Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 2001
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FEBRUARY 2001
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Behind the many great authors who have enriched our lives and our intellects, there stands an army of translators, ranging from Saint Jerome to Goethe, who have made it all possible.
H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S

The Art and Craft of Translation
By Elborg Forster
Illustration by Bob Conge

A translation is like health: if it's good, you don't notice it. But if it's not (or if some reviewer thinks it is not), it becomes very important and can ruin a whole book, just as even a minor health problem can ruin your whole life. Every translator knows that the people who review books usually say nothing at all about the translation; you can be very pleased if you read: "The author has been well served by his/her translator" or "... in the felicitous translation of ..." But woe to the translator if anything is wrong: in that case the flaws of the translation can easily take up a whole paragraph or more.

First, a few words by way of characterizing myself: although my first language was German, I am now a translator with many years of experience translating texts in such fields as history, anthropology, sociology, and history of science and medicine from French and German into English. Having stopped using German in my daily life 45 years ago, I now find it rather difficult to translate into German. This has to do with lack of practice, of course, but also with the fact that there are many areas of life and letters with which I was not familiar as a 20-year- old. Indeed I sometimes feel--no doubt erroneously--that I learned everything I know in the medium of English: politics, French history, child-rearing, cooking, life and death, gardening, healthcare, automobiles .... In any case, whenever these days I translate something into German, I send it to my verbally highly gifted sister in Germany, who usually finds a few anglicisms and some expressions "that we don't use any more," for of course the German language itself has evolved over the last 45 years.

I suppose most people have no more than a vague idea of what is involved in transferring a text from a "source" to a "target" language. They think that as long as the translator knows both languages, he/she can "just do it," as if it were a matter of drawing a map. But the fact is that the transferral can only be done by means of rewriting, for no two languages are totally congruent in their structure. And rewriting is a form of writing, which is why different authors will translate the same text in sometimes amazingly different, yet equally "accurate" ways. Translations, I often think, are like musical or theatrical performances: the conductor and the soloist follow a precise score, the actor follows a text, and yet the symphony sounds very different when conducted by Furtwèngler or by Bernstein; Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh gave us very different Henry Vs.

It has been said that the most important thing for a translator is to write the target language well. I think this statement is problematical, if only because not every source text is written well--that is, clearly, gracefully, and concisely. The question then arises whether the translator has the right or even the duty to "improve" the original text, which is a great temptation, but one I believe should be resisted or at least evaluated. Of course it depends on what is being translated; if it is a literary text, "improvement" is indeed totally impermissible; but if, like myself, one mostly works with scholarly texts, perhaps the author did not have the time, talent, or interest to polish his/her text as much as it could be polished, and so perhaps I can discreetly give a hand? I confess I have done it many times.

Translations, I often think, are like musical or theatrical performances: the conductor and the soloist follow a precise score, the actor follows a text, and yet the symphony sounds very different when conducted by Furtwängler or by Bernstein.
But there is more. In recent years a whole school of Translation Studies scholars has begun to insist that fluency and transparency in a translation are hallmarks of cultural imperialism, particularly if the target language is dominant, as English is in our own time. These theoreticians, people like Douglas Robinson and Laurence Venuti, start with the useful concept of systems-theory. By this they mean that the translator must be familiar with the "representational" and psychological systems in which both languages are embedded. So far so good. But then our theoreticians object to the kind of re-writing that makes the source-text fit into the mental, social, even political patterns of the target culture. (Putting it rather more simply, I keep reminding myself that any expression I use in a translation must "ring a bell" with the reader.) But the modern theorists feel that this would be a "hegemonic" proceeding, and in order to avoid it, they advocate "foreignizing" the translation. This, they claim, will make it sound strange and thereby "enrich" the target language. This may actually be legitimate in high literature, where even the source text often uses techniques of strangeness (Verfremdung) to focus attention, but in the kind of work I do, I believe that "foreignization" only creates awkwardness and confusion.

It is true that translators, myself included, often make an effort to convey some flavor of the original language, but this should be done lightly. Thus, in translating from the French, I will leave such forms of address as "Monsieur," or "Madame," or sprinkle in the occasional exclamation, such as "mon Dieu." Even more occasionally, I might take over an unusual and, to us, amusing French formulation, such as that the wine was "correct" --but then I will put quotation marks around "correct."

But all in all, I hang on to the old-fashioned notion that a translation into English should sound as if it had been written in English in the first place.

I am fully aware that even the "best" translation is only an approximation--philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher even called all translating "a foolish undertaking." Those of us who do not know the Russian language and Russian culture will never be able to experience the full impact of The Brothers Karamazov or Uncle Vanya. This is one of the sad things in life. (But then, most Russian speakers probably miss a great deal too.) I am sometimes asked why I bother with translations at all if I think that they can never be perfect. To this I have two replies: first, I have to admit that I love the challenge presented by every translation, and even more the occasional feeling of triumph when I have found an elegant solution to a knotty problem. In this sense translating is not so much an intellectual pursuit as a creative endeavor, for no translator will be able to tell you how he/she "found" that solution. And second, I believe that translating foreign texts is a service I can render, both to authors I consider worth reading and to readers who have no access to such authors. When it comes to this goal, I feel that half a loaf is better than none, and that in some cases I have delivered three-quarters and more of a loaf.

Now here are some specifics of what translating involves and requires. An indispensable part of the translator's craft is the ability to make decisions. Synonyms offer themselves all the time--I would say three times per hour--and I must decide which one comes closest to the original. And if they do not offer themselves, I look them up in a dictionary of synonyms: Roget's Thesaurus is the most worn-out of all my working tools. Of course I know what beau (belle) means; but in a particular place, should I use "beautiful," "lovely," "fine," "handsome," even "grateful" ("le beau seizième siècle"=the "grateful sixteenth century" I once wrote) or a dozen other words? The context will usually suggest the decision, but frequently none of the synonyms is altogether satisfactory, and then I begin to search my mind for a paraphrase. If something turns up, it can make my day, but if it doesn't, I go back to the first synonyms, pick the best one, and let it go at that. For the moment at least. For sometimes the problem keeps working subterraneously, and the very next morning, as I'm reading the newspaper, the exactly right expression just jumps out of an article on a totally unrelated subject. On one occasion, for instance, I had written: "A different song was sung in France," when I read "a different tune was heard." I am sure I would never have seen this if I had not "needed" it. This is one of the small joys of the translator.

Decisiveness, even courage, is also needed when dealing with very long and convoluted sentences. These seem to be de rigueur in German scholarly texts, and some French authors also indulge in them, but in my opinion they just don't work in American English. So I cut them up into several sentences, making sure that I "have everything." This sometimes makes me feel like a verbal acrobat, but that too is enjoyable.

Different vocabularies and sentence structures are needed for different kinds of texts, and the level varies with both the subject matter and the author: Some authors are formal, others are casual; some have a complex, others a simple style; some use the latest jargon, while others favor old-fashioned language. Some have even lived in earlier centuries, which obviously adds an extra layer of complications, for here I must first find out what was formal and what was casual at any given time.

My greatest adventure as a translator was a collection of letters of Liselotte von der Pfalz, the 17th-century German princess living at the court of Louis XIV. It did not take me long to realize that her very lively and expressive German had become somewhat archaic after she had spoken mostly French for many years (a situation I intimately understand!). I therefore chose a somewhat old-fashioned American idiom, often using expressions marked ant. or F. in the dictionaries. I also realized that "Madame," as she was called at the French court, varied the level of her style depending on the subject of the letter, her level of familiarity with the recipient, and especially that person's position in the hierarchy of court society.

Even in letters to close relatives, Madame used the address "Your Grace" (Ew. Liebden) as a matter of course; it was obligatory for persons of a certain rank and gives modern readers a feel for the distance that separates us from 17th-century court society. It seemed necessary to make a point of this distance, for much of Liselotte's writing calls for such colloquial translation that we might take her for our contemporary. Yet that would be unfortunate, for it would prevent the reader from realizing that in many respects this woman was way ahead of her time.

Translating Liselotte thus sometimes called for a simple vocabulary ("rumors flying," "go after," "do away with," "a lot of useless information") and a straightforward sentence structure (essentially run-on sentences) to convey easy familiarity. But at other times I had to search out inflated terms to render the painfully constrained formality of a letter, so that I used such expressions as "favor me with a letter or any word," "filial trust," "pay my respects in person," "bestow," "hard put to give credence," "at length..." and a host of others. And I certainly had no right to cut up the endless sentences.

Sometimes authors are not consistent in their level of style, and then the translator gets into trouble with copy editors. In one rather formal German study of Weimar Germany published in the 1970s, the author suddenly--and effectively, I thought--used the word "aufgehübscht," which I literally translated as "prettified," but the copy editor felt that this kind of expression "did not belong into serious academic discourse." Unable to persuade him that it might, I dropped it, to my regret.

Vladimir Nabokov's intemperate condemnation of "miserable paraphrasts" notwithstanding, I am a great believer in paraphrasing "untranslatable" expressions, and whenever possible I will do it without covering myself by adding a "translator's note." I don't think it is helpful to the reader who does not know German or French to "explain" a pun, say, or to point out the strictly French or German cultural resonances a given expression might have. These will just simply have to be skipped. In my most recent translation, Fascination and Misgivings, a book on French views of the United States between 1870 and 1914 by Jacques Portes, I came upon the expression "préoccupations purement hexagonales," which I rendered simply as "strictly domestic concerns," since English-speaking readers usually do not know that for the French "the Hexagon" is a synonym for "France." Nor do I feel they absolutely need to know that. If the noun "hexagon" had been used, I might have said something like "the Hexagon, as the French sometimes call their country because of its physical shape."

In this case the cultural connotation is just a matter of information, which can be skipped, albeit with regret. The situation is very different, however, when it comes to the so-called "false friends." These are words and expressions that sound alike in the two languages but have different meanings. This phenomenon seems to be particularly prevalent between French and English because of the presence of so many Latin-root words in English and of course French. Here are a few of these "false friends" I have encountered lately:

Prétention. It does not mean "pretention" (which would be "ostentation" or "air prétentieux") but "claim or right" to something.

A "fatalité" is not a case of death but a foreordained event.

"Promiscuité" may lead to what we call promiscuity, but in itself it only means living closely together, in crowded quarters.

"Ingénuité" is really quite the opposite of ingenuity, for it means "innocence."

"Justifié" can mean just what "to justify" means in English, but there are cases when it must be translated as "to document."

"Honnête" can mean "honest," but it can also shade over into "honorable," "upstanding," "befitting," even "proper." To be sure, these are related concepts, and their precise meaning is indicated by the context.

Some authors are formal, others are casual; some have a complex, others a simple style. Some have lived in earlier centuries, which obviously adds an extra layer of complications, for here I must find out what was formal and what was casual at any given time.
Sometimes the "falseness" of these "friends" arises from subtle shadings in the meaning of an idiom. Thus Liselotte wrote that certain people and situations made her "aus der Haut fahren" with pure impatience. At first blush I thought I had the perfect match in the idiom "to jump out of my skin." But upon reflection (and consultation with people who use English carefully and appropriately) I realized that one "jumps out of one's skin" when startled or frightened, and so I changed the expression of Liselotte's anger and impatience into "make me burst right out of my skin with pure impatience." One dictionary suggested "drives me up the wall," but I wanted her statement to reflect the almost physical verve that characterizes this writer's style. Once again, the context determined the choice of words.

And here, I think, I come to the crux of the matter: Context.

To begin with, linguistic communities have different historical memories, which are rendered in a kind of shorthand but must be spelled out in another language. Thus I once gave a word-for-word rendition of "a portrait of the King of Rome," whereupon my copy editor suggested that for simplicity's sake I make it "the pope." Seeing that even this educated person had missed a cultural allusion that would be obvious to every French reader, I therefore wrote: "Napoleon's son, who bore the title King of Rome." A translator from American English, of course, would have to add similar glosses to "crossing the Delaware" or "the man from Independence"--and these examples only refer to historical allusions. Every language is full of cultural concepts that require paraphrasing and sometimes a complete transposition.

Different linguistic communities also live physically different lives, as I found out when I moved from Germany to the United States as a young woman. I encountered things that I could not describe in German words to my family because they did not exist in Germany. And so my letters were full of words like "campus," "shopping center," "supermarket," and I described the "garbage disposal" in my mother-in-law's kitchen, "television commercials," and the "caboose" I had seen on a train. All of this only had to do with things, but such differences can have profound implications. This point was forcefully made by Willis Barnstone in The Poetics of Translation: "There are no lambs trotting on the ice meadows where the Eskimos live. Translators of the Bible into Eskimo have resorted to the phrase 'Seal of God' for 'Lamb of God.'"

Entire complexes of cultural representations are often embedded in words. I wonder, for instance, whether a cultural assumption underlies the fact that to connote "everybody" American English says "rich and poor," whereas the corresponding German would be "arm und reich"--poor and rich. Does the German way of speaking acknowledge the majority status of the poor in traditional society? Does the American way express the notion that the rich are dominating, or perhaps optimism that the rich are or should be the majority? And what about the profound psychological implications of referring to death as masculine in German or Swedish and as feminine in French? I see a major incompatibility between Bergman's Seventh Seal where male death, looking almost like the "grim reaper," plays chess with a mortal, and a French film whose title and author I have forgotten, which depicts death as a seductive woman.

The phenomenon of cultural context is especially clear when it comes to translating popular sayings, for these have long roots in the past and often express a culture's underlying attitudes. Liselotte liked to quote the old saying (still in use today): "Gleich und gleich gesellt sich gern, sprach der Teufel zu dem Kohlenbrenner." Literally this would be "Like and like will go together, said the devil to the charcoal burner." It is a powerful image that suggests fear--both of the devil and of a marginal figure in society--along with a certain defiance. The only trouble is that it does not "ring a bell" with an English speaker, and so I substituted "Birds of a feather flock together," a rather more harmless image that evokes the wide open spaces of North America. Many proverbs in other languages actually do have equivalents in English, as I found out to my amazement when I consulted a multilingual dictionary of proverbs and popular sayings. In their need to reflect the basics of human nature, popular proverbs seem to work with the same materials--animals, plants, the weather, family relationships, social hierarchies--everywhere, especially in traditional agricultural societies. If no equivalent comes to hand, one can only hope that the reader will understand what is meant by a saying like "patience will overcome buttermilk." I would resist a pedantic translator's note to the effect that one has to turn the handle of the churn for a long time before the buttermilk releases the butter.

But beyond things that do or do not exist in different linguistic communities, words have "magical halos," to borrow an expression from Douglas R. Hofstadter (Le Ton Beau de Marot; In Praise of the Music of Language). To say "Heimat" means something very special to a German, and "native country," or "native region," or "homeland," or anything else does not quite cover it. But it's the best that can be done. The French "patrie" is something else again, but "fatherland," or even "motherland" will have to do it.

And finally I must mention the matter of puns and verbal jokes, which often bring the translator to the outer limit of what is possible. Take this sentence of Groucho Marx's: "Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana." Unbeknownst to me, the powerful computer in my head, my brain, must perform a very complex operation to break the pattern of the first part of this statement so that the second will make sense. Translating this sentence and reproducing the word play, however, is plainly impossible. And without the word play, the sentence is nothing but a non sequitur, which in the original is justified because of the sound of the words. The reason I have kept this sentence so firmly in my mind is that I don't think a computer would be able to "understand" it.

Stories about the counter sense that machine translations have produced are legend. My two favorite--and possibly apocryphal-- examples are these: When programmers fed the phrase "Out of sight out of mind" into an English-Russian program and then, to check the accuracy of the translation, back into a Russian-English one, what they obtained was "Blind idiot." And for "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," the same operation yielded, "The vodka is good but the meat is rotten."

The only way out of the dilemma of machine translations seems to be to write the original text--instruction booklets, for appliances, say, or catalogs--in such a way that no ambiguities exist. A "language" in which to do this, called Multinational Customized English or MCE, has already been invented and is being successfully used by such multinational corporations as the Xerox Corporation. I would think, though, that it is a long way from MCE to this morning's editorial in the Baltimore Sun, let alone to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass....

Andrei Codrescu once wrote a very funny op-ed piece about his experience of meeting with a group of poets trying to translate an eminent French poet into American English. Everyone in the group brought different connotations to every word that was discussed--they never even got around to whole sentences--and Codrescu came to the conclusion that "no one should ever translate anything--it's easier to learn the original language." Well, that is facetious, and I would rather endorse what Gčnter Grass is reported to have said at a similar meeting with all his translators working on one of his novels. For a week Grass discussed his book with them, including such specific points as "What kind of carriage did you have in mind on p. 299?" Depending on the answer, the translator would have it "rumble," or "speed," or "trundle" down the street. But at the end of the meeting, Grass told the group, "Just do the best you can."

This just might be the motto for all translators.

Elborg Forster, who has had several translations published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, lives in Baltimore. Her most recent translation, of Jacques Portes (Fascination and Misgivings: The United States in French Opinion, 1870-1914), was published last fall by Cambridge University Press.


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