#Translation and Heartbreak

I review a lot of translated literature on this here blog thing. I also advocate for translating German literature. I love translation (I may be of two minds about poetry translation) as I love literature. I also think that ethically, translation is an extremely difficult business. I don’t, at this point, want to wade in further in the issue, but this post is just to reflect my sadness and heartbreak about the recent news about Han Kang’s English translator.

Personally, I stay away from German translation because it is *as a rule* either sloppy or rather distanced from the text. There are whole generations of translators who are taught to “improve” the text. I heard that at university when i studied Romance languages in Bonn. Germans have no issues translating a Japanese text from the English translation. It’s bizarre and offensive. So I try to read English and French translations. And with some languages, particularly Romance languages, you can guess. When I read the Villalobos I reviewed yesterday, I double checked a few things in my Spanish dictionary and I think I can make an educated guess at some of the translation’s flaws (this is not in the review; I didn’t want to be a sourpuss). But with, say, Korean, I am out on a raft on the empty sea. I don’t speak any Asian language to my great shame and embarrassment and so my guesses, well, let me quote from my review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian:

The translation fits the text perfectly and contributes to the unsettling effect that this novel-in-stories provides.


The ultimate test of a translation, the accuracy, is one I cannot perform, but from my limited angle this is a fine effort, and Han Kang is fortunate to be translated by Deborah Smith, almost as fortunate as we all have to have such a good novel around.

As I found out this week, I was severely off-base. I recommend you read this essay by Charse Yung with some urgency if you haven’t yet. I share none of its positive attitude and spin to the facts it lays out. I read (and reread) this with a profound sense of heartbreak. Sure, the numerical parts are questionable (how do you quantify how much has been added since no good translation is a 1-to-1 interlinear equivalent) without reading the paper mentioned (but not cited) within. But even with some allowance for that, the rest of the autopsy here is absolutely atrocious. I am heartbroken. As someone as profoundly and shamefully limited as me with languages, translation is a trust excercise. Egregious cases like this one feel like a betrayal to me. I know I may take literature too seriously, people tell me that, but this is a stunning case. Let me repeat: you want to read this article. And I don’t see how you (or anyone) can ever read another Smith-translated book again.


9 thoughts on “#Translation and Heartbreak

  1. oh gawd, this reminds me of the Mo Yan translator who misunderstands his vocation, to say nothing of the power of editors over susceptible (suggestible?) translators

    • Ah, Goldblatt. I was talking to the German translator of Bei Dao a few years ago (article on the blog somewhere) who admits he strays far from the text and who, in a speech humorously (?) points out that his Chinese knowledge is limited by the period he learned it in. He teaches chinese studies in Bonn and is generally viewed as an authority on the subject here. Appalling.

  2. This is a topic I could get into at length (preferably over a cool beverage). I think it is risky to dissect a translation too closely, especially when you know the original language/work well. A good translation has to stand on its own as a cohesive work and that may mean blurring the individual notes a little. It’s also risky to haul out a dictionary for a language like Spanish which has many regional variations. Compromises also have to be made as well to find English equivalents for slang usages that will not directly translate with the same sort of impact (ideally that is a collaborative effort between author, translator and editor).

    I don’t know any other language fluently, but sadly many translators have only a textbook knowledge of the language they translate from. They have not invested the time and effort required to live and work in that language (and often for very practical reasons). If that author-translator-publisher dynamic is not possible in those situations, the translation suffers.

    Finally, as to The Vegetarian, my review was very guarded and I questioned the translation because I felt it had been stripped of any flavour. I had to keep reminding myself the book had been written in Korean and set in Korea. It read to me as a strictly British English in a way that grated on my nerves (and I read the North American release in review copy). But more than anything I was underwhelmed by the entire novel—it felt forced and amateurish (and I like weird stuff). I didn’t know what to put that down to other than a general coolness on my part to much contemporary Japanese and Korean literature. I always considered myself an outlier regarding the Vegetarian because for so long criticizing this work was sacrosanct, but I did find fellow disbelievers along the way. Choking back the Schadenfreude now.

    And I guess I did go on at length. 🙂

    • So I can’t reply to your excellent points about translation right now, but I want to stress a point about my opinion regarding “The Vegetarian” – I still think (apparently disagreeing with you ;)) that the book *as published* is a very good book. You’re just wrong about that. 😉 It’s just not Han Kang’s book. The unhappiness I feel is not about its quality as a novel because that has obviously not changed. I am distressed with the book *as translation* which is different.

    • Without reasoned disagreement there would be no grounds for intelligent debate. 🙂 I’m quite well aware that I am in a minority regarding The Vegetarian—now I am curious if a different translation would have changed my view somewhat.

    • I wonder – the things you don’t like about the book, it seems like the way the original was written, according to the article, might increase your objections? But hard to know.

  3. A few thoughts. Experience as a sometime editor and reader tells me even without knowing the original language, you can often get a sense something isn’t quite right. In regards to the Vegetarian, Tim Parks, for example, seemed to have smelled something fishy (http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/06/20/raw-and-cooked-translation-why-the-vegetarian-wins/). Some examples: In Spanish, “amen de” means “aside from.” It’s not a very common phrase, but it’s not a very uncommon one, either. Here (http://www.andotherstories.org/aos/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/10/from-The-Offence1.pdf) a translator renders it as “amen to.” I think any conscientious reader would be likely to wonder what this “amen to” is doing here, and clearly this is not something that can be justified with recourse to the difference between languages and cultures, the impossibility of transposing a text 1:1, etc. Rather it is a translator who encountered something unfamiliar and shot from the hip rather than using a good dictionary. There is no reason why things like this shouldn’t be pointed out. If it’s one or two in a book, fine, everyone makes mistakes, but the idea that a book can be riddled with such and still get a pass is a bit much. Interpolations are a different matter. It’s been pointed out that initial translations tend to respond to the expectations of the target language and culture, and that subsequent ones often restore lost idiosyncrasies and nuances – maybe this is OK. When I was translating Jean Améry’s Charles Bovary: Country Doctor, I read the French and Italian translations and found the former to be a very good book in its own right, but one that stuffed and filled out and rounded the edges of the original pretty dramatically. Too much so? Since I have native competency in neither French nor German, I wouldn’t deign to say, but on my own, I wouldn’t have dared to switch things around that much. Editors then are another matter. There are some who don’t change a line and others who treat a translated text as if it were a rough draft awaiting their approval. At that point, it seems to me the author should decide whether having very different versions of a text in different languages is acceptable.

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