Found in Translation

Posted on: 12/01/2010

“Translation”, wrote Anthony Burgess, “is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” In making intelligible the cultures of other tongues, translators have shaped the culture and history of the English-speaking world. No book has influenced British life more than the King James Bible — the most famous of English translations and the greatest work of literature ever written by committee. The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Arabian Nights are part of the nation’s cultural inheritance, yet few native English speakers now read ancient Hebrew, classical Greek or Arabic — or, for that matter, any other foreign language. These works have been absorbed by generations through the efforts of translators.

The understated art of translation will be recognised this evening at the Times Literary Supplement’s Translation Prizes. The translators of seven books published in English last year, each out of a different language, will be honoured. The paradox of their work is that successful translators pass unnoticed. A good English translation will read as if the book were written in English in the first place. A translation that is clumsy or stilted will scream its presence.

Able translators are distinguished not only by linguistic expertise but also by skill in writing. Michael Gove, the politician and columnist, asked recently in this newspaper whether there were some foreign works that had lost nothing in translation. Times readers responded immediately and at length. Even the greatest writers have been translated into editions that are themselves towering works of literature. They include the English translations of Proust by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, and the German translations of Shakespeare by August Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck.

Appropriately, two of the TLS prizes — for translations, respectively, from French and German into English — are named after these men of letters. Through the work of their successors, English readers have access to outstanding works of more recent literature.

Among this year’s award-winners, The Accordionist’s Son by Bernardo Atxaga, translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, dramatises the Basque country after the Spanish Civil War. The novella Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, is one in a series of recent translations of the work of an outstanding 20th-century writer. An Austrian Jew who committed suicide in exile in 1942, his library in Salzburg having been razed by the Nazis, Zweig is revered in France as well as Germany and Austria. Yet he is unjustly barely known among English readers.

Translators illuminate not only the mental lives of great writers. Samuel Johnson remarked that “a translator is to be like his author, it is not his business to excel him” — and there is something in this. Among the most remarkable feats of translation in the last century was to render into English the worst of all books. Ralph Manheim, an American, was commissioned to translate Mein Kampf in the early years of the Second World War. It has remained the definitive, scholarly edition of a volume that has long been banned in Germany. Its peculiar skill lies in replicating the ranting, incoherent and prolix tone of the original. The art of translation offers a window into history and the human mind.


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