In this line of work, what you are translating is never simply a series of signs or letters on a page but a set of unspoken assumptions and values. According to British novelist Tim Parks, who lives inItaly, where he is an accomplished translator and also teaches the subject, “the greater your understanding of the original language, its culture and nuances, the more you are able to free yourself from its immediate forms and write convincingly in your own language.”
Anthea Bell, who in a 50-year career of translating from French and German into English has translated a vast range of books, agrees. She thinks that “humour is perhaps the hardest thing of all to translate. People say the Germans have no sense of humour but I’ve spent much of my career trying to prove the contrary. “Bellis particularly acclaimed for her treatment of the puns in Asterix, Goscinny and Underzo’s classic bande dessinnee series – even though, as she admits, “you can’t translate a pun … You have to think laterally.” Which is how the British leader Zebigbos becomes Mykingdomforanos.
Each language has its own tics. The French are so fond of long, rambling sentences that when you use a French keyboard, you have to press the shift key to get a full stop – yet the semi-colon is right there. French writers also love ellipses and exclamation marks to a degree that, were you to reproduce these punctuation elements faithfully in an English translation, it would risk looking like the work of a 14-year-old. The rhythms of other languages are also obviously, fundamentally different from English.
According to Anna Holmwood, who translates from Swedish (her mother’s language) and Chinese (which she learned at university), “Chinese and English are very different in terms of structure, grammar, vocabulary and so on. You don’t really have tenses in Chinese for instance. Every translation question gets ramped up times 10.”
The nuances of the German language have been well documented. The translation of Sigmund Freud’s complete works into English demonstrates remarkable differences between the two languages and highlights the difficulties encountered when attempting to produce a ‘faithful’ translation. James Strachey’s English version is regarded by many as a masterwork of translation but by others as a betrayal of Freud.
Strachey took it for granted that psychoanalysis was a science. Scientific terminology in English traditionally relies on Latin and Greek roots to forge new words for new concepts. But Freud himself wrote in German, which uses compounds of quite ordinary words in the natural and social sciences. Thus where in English we use bits of Greek for ‘hydrogen’ and ‘oxygen’, German uses Wasserstoff (‘water-stuff’) and Sauerstoff (‘sour-stuff’). As a result, where Freud says Anlehnung (‘leaning-on’), Strachey coins “anaclisis”, and for Schaulust (‘see-pleasure’) he invents “scopophilia”.
Many now common words of English – ‘ego’, ‘id’, ‘superego’, ‘empathy’ and ‘displacement’, for example – were first invented by Strachey to replace Freud’s equally technical but less recondite neologisms, Ich, Es, Ueberich, Einfuehlung and Verschiebung.
Parks sums it up neatly when he says that “faithfulness is not just a faithfulness to the semantics of a text but to its readability and register.” Particularly in literary translation, sometimes only a “free” translation is capable of being true to the soul of the original book or text.