I’d seen it before of course, during my many years of teaching. The ghastly white and almost green pallor on the terrified faces of the poor year 11 oral exam candidates waiting for the torture chamber, seated in a corridor as I passed on my way to the stationery cupboard and struggled in vain to squeeze out a reassuring smile, their fists clutching a selection of allowable jottings on pastel revision cards, as if clinging to a lifeline.
It’s not that I was unprepared due to lack of effort or prior knowledge of the format of the trial. I knew vaguely what to expect. I would be shut in a waiting room with a script, asked to digest it, in spite of stomach-churning lack of appetite, then once inside the abattoir, to read it out, or rather read out the sections I could decipher on a piece of paper quivering with anguish, then answer questions on it, proceed with my presentation, then submit to further questioning. The lack of preparedness rather came from the unpredictability. I had no idea what their precise method of slaughter was going to consist of, and this question rather took me by surprise.
It sounded simple and obvious, and I blurted out something to do with a good translation being one that reproduced exactly what had been written in the source language. How naïve I must have sounded. Only later did I come to understand just how much more to this there is.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to providing a succinct answer to this question is the subjective nature of translation work. In their student textbook “Thinking French Translation”, Sándor Harvey and Ian Higgins are keen to emphasise that they are not offering inflexible rules or recipes that apply to all, but that they urge the translator to recognise options and alternatives, take responsibility for identifying target audience needs, requirements of those commissioning the project, genre type, style and register, and use this information to choose a specific strategy. They are right. Thus, attributes that might be regarded as constituting a good translation of a financial document, which would probably include tables of figures necessitating accuracy and presentation, would be important in a literary text, but perhaps not the highest or only priority. Sometimes my customers simply want to understand what is written in a document so they can act on it; others are presenting a translation as a PowerPoint, in which case the formatting and page layout become important. A legal contract, on the other hand, must be unambiguous.
Many translators stick to what they do best and become specialised in one particular type of text: legal, business, journalistic, film subtitling, medical, technical and literature, to name a few. Each would have its own definition of what is meant by good translation.
In “The Right Angle”, Barron, Cockerham, Dawson and Smith write of “sharing what the author saw when writing the passage” and “detecting the niceties of expression”. They go on to state that a translator needs to be as good a writer in both languages as the authors whose work is being translated, before finally admitting that “the task is an impossible one”. Later in the same chapter they talk about how there will always be a hidden part of the author’s vision that we cannot share, or communicate in the target language. We can, as they correctly claim, only aspire.
And in her publication “In Other Words”, included on the recommended reading list for both my BA and translation training courses, Mona Baker explores the claim made by some that translation is an impossible task, “doomed to failure” due to lack of similarity between languages and the concept that reality doesn’t exist outside language. She also reminds us that, despite this, translation has “built bridges of understanding... among different societies”, that it is a necessary process bringing different cultural and linguistic backgrounds closer together.
Back to the original question. It is easy to see why there is a temptation to define translation quality in terms of its problems, or at least the ways in which they are overcome. If I were faced with this question again I would have both a long and a short answer. The longer one would involve bullet-pointing the essential qualities of the end product. This, after all, is what is seen:
- It conveys the author’s intended meaning as closely as possible.
- The tone, nuance and mood of the author have been mirrored. This, of course, is most important in literary texts.
- It reads fluently and coherently, as though it had been written in the target language originally. It “sounds” natural.
- It contains no omissions. Nor has the translator made additions that were not there in the source.
- It contains no errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation or syntax.
- It is adapted for its target audience. Choice of language is appropriate to the level of reading ability of those receiving the work.
- Where equivalence is impossible, for example in puns, plays on words or idiomatic speech, the translator has researched extensively to find the most appropriate phrase or expression.
- It should, and this is where things get a little murky, be clear and comprehensible, no matter how badly written the original. Sentence length varies enormously from one language to another and this must be taken into consideration.
- It is set out with due attention to the page layout and formatting, which should match the original as exactly as possible.
I agree with what Bill Zart writes in the language blog: “It is an intricate and often subjective process that goes far beyond a simplistic word-for-word exchange.”
I often find that, when customers have attempted their own translation and want it checked, they can be surprised to learn that simply choosing the English word that sounds the closest to the one in their language will not do. Thus, in Italian, the word “attuale”, which means “current”, “present”, or “ongoing”, cannot be translated by “actual”.
Even here, with this checklist of impossible dreams (I wonder how many translations actually tick all those boxes), I am being too formulaic. Translation isn’t mechanistic.
My short answer would be “the work of Lucia Graves”. I have just finished reading “The Angel’s Game”, translated from the original Spanish novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, having read “The Shadow of the Wind” and “The Prince of Mist” last year. Despite starting the first page while relaxing on a beach under an intense East African sun, I was plunged, within two paragraphs, into mid-winter in an industrial, early twentieth century Barcelona, amid the factories and chimneys that the author tells us cast a permanent darkness and redness over the city, so compelling and vivid is the text and imagery. Rarely have I been happy to sacrifice so much sleep over a book, and rarely have I felt more concern for the fate of a central character. Rarely have I read until the early hours, gripped by the horror of rapidly-moving events, periodically lowering my book to check that the eyes of the villain were not peering at me through the gloom of my own bedroom. I won’t quote the breath-taking, beautiful descriptions and dialogues that fill this outstanding book, doubling my reading speed and awakening a spectrum of emotions: fear, anxiety, sorrow, momentary relief, hope, despair. It must be sampled first hand. But it raises another question in my mind: does a truly great translation arise, initially, from a truly well-written source? There is no doubt that Zafón has achieved worldwide, and much deserved, success, and there is no doubt that it is easier to work from a good quality source text, and surely it can be argued that an excellent source text is one component in the production of a great product. Translating his books must have been fascinating work.
I need to stress, however, that I am in no way failing to acknowledge the obvious skill and dedication of Lucia Graves, and no amount of quality in the original could compensate for a poor translation. I am moved by her achievements. The daughter of the English poet and novelist, Robert Graves, Lucia Graves has translated and written numerous books, working in Spanish, Catalan and English. I feel that her work comes as close to meeting all of the criteria I’ve seen about what makes a good translation as anything I’ve ever read. I don’t translate literature, as my specialism is scientific, medical and pharmaceutical work, but to anyone aspiring to be a translator of literary text, I’d say that hers is the standard to aspire to. To go back to Mona Baker’s bridge of understanding, how wonderful that someone is talented enough to enable us to share the mood of so great an author. If bridges are being built, Lucia Graves’s bridge must be among the strongest.