Most discussions of translation take this generalization as unquestionable truth: If only the translator were more careful, or more gifted–or merely competent!–the delicate original would not have arrived in shards and tatters, ruined for readers, upon our shores.And on to the wish list it goes...
The trouble I have with this conventional wisdom is how patently it flies in the face of practical experience. If translations were so routinely terrible and so generally unreadable, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Flaubert and Stendhal and Kafka and Proust and Mann—whose translators have been mocked and derided by generations of critics—would have had no hope of finding readers beyond their respective shores. Given that these writers have readers around the world, the ire and indignation felt by those who take at translators comes not over the errancy of translation but its adequacy: however error-ridden and technically troubling a translation might be—the syntax clumsy, the vocabulary misleading, the dialogue wooden—translations have nonetheless managed, somehow, to convey their sources sufficiently for their originals survive, not to say thrive, far from home.
That “somehow”—a compelling mystery—is explored in a fine new book by British writer Adam Thirlwell.
Update, 24 July: As promised, Mason has posted his interview with Thirlwell. Happily, they discuss several nuts-and-bolts issues concerning the latter's translation of Nabokov's "Mademoiselle O," as well as specific issues of translation in general:
Did the practice of translating “Mademoiselle O” produce any changes in your thoughts on the nature of translation?There's also a nice tip of the hat to Roberto Arlt and Macedonio Fernández.
I realized more precisely than ever that the problems with content and form were more complicated than I had thought. Often, the phonetic tricks, like alliteration, were quite easy to mimic: what proved recalcitrant were the small elements, like songs, or slang, or objects. And I became aware of the more personal problem: how to avoid one’s own tricks, or even, how to avoid the excessive imitation of the original writer’s tricks—how to prevent their later style from dominating one’s version of the earlier style.