Found in translation

What makes a translation great? Ten literary translators from across the world weigh in

Editor and translator Katy Derbyshire poses the question to ten practitioners and stresses why we need to be talking about it.

To the outside world, literary translators are famously invisible. Being a tight-knit community of solitary home workers, though, we talk a lot amongst ourselves. Recently, one big thing we’ve been talking about is reviews of our work. As critics come to notice our existence, we garner both praise and – in what feels like greater depth – criticism. So I thought it might be useful to ask other literary translators what they aim for, what positive criteria we have for judging the outcome of our work. I was not disappointed.

It’s easy to say what a bad translation is. The ones that are accidentally jagged like the person wielding the scissors was drunk. The ones where someone has misunderstood the original, or perhaps misinterpreted it. The ones where all individuality has been smoothed out. But how do we identify a successful translation? When have we done our job well? What is it we want to achieve, beyond mere fluidity?

What is a good translation?

David Colmer (translates from Dutch to English)

Fluidity is not to be sneezed at, and is often difficult to accomplish, but a good translation goes further and achieves the self-evidence and urgency of the original. It sings, whispers and swears like the original and leaves the reader thrilled, disturbed and amused in the same ways too. A sensitive monolingual reviewer describes the style of a good translation in terms that unknowingly echo the reviews of the original novel or poetry. A good translation does not have to be impeccably starched and ironed, but dares to be ragged and frantic when appropriate. When presented with a few lines of original and translation, a bilingual reader might not be sure which is which. The voice of a good translation is as distinctive in English as the author’s voice in the original language, also when compared to other authors translated by the same translator. A good translation accepts the gifts English offers and is not an endless procession of compromise and loss. A good translation is something to aspire to and, in this perfectionist’s profession, a good translation is never good enough.

Alex Zucker (translates from Czech to English)

To write a good translation, at a certain point I have to forget the text I’m translating exists. Only then can I read my translation without “seeing through it” the foreign-language text “underneath” – that is, the way virtually everyone else who reads my translation is going to read (and assess) it. Beyond that, I don’t agree that fluidity is necessarily always a goal. A good translation respects and, therefore, reflects the author’s style and vocabulary: Where the author’s writing is choppy, mine should also be. Where it’s harsh or stilted or opaque, or lyrical and flowing, or unambiguous, my writing should be too. When the author conforms to convention, so should I; when they bend or break it, I need to do the same. This assumes the author intended these effects. On the other hand, it can happen that an author’s writing comes across as awkward when in fact it was a result of poor (or non-existent) editing, rather than a deliberate style. This is where it can get tricky. We all know by now, I hope, that this doesn’t mean every single word or phrase in my translation must precisely correspond in style and effect to a counterpart in the author’s text. But it does mean that I don’t have the liberty to write a “strange” work when the author’s was “normal”, or “normalise” the writing when the author meant to be unorthodox. If I do, the result may still be “good”, but rather than a translation, it might be more accurate to call it an adaptation.

Ros Schwartz (translates from French to English)

A good translation captures the spirit of a text without slavishly following it to the letter. It captures the energy and texture and voice of the source text and replicates them in the translation, drawing on all the resources of the target language. A good translation conveys what is written between the lines. A good translation exudes empathy. A good translation elicits the same emotional response in the reader as the source text does in its readers. A good translation doesn’t colonise the work but preserves the joys and beauties of its “otherness” without resorting to weird foreignisation. A good translation perfectly resolves the tension between meaning and music, and that of being source-text oriented and target-reader oriented. A good translation is bold and creative, a good translation sings.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translates from Polish to English)

A good translation is imperceptible. It reads as if the book were written in the language into which it has been translated. Within the text, the translator is invisible. A good translation removes the barrier imposed by an unfamiliar language and allows the writer to communicate directly with the foreign reader.

A good translation doesn’t simply reproduce the correct meaning of the original text. It also captures the voice and music of the original as the writer intended it to be heard, and reproduces it in a way that is audible to the new, foreign reader. It is sensitive to the meaning, effects and intentions of the original, but also to the best ways to render them in the target language.

In some instances, achieving that aim can mean moving away from the literal meaning of the original. This is probably truer for translation from some languages than others; perhaps for translators into English, languages outside the Indo-European group will need a different approach from languages that belong to it. Different genres or translating for children can also have different requirements. So while a good translation is true to the original meaning the author wants to convey, it isn’t straitjacketed by the literal meaning of the original text.

A good translation also recognises the original writer’s style and voice, but to convey them to the foreign reader in keeping with the writer’s intentions, the translator might need to retune them slightly, using different techniques. This is particularly true of poetry, or of prose that is lyrical and dependent on rhythm or sound.

Sandra Hetzl (translates from Arabic to German)

To me a good translation is one where you almost can’t believe what you’re reading was translated, from something into something, from somewhere to somewhere – is language a place, or is it rather a thing? One where you almost can’t believe it was brought from somewhere to somewhere. That it was unboxed, then hastily transported, a shapeless, unprotected something, and carefully put into new boxes. Which makes it sound like I sustain the theory that a good translation is some sort of a hoax.

Saskia Vogel (translated from Swedish to English)

I suppose a good translation is a good piece of writing and should have all the markers of those. Personally, I appreciate musicality in a text and an ability to carry through the feeling of each line: those subtle shifts, for example, when at the end of a paragraph a well-placed word or phrase elicits a laugh, a note of tragedy or irony. If texts aren’t musical in some way (cacophonous and melodic alike), I find that I am more critical of the translation. I wonder to what extent a good translation isn’t also about a being good fit with the translator. I think about texts where I’ve had to labour perhaps too much to make the voice feel authentic to the author’s, and I can think that perhaps I wasn’t a good fit for that text. I think (hope) this has something to do with experience. The texts I’m thinking of were early on in my career, which might bring me to my answer for what a good translation is: When the translator feels comfortable enough with the text to treat it as their own – all the while keeping the author’s music, tone, emotion, voice, etc., in sight – and is able to create (or transcreate?) a piece of writing that feels like the original and carries the original through to the reader, however much the translator has stayed faithful to or departed from the original text. When translations don’t feel like they have been written – where the reader becomes too aware of the mechanics of the writing – and simply ‘are’ that’s when they’re good. I fear this all sounds terribly vague, and so I think of dancing and return to what you brought up first: when you see someone competently doing the steps but not bridging technique and feeling, versus the dancer just being in the flow. Flow is captivating and generous in that it allows for all sorts of imperfections as we are being swept along in the moment and movement.

Julia Sherwood (translates from Slovak to English)

For me a good translation is one that is on the same wavelength as the original text – a piece of music that has been arranged for different instruments but evokes an emotional response as close to the effect of the original as possible given a different cultural background and references. Or a goulash or a soufflé prepared from locally available ingredients that comes out with a texture as stodgy or fluffy and that burns your palate or tickles your taste buds in the same way as the original.

Sam Bett (translates from Japanese to English)

A good translation wants to be read. Its clever solutions will keep to the surface, no more conspicuous than the slippery things they venture to approximate. The strengths and curiosities of the source will dare to be present alongside its duller points and weaknesses, but all will have been reimagined, naturally and effectively, at a remove from the rules of the original style.

Sophie Lewis (translates from French and Portuguese to English)

I think it’s about a near-magical balance being struck between channelling the translator’s perceived idea of the text’s original sound and intention and its re-enactment through the translator’s own voice, the way they personally would express these styles and ideas. It’s about the careful and always considerate mingling of these two impulses or perceptions – which means you can’t always tell that you’re reading a good translation! The nature of the animal is that you can’t be sure to identify it as such, though you may have a good feeling about it.

David Boyd (translates from Japanese to English)

A good translation hums. It lives in the ear. It shatters our expectations, redefining what translation can do in the first place.

When you read a good translation, the usual labels (literal vs liberal, etc.) quickly lose their value. Great translations make it painfully clear that we lack the critical language necessary to talk about translation as an art, on its own terms.

This lack of critical clarity is exactly what makes your question such a hard one. To borrow from Potter Stewart, we know a good translation when we see it, right? Complicating matters further, each good translation is good in its own way. I hope that doesn’t read like a cop-out. I think it’s true. The good ones make us see translation in a new way.

Why Does It Matter?

Recently, Chad Post wrote an entertaining piece about reviewing translations, arguing with himself in the roles of translation advocate and reviewer. What made me sit up and think was this passage, in the voice of Post’s inner underpaid critic:

Deep dives into translation theory and how to reproduce a language’s syntax in English are 100% guarantees of boring the piss out of a general reader. [...] There are, what?, 20,000 readers of literary fiction out there? And, let’s be honest, the translations we’re talking about are works of literature, not spy novels or romances or whatever. Of those 20,000 readers, probably 500 or so read actual book reviews. If you want these reviews to be promotional tools for international literature, we need to up that number. And to up that number, we have to focus on what readers want: plot descriptions, information about what makes a book unique, why it’s worth reading and what about it might not work for everyone.

And you know what? He’s got a point. Just like translators, critics work under constraints. I genuinely believe it is possible to identify hallmarks of successful translations – like transferring humour and wordplay, recreating cadence and rhythm, preserving a strong sense of place, and all the things my colleagues have pointed out above. But maybe doing that requires an extra mental shift, an extra layer of thought to work out what exactly the translator has done here, and which aspects are entirely the author’s doing. And maybe if you’re being paid a pittance and all you want to do is encourage readers to buy a book, or tell them why you think they shouldn’t bother, that shift isn’t worth the effort. I can see that.

For us as translators, though, I think it’s extremely important. We need role models, we need something to strive for – and we need to find ways to define good work that go beyond the negative. As David Boyd puts it, good translations make us see translation in a new way; they can shake us out of complacency, encourage us to try new things. One of the things I love about literary translation is, as David Colmer points out, that it’s a job for perfectionists, forever reaching for the impossible, or the “hoax” as Sandra Hetzl calls it. It’s a profession for optimists.

Much of our work takes place on an intuitive level, reading very deeply and then writing our own version of a text, sometimes less conscious of the choices we make than close readers might be, at least in our first draft. Hence, I suspect, some of the language we use to explain what we’re trying for: dancing, cooking, music, something near-magical and near-invisible. These are all useful metaphors. But if we’re to continue our striving and pass it on to new generations, I think it’s also helpful to find examples of good translations and investigate what it is they do well.

Let me tell you about a couple of my role models. Christina MacSweeney’s English version of The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli absolutely sparkles with wit. She gives us a strong, consistent and funny voice and finds truly innovative ways to help her readers understand the novel’s context, adding a whole extra chapter of her own. Breon Mitchell’s translation of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass does, what David Colmer mentions, embrace the gifts of the English language’s huge vocabulary, while deftly wrangling Grass’ winding sentences. I recently admired Susan Bernofsky’s English translation of Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, which really captures the strangeness of a Soviet polar bear writing her life story, using a mix of slightly stilted and colloquial language and again choosing her words with great joy. For me, this is also an example of a translator well suited to her writer, who has been working with her for years and feels comfortable – as Saskia Vogel writes, treating Tawada’s writing as her own.

And to give an example of a writer not yet translated into English, I’m bowled over by Silke Kleemann’s German translation of El que mueve las piezas (una novela bélica) by Ariel Magnus, a tale of a Jewish German in 1939 Buenos Aires that plays with language and literature, fact and fiction. Kleemann really enters into the spirit of the thing, goes along with so many jokes and adds a whole new layer of understanding to our reading, tackling the tricky feat of essentially back-translating a semi-German book written in Spanish. Without, however, resorting to “colonising”, as Ros Schwartz puts it – it is still a very Argentinian novel. An English translation might be even more difficult, come to think of it, with a third linguistic factor to it.

You’ll notice I’m foregrounding humour, which confirms to me that taste in translations varies. I like funny books and I know it’s hard to rescue humour across languages, requires a lot of struggling out of the straitjacket of literal meaning that Antonia Lloyd-Jones mentions. As Boyd points out, good translations are all good in different ways. Incidentally, I speak only two languages, German and English, but as I work on recognising good translation I find I can identify examples where I don’t understand the original, like the two Spanish-language books above.

Perhaps it is indeed utopian to expect critics to hone that sensitivity, if even we translators are still working on it. But I’m glad we are working on it, I’m glad we’re reading each other’s work and appreciating it and moving towards critiquing it fairly, within a community I have always experienced as mutually supportive. Perhaps, with time, we’ll develop the clarity we need to talk about our work as an art, and by doing so make it better.


This article first appeared in the Seagull newsletter.

Katy Derbyshire co-edits no man’s land, an online magazine of contemporary German writing in English, and co-hosts a monthly translation lab in Berlin. For Seagull Books, she has translated books by Jan Brandt, Dorothee Elmiger, Jo Lendle, Sybille Lewitscharoff, Inka Parei, Tilman Rammstedt and Christa Wolf.

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