A Schiller Down the Spine

The ICRC translates over 14 million words a year from and into Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish, and many more languages. But what actually is translation? One of our in-house translators in Geneva tries to give some answers.

Translators are horses changed at the posthouses of civilization.

Alexander Pushkin

When I joined the ICRC, one of my favourite "clients" was the Pension Fund director. When I sent work back - say, a translation of a letter - he would knock on my door, beaming, throw his arms out wide and say: "Mais, c'est génial. C'est mieux que le français!" He was being kind, of course. But he also understood that a translator could add to or change the text in such a way as to fill a gap in the reader's understanding that the writer had overlooked. He didn't begrudge the difference or speak of "loss", and he would often go back and update the original French based on the translation.* Our author–translator relationship went two ways. But for many people, perhaps most, a translation is inherently inferior to the original. Why is this?

Some have pinned the blame, in the West at least, on the tradition of a classical education. In private schools, translation was used as an exercise through which the pupil would show the teacher that he had understood the vocabulary, syntax and grammar of Latin or Greek. With that as the goal, producing a faithful translation becomes as useful, and dull, as practising one's scales on the piano. The translator is reduced to the level of a drudge, and even a duke's son knows not to expect applause for his rendering of Cicero.

Despite romanticism being in part a reaction to classicism, translation didn't get much respect from that end of the philosophical spectrum either. The Romantics lauded the creativity of nature; and human beings, who sat at the top of all things were especially creative – out of all of nature's wonders, they alone knew that they were being inventive. An artist was therefore the most creative of the creatives, perched at the pinnacle of existence, divine spirit made flesh. A translation, being unoriginal, was at best a pale imitation, at worst a corruption, a toppling down the ladder of genius.

With the Romantics' praise for originality and individualism ringing in their ears, the public came to distrust the idea of authorial collaboration. Even today, in a period where we are encouraged to tear down walls and bounce ideas off one another as the route to better work, the Romantics' idea of artistic merit has the public in its grip. A film may have credits listing the hundreds of people who made it all possible, but they are kept to the end and fly past in the blink of an eye; it is "Directed by Steven Spielberg" that we see splashed across poster after poster. Riffs and whole tunes are invented by the backing band, but it's David Bowie who stands on the album cover, the lone genius. Publishing houses push the author to the fore; all the back-room work is passed over in near silence.

And can we blame them? It can be deadly for an author's reputation otherwise. Raymond Carver won accolades as a lean writer of short stories. But when the New Yorker published the version of "Beginners" that he had produced before Gordon Lish, his editor, got to work on it, many of his fans were stunned. "The publication of 'Beginners' has not done Carver any favors," wrote Giles Harvey in the New York Review of Books. "Rather, it has inadvertently pointed up the editorial genius of Gordon Lish." Carver's reputation crashed. People wanted to believe, despite the evidence to the contrary, that solo work must needs be better. When they saw that Carver's work wasn't, rather than praising the fruits of collaboration, they decided that they had been wrong to praise Carver's stories in the first place.

And then there are translators, who are decidedly down the pecking order. The Guardian regularly publishes articles that first appeared in Le Monde, but judging by the byline, readers are happy to believe that the article was rewritten by the journalist for publication in English overnight. Magazine articles omit to mention that the interview was carried out in another language. And novels, though the translator's name does appear, print the name small enough for no one to be distracted long enough to realize that they are not actually reading the author's words at all. Translation is treated like a grubby secret, something that we all know goes on, but that we don't talk about in front of the children. The attitude seems to be that a translation – of anything – is by its very nature inferior to the original. If we have to do it, let's hush it up.

This is puzzling. After all, translations – just like original pieces of writing – aren't all equal. Some pieces of writing are great; some are bad. Could the same not be said for translations? And is it not possible that translations are sometimes better than the original? As much as I like Goscinny and Uderzo's Asterix le Gaulois, Anthea Bell's translations do more than merely translate the words – "Idéfix" is good: "Dogmatix" is inspired.

But when I say that a translation can be as good as, if not better than, the original, authors get nervous. Who do you think you are? some sort of creative?! Of course, no one would argue that translations are always better. (We've all seen enough tourist brochures to know otherwise.) And few would argue that translating is necessarily more difficult. Writing a good novel, for instance, is bound to be harder than translating a good novel – the translator does not have to decide on plot, characters, pacing and so forth (although she does have to understand these things, notice them in the text and take account of them in her translation choices).

But as Mark Polizzotti in Sympathy for the Traitor says: "Making the reader laugh or cry, and the way of making this happen, ultimately depends not only on the writer's imagination but also, and perhaps even more, on the ability – be it deliberate or instinctive – to manipulate words and sounds. ... In that regard, translators are up against the same challenges, and must bring to bear the same resources, as the authors they translate."

In other words, a translation will fail or succeed on the strength of the translator's ability as a writer in the target language. It isn't just a question of content; it's a question of style. You might be able to tell me what it means more or less, and that might be good enough in some situations, but can you tell me what it means in elegant or effective language? Can you make me feel that this was said first in my tongue?

Some fail to understand this. Sometimes students think that because they like a foreign language and have learnt to speak one or several foreign languages well, they will become good translators. This ... is ... not ... so. Far more important is their knowledge of their mother tongue. If they know what sounds right in that language and can write it well, they have a chance at becoming a professional. "I don't want you to translate the text," my old teacher used to say, "I want you to English it."

– Stuart Coe is a translator and editor in the Language and Publications Unit and teaches translation at the University of Geneva.

* Not always, of course. From time to time he would say: "Si je peux me permettre, je trouve que la traduction de [tricky French phrase] n'est pas tout à fait juste et il faudrait peut-être le modifier", which roughly translated as: "My good man, you've done sterling work, but I think you'll find that on page 17 you've been an utter blockhead." He was unfailingly right.