately started suggesting different ways of punishing the translator: rip their arms out, kick them out of trade in disgrace, complain to the publisher and so on. I was very surprised, I must admit, since in this case there was no reason for such reaction. Yes, Vasily Dorogokuplya indeed translated Martin Seay’s novel in present tense (and a brilliant translation it is, by the way). What else was he to do – the novel is written this way in English: “He comes in, he sees, he says…”? Indeed, large passages of Russian text using present tense look strange and can be annoying. However, I have to note that this is not a norm in English either. Rather, this was an important and unconventional decision on the part of the author, a decision which cannot be simply ignored by a translator. Basically, The Mirror Thief translation was consciously produced this way with the aim of bringing the original to Russian readers as precisely as possible, with all nuances and peculiarities. Usually, this is the very definition of a good translation – but rather than gratitude, the translator is suddenly met with suggestions to have his arms ripped out.

Overreacting to translation quality is our unique national hallmark. As far as I know this situation does not exist anywhere else. Only in this country the translators are lynched, killed and otherwise mistreated – so far in a verbal form, thankfully. Apparently some meaningful “sore spot” exists in the society: bad (or simply unusual) translations are taken as an offense against the reader and as general blasphemy. A blasphemy against the “ideal”, absolute translation and the notion that it can be produced. An idea formed by our translators’ school of thought in the second half of the 20th century.

In Soviet times the main task of a translation was considered to replace an original once and for all. No one could seriously consider the possibility of redoing the translation. What for? We already have the best, correct and final translation. This way, Russian translation of Charles Dickens would become a fact in the Russian culture, no more subject to reconsidering or modification than Dostoyevsky or, say, Turgenev. An idea that someone would want to read the book in English (French, Portuguese, Spanish and so on) was completely unimaginable. Who knows what kind of alien or simply unfamiliar ideas the reader might encounter? And what for – when “the translation is better”? In the seventies and eighties there was a saying that Kurt Vonnegut books aren’t that good, but they really shine after having been translated by Rita Wright-Kovaleva. That was a joke of course, but only partially. And that part wasn’t big. In those times, a lot of people thought that enhancing the original, adapting and modifying it, making it conform to our standards or censoring it constitutes caring for the reader. Of course, this was a logical outcome of USSR’s paternalistic view of the world – there was always supposed to be someone who knows better and does everything right. Besides, too much of anything is bad and making choices is tiresome.

It is surprising, but many – almost everyone in fact – still think this way. An “ideal translation” vision remains very conservative until now and, in fact, does not differ much from a Soviet one. First of all, a translation must be very smooth, so as to not cause the reader any discomfort. And if some kind of discomfort is inherent in the text due to author’s efforts (like present tense of Martin Seay and some other modern writers), the worse for the author.

Secondly, the translation must be very understandable – if there is an unfamiliar concept in the text it should be exchanged for a familiar one. Case in point. While translating The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, with an unwavering hand, Rita Wright-Kovaleva transformed hamburgers which Holden Caulfield regularly consumes into meatball sandwiches (and never mind that these two objects’ pragmatics are quite different – a meatball sandwich is something a granny packs as a school lunch for her grandson, while a hamburger is being served at eateries). If a thought is formulated in a complicated way in the original, one should simplify it if possible. Case in point, Natalia Trauberg persistently simplified and smoothed out all reasoning in the novels of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a rather intricate author fond of nonlinear syntax.

And thirdly, an ideal translation must look as if the text was originally written in Russian – this is, of course, the key feature. Neither foreign speech style nor a single slightest sign that the text originates in a foreign cultural tradition is acceptable in a translation. Conceptually, this approach had its reasons in Soviet times. Originals were largely unavailable (not mentioning the fact that few people spoke foreign languages). The possibility of a book being translated more than once was nearly zero. And a lot of things (like that hamburger) were simply unknown to Soviet reader and were accordingly devoid of meaning and cultural connotations. And in any case, it would be strange and unfair to blame Soviet-era translators for working according to their times’ opinions and norms.

This attitude towards translations, nurtured in us by our beloved childhood books, is still considered the only possible one by many. As soon as a translator deviates from any of the three golden rules – stops smoothing the text artificially, refuses to adapt something that is unclear or tries to keep the original’s style – a call to rip their arms out immediately follows. At its core, this means one thing: in most cases our reader is not bothered by translation quality as it is – they just need the text to be as comfortable as possible, very easy to read and interpret.

Thankfully, these days more and more translators realize that one should not thoughtlessly pander to this reader’s desire. As a result, actually good translations are starting to emerge, sporting interesting solutions and polished style and at the same time conformant to the letter and spirit of the original. The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay translation, which we have started this conversation with, is undoubtedly one of those, despite (or rather thanks to) the annoying present tense.

Does this all mean that the newer the translation, the better it is? Of course not – not at all. The state of translating in Russia is far from ideal, and the main problem is not of a conceptual, but, as it often happens, rather of down-to-earth and practical nature: translators get laughably low wages. It is not like literary translation allowed for a luxurious life in the past, but during Soviet times a good professional had an opportunity to spend a year translating a single novel, not doing anything else, and still not die of hunger. There is no such opportunity now: one “author sheet” (approximately 24 pages of text) is worth anywhere from RUB 4,000 to RUB 6,000. This means that for a long book requiring a year – sometimes more – of work a translator would receive around RUB 80,000, which is noticeably less than a subsistence minimum wage. So, nowadays there are exactly two incentives to engage in literary translation: a great passion for this work (complemented by some other skill to earn the living) or just doing it quick and dirty.

Translators who do it out of passion are, understandably, a minority. Those who do it quick and dirty are more numerous and they are not really interested in the final product quality. Add to this a practically dead editor sector (publishers employing good editors can be counted on one hand) – and it becomes perfectly reasonable that many contemporary translations are simply unusable. For example, as a result of Victor Veber’s many years of effort a lot of Russian readers consider novels by the great Stephen King to be trash, and for a reason: unfortunately, they do feel just that in Veber’s translation. When switching a Russian publisher for The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, an entirely new translation had to be produced, since the first version was found to contain huge amount of mistakes and what’s worse – translator inventions. And these are first-class books, what can be said about lesser stuff?

Admittedly, along with the banal laziness, there are cases of clear conceptual radicalism. A major example of the latter is creative work of Maxim Nemtsov, the most hated member of translators guild and the first candidate for “Out of the trade!”. He had earned a particularly burning universal hatred with the above-mentioned Salinger translation: not only has Nemtsov blasphemed against the novel title (in his version it is called “Catcher in the Bread Field” (translator’s note: unlike the “classic” “Above an Abyss in the Rye” by Wright-Kovaleva), but he generally offered very uncomfortable reading – purposefully awkward, shrill, unmusical, as if intentionally opposing Wright-Kovaleva’s classical translation. Readers’ indignation is understandable – the text can hardly be called a success. Having a great knowledge of language and reality, Nemtsov nevertheless uses such… non-standard (to be polite) solutions in his translations that the final outcome of his work (long, thoughtful and meticulous) often doesn’t differ all that much from the results shift man Veber gets.

But what is impossible to understand, is public reaction of practically prohibiting repeated translations of foreign books that have been translated once with those translations becoming canon. By the way, something similar happened to Harry Potter translations produced by Masha Spivak: their shortcoming is not that they are bad (so-called “Rosmen translations” aren’t much better), but rather that they differ from the old ones, to which we are used and consider them “the only right ones”.

In a word, not everything is fine with today’s translations, and the postulate that any new translation is better than old ones by definition would be at least imprecise. But before cursing contemporary translators and their work results, it is always a good idea to ask oneself an honest question: maybe it is just that we want a translation “from the childhood” – a “warm and rich, like tube sound” translation, clear even in places that aren’t supposed to be clear? If the answer is positive, maybe it would be a good idea to take a few steps back and actually think whether the time has come to reject our dear native “meatball sandwiches” in favor of foreign hamburgers. And if not, well… it is never too late to rip out a few arms.

Translated from the Russian original published on: