I define the above phrase as being “a semi-irrational fear that occurs when reading a foreign-language text that has been translated into English, when the reader is unsure whether he or she is reading the most accurate or accomplished translation available.” Being from a country that is on the whole contemptuous of learning foreign languages, to our great discredit, I am entirely reliant on the skills of translators when reading books the original versions of which were written in a language other than English. I speak and read nothing but my native tongue, and it’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t make an effort to learn, say, French or German when I was young enough to dedicate myself to either of them.
The problem with translation though is that there is a world of difference between literal accuracy and the accurate rendering of tone or style – in fact, you could say that the two are antithetical. Hew more closely to one, and you risk losing the benefits of the other. I suspect that this is a particular problem when translating from English, due to the size of the language’s vocabulary and the larger variety of synonyms, but I’m more than prepared to be corrected on this. It’s also a dilemma that makes poetry particularly difficult to translate, especially if the translator tries to impose an existing rhyme scheme onto the new work. A literal translation would be good as a crib sheet, but would remove everything that made the original work a work of poetry. A too-inventive attempt to retain the tone or musicality of the piece risks drawing the reader away from the author’s language, to the point where you would be reading an interpretation of it rather than a translation. I once debated myself into a frenzy of indecision over which version of Dante to buy, trying to compare and contrast editions using Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature, over half a dozen different tabs, without coming to any firm conclusion (I realise that this is perhaps the definition of a first world problem … ) in the end I plumped with the Allen Mandelbaum translation, because it came in the nice Everyman’s Library series and included Botticelli’s sketches.
I mention all this because Clive James, the critic, novelist, poet, essayist, and, as everyone of my generation will know him, presenter of ‘Clive James on Television’, is about to publish his own translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Translations of any length automatically gain my respect for the translator, but to tackle this enormous and complex masterpiece is perhaps the literary equivalent of a suicide mission – not everyone is going to make it back alive. James is an erudite and immensely learned figure though, and after reading his essay about the process in the Telegraph, my respect for him has deepened. I think the short extract included in the piece shows that he has tried to do something genuinely new, and on the evidence of this short sample I think he has been successful. I can’t wait to read it, and I would urge anyone reading this to take a look at James’ article behind the link. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the translator and of the challenges of this most protean literary art.