Why it's time to cut translators some slack

'Sympathy for the Traitor' author Mark Polizzotti discusses the pitfalls and perils of translation.

'Sympathy for the Traitor' is by Mark Polizzotti.

"Sympathy for the Traitor" may sound like an odd name for a book about the art of translation. But literary translator Mark Polizzotti, who manages scholarly publications at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has an explanation that requires some translation itself.

In Italian, the phrase "the translator is a traitor" is both a untranslatable pun and a jibe at translators who betray writers by failing to properly convert their words into another language.

Essentially, the title of Polizzotti's new book, subtitled "A Translator's Manifesto," says it's time to cut translators some slack. Polizzotti elaborated in a chat with Monitor contributor Randy Dotinga.

Q: Why does the translation of fiction matter? 

You can look at translation as simply the transfer of information. But it's about much more than that.

Ultimately, the goal of a literary translation is to be a creative act into itself, to create a new work of literature that's based on the original but in some way independent of it.

It's a matter of creating a new literary work in its own right. The translator has to read the original text, determine the effect on the original readers, then bring that across to other readers in their own language.

Q: What does the Italian phrase "the translator is a traitor" mean to you?

It's been poisoning translation studies for centuries. It suggests the translation will never be perfect, that it's somehow no good and betrays both the original work and the readers. It's completely bogus in terms of approaches to translation. In the best case, the translator is giving you something just as good, if not better. 

Q: You describe a debate within the translation world that reminds me of the eternal dispute over the "spirit" of the law versus the "letter" of the law. What do the two sides say? 

There have been two very entrenched schools since the first translations of the Bible: literal vs. liberal.

Proponents of literal translation say the letter of the text is to be respected.

This is especially important when you have the word of God. You're not supposed to mess with that. Those who tried to make the Bible more readable could actually be put to death.

The other side, the the more common school, is that you try to make the text sing in the target language. If it's a work of beauty, you create a work of beauty so it will have the same effect. 

Q: How do translations go terribly wrong? 

The first and easiest way is through not understanding what you're reading. You get in trouble the minute you get into something like an expression or a colloquialism, such as when a Russian computer tried to translate "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" and came up with "the vodka is strong but the meat is rotten."

A Japanese computer tried to translate "out of sight, out of mind" and came up a reference to being in an insane asylum, which is brilliant.

Q: What are some famous examples of mistranslations in history? 

You have [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev's famous line "We will bury you." What he actually said was "We will outlast you" – communism will last longer than capitalism. It's not nearly as threatening as this menacing "We will bury you." 

Q: How do you deal with puns and wordplay that simply don't translate?

That’s one of those questions that keeps translators up at night. My wishy-washy answer is that there is no easy answer.

You have to consider yourself a craftsman and an artist at the same time. You have techniques for dealing with wordplay like reinventing it in the target language even if it's not the same thing.

If it's a novel, and it's really about the humor of the pun and everyone goes ha-ha-ha, I’m not going to stop that [in the text] by saying "This is what this means."

Instead, I'd try to create something that gets across the humor across. That takes some inventiveness. 

Q: What does the future hold for translation as technology advances?

There’s a lot of talk about Google Translate, which can be very useful. But its translations generally have to be reviewed by a human brain. It's not ready for anything as nuanced as literature.

I was working on a Canadian French-to-English database and we started off with a machine translation of basic text. In a list of hardware, I found references to drill bits, screws, nails, nuts ... and strawberries.

Strawberries? The word fraise means both "strawberry" and "drill bit" in French. The computer saw fraise, and suddenly it went from hardware to fruit stand. 

Q: So you think translators like yourself are going to stick around? 

We like to think so. I comfort myself that we'll be around for a couple of years at least.

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