“The difference between a translation and an original is not of the same as the difference between powdered and steamed coffee.”

Is Translation Just a Poor Substitute for the Real Thing?
By Dennis Abrams

One of the books I’ve been reading lately is David Bellos’ Is That a Fish In Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. It’s a fascinating look at well…everything to do with translation, and I thought for today’s post I’d share a few excerpts:

Talking about the old adage that translation is no substitute for the original:

“Using the adage in this way obviously affects the meaning of the word substitute. If, for example, I said, ‘Instant coffee is no substitute for espresso made from freshly ground beans,’ I would be wrong, in the sense that the purpose of instant coffee is to serve as a substitute for more laborious ways of making the drink; but also right, as long as the word ‘substitute’ is understood to mean ‘the same as,’ ‘as good as,’ or ‘equivalent to.’ Instant coffee is clearly not the same as espresso; many people regard it as not as good as espresso; and because preferences in the field of coffee are matters of individual taste, it is not unreasonable to treat powdered coffee as not equivalent to espresso. We do often say all these more explicit things about coffee. But it is not so straightforward when it comes to translation.

People who declare translations to be no substitute for the original imply that they possess the means to recognize and appreciate the real thing, that is to say, original composition as opposed to a translation. Without this ability they could not possibly make the claim that they do. Just as an inability to distinguish two types of coffee would deprive you of any possibility of comparing them, so the ability to discriminate between ‘a translation’ and ‘an original’ is a basic requirement for anyone who wants to claim that one of them is not the same as, equivalent to, or as good as the other.

In practice, we look at the title page, jacket copy, or copyright page of a book or the byline at the bottom of an article to find out whether or not we are reading a translation. But in the absence of such giveaways, are readers in fact able to distinguish, by the taste on their linguistic tongues, whether a text is ‘original’ or ‘translated?’ Absolutely not…”

After a discussion of authors who write books pretending that it is a translation (Horace Walpole for example and the recent Andrei Makine), as well as the reverse (Romain Gary), he continued:

“What all such deceptions underscore is that reading alone simply does not tell you whether a work was originally written in the language you are reading it in. The difference between a translation and an original is not of the same as the difference between powdered and steamed coffee. It’s more than just an idea. But it is not at al easy to demonstrate.

The idea that a translation is not a substitute for the original work must also be subjected to another critique. If the adage were true, then what would users of a translation get from reading a translation? Not the real thing, obviously. But they would not even get a substitute for it – not even the literary equivalent of powdered coffee. Asserting the irreplaceable nature of a literary original condemns those who cannot read the language in question to the consumption not of Nescafe but of dishwater. No opinions would be worth holding except by those who read works in the original.

Yet the samples of Cervantes (Don Quixote claims to be translated from the Arabic), Walpole, Macpherson, Gary, Guilleragues, Makine, Clifford, and countless others demonstrate that nobody can be certain that what he has read is an original.

Ismail Kadare tells another story about the indistinction of original and translated texts in his memoir-novel, Chronicle in Stone. As a ten-year-old, he was entranced by a book he’d been given by an uncle. With its story of ghosts, castles, murder and betrayal, it appealed to him immensely, especially as it seemed to explain some of what had been going on around him in the fortress city of Gjirokaster over the preceding years of war and civil strife. The book’s title? Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Young Ismail could see Lady Macbeth down the street, wringing her hands on the balcony, washing away the terrible things that had happened in her home. He had no idea that the play had originally been written in English. In childish fascination with a text he reread many times. Kadare copied out the unsuspected translation by hand, and nowadays, when asked by interviewers which was the first book he ever wrote, he always answers, with only half a smile, Macbeth. To this day, Kadare has not learned to speak English, but he counts Macbeth as the founding experience of his own life in literature. Whatever the quality of the translation that so inspired him, it clearly did not have the effect of dishwater. It was more like an elixir.

Why then do people still say that a translation is no substitute for an original? The adage might conceivably be of use to people who consciously avoid reading anything in translation, as it would justify and explain their practice. But since there is no reliable way of distinguishing a translation from an original by internal criteria alone, such purists could never be sure they were sticking to their guns. And even if by some stroke of luck they did manage to keep clear of all original work in their reading, they would end up with a decidedly peculiar view of the world – if they were English readers, they would have no knowledge of the Bible, Tolstoy, or Planet of the Apes. All the adage really does is provide spurious cover for the view that translation is a second-rate kind of thing. That’s what people really mean to say when they assert that a translation is no substitute for original work.”


My next posts: My final post on Hard Boiled World and the End of the World will be on Thursday, June 2nd, followed by my introductory post on our next book, the truly truly amazing Windup Bird Chronicle, on June 10.


3 thoughts on ““The difference between a translation and an original is not of the same as the difference between powdered and steamed coffee.””

  1. Because I can read in only one language – the ubiquitous English, of course – I do at times wish I could read Proust in French, or Dostoevsky in Russian, or Pamuk in Turkish. (Or Murasaki in Japanese.) Or watch one of Miyazaki’s films without having to read the subtitles (now that’s a whole other subject!). But I can’t and have to be grateful that I can read them at all. I do have a sense of missing something, but I’m also getting a great deal from reading people who are translated into English. I’d rather be missing “something” than missing the whole thing.

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