I recently read two translations. The originals I know are popular and revered. The Master and Margarita and The Good Soldier Svejk. However, when I turned the last page of each instead of feeling profoundly moved or inspired, all I felt was a vague sense of disillusionment. A sense that compounds when I realize that I can never do justice to the works by the likes of Bulgakov and Hasek unless I master a completely alien language and culture. I want to read it, enjoy it and understand their experiences through their works but am limited severely.
Translators – Not Imitators
Even when I read an amazing translation of a work (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky for Russian works for example), I add a “surplus” to the work. This is because no person can rewrite what another person has written without changing something. And while attempting to translate across great linguistic and cultural distances the translator’s task sometimes becomes impractical. I would imagine translating a German work into Czech is far easier achieved than trying to translate it into English or Tamil. There are cultures, norms, mannerisms, languages, history, politics and geographies that just cannot be translated. So in a way, it is a brave ideal that the translator and the reader is attempting.
Even then, some works shine through. I am not sure if it is the magic of the work, the proficiency of the translators or general rules on translateability. Considering that most of what I am planning to read in the near future are translations I am nagged by a feeling of discontent regardless of the quality of translation.
If what I read is poor, then I must be missing something. If what I read is amazing, I want to experience the work in its true avatar. Some people are just born plain discontented, aren’t we?