Translation: agonies and rewards

by BAS editor Sander Berg

It is a truth universally acknowledged that some things are just untranslatable. Traduttore, traditore, and all that. That does not mean we should not try, although imagine how much less bigotry there would be if all those people who (used to) brandish copies of the Bible to defend slavery, burn witches or attack gays had to learn Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek before they could quote from the Good Book. But let us not get political.  

Translation is nothing more, nor less, than the challenge of carrying across a message from one language, and its implicit set of norms and values and history, to another. A translator is a kind of Saint Christopher, carrying the Christ-child of the text across a river that separates two linguistic and cultural realms, or a pontifex in the etymological sense of the word, that is: a builder of bridges. In order to do so, a skilled translator must be fully conversant in the source and in the target language and culture. They must understand fully what the original means and implies and find the best fit.  

This always involves choices and options. The most felicitous will result in the best translation, although sometimes there are unavoidable problems, like when one language uses one word where the other uses two. Examples would be the fact that in English we don’t normally distinguish between male and female friends or cousins, whereas in Spanish you must indicate whether the person in question is your amiga or your amigo, your primo or your prima. And the context does not always give you the answer. Conversely, English beverages can be warm or hot, but in Spanish they are just caliente. Likewise, Spanish people live in ciudades or pueblos (and the odd aldea), whereas the English can take up residence in a town as well as a city or a village (plus the occasional hamlet if you must).  

Usually, however, these lexico-semantic peculiarities are the least of a translator’s worries. In general, vocabulary does not throw up huge hurdles, except when very obscure words are used that cannot be found in any dictionary or on any website. I once translated a text on El Greco in which the author refers to a part of a suit of armour. Unable at first to find the word anywhere, I eventually came across two drawings with names and arrows pointing to different parts of a suit of armour: one in English and one in Spanish. Et voilà, problem solved. In another passage the art historian summed up the inventory of a religious hospital. It included ‘cálices, cruces, incensarios, facistoles, vinajeras, hostiarios y candeleros de plata, cera, alfombras, cajoneras, vestidos de clérigos e incluso de la propia imagen.’ Most of the words I knew, but I had no idea what facistoles and vinajeras were and only a vague idea of what a hostiario might be used for. After consulting various dictionaries, I found that they are lecterns, cruets and patens. I was none the wiser, but then again, I am not an officiating Catholic priest, so why would I know these words? The point is that such jargon is easily translated into the equivalent jargon. A Spanish lay reader is as unlikely to know all the terms as an English one. 

It gets much more difficult when you are dealing with slang and dialect. High register Spanish can be translated into its English equivalent without any problem, but what to do with a character who has a porteño accent or slides into bable or asturiano every now and again? It would be distinctly odd to give her a Cockney accent or make him speak with a West-Country burr. Especially when the novel is set in Buenos Aires or Asturias. This is where the translator will probably have to admit defeat. Some conundrums simply cannot be solved and the translation will be the poorer for it. 

Something similar can be said for puns: either you throw up your hands or you recreate something. This need not be a pun on the same word. What might work is to have a pun on another word in the same paragraph, as long as you retain some sort of word play. 

Poetry falls into a category of its own. There, it seems to me, the options are either to offer a more or less literal translation, as a sort of subtitle without any aspiration to be poetic – and some dual language editions of poetry do just that – or recreate the poem (or should I say a poem?), for which very considerable literary skills are required, which is why is established poets are often asked to translate poems from other languages.

The ultimate translation challenge, however, must be the works produced by members of the Oulipo, that French-speaking conglomerate of writers who create all sorts of constrictions on their work. A famous example is Georges Perec’s novel La disparition, a lipogrammatic work: a text entirely written without one of the letters of the alphabet, in this case the letter ‘e’. That bears repeating: an entire novel without the letter ‘e’ – in French! So you cannot say: le, les, de, des, une, ce, cette or use any verbs forms that end in -er-re-é, -ez, es, -ent, etc. Try rendering that into English or Spanish. Of course people have tried. The English translation is by Gilbert Adair and is called, quite brilliantly, A Void – there is a void and a letter to avoid. There is a Spanish translation too, a group effort that was published by Editorial Anagrama in 1997 and is called El secuestro. There the choice was made to avoid the letter ‘a’. Compare the following three fragments. 

Anton Voyl n’arrivait pas à dormir. Il alluma. Son Jaz marquait minuit vingt. Il poussa un profond soupir, s’assit dans son lit, s’appuyant sur son polochon. Il prit un roman, il l’ouvrit, il lut; mais il n’y saisissait qu’un imbroglio confus, il butait à tout instant sur un mot dont il ignorait la signification. Il abandonna son roman sur son lit. 

Incurably insomniac, Anton Vowl turns on a light. According to his watch it’s only 12.20. With a loud and languorous sigh Vowl sits up, stuffs a pillow at his back, draw his quilt up around his chin, picks up his whodunnit and idly scans a paragraph or two; but judging its plot impossibly difficult to follow in his condition, its vocabulary too whimsically multisyllabic for comfort, throws it away in disgust. 

Tonio Vocel no concilió el sueño. Encendió el fluorescente. Miró el reloj: cinco y quince. Suspiró hondo, se sentó en el lecho, se reclinó sobre el cojín. Cogió un libro, lo hojeó y lo leyó; pero solo pudo ver un lío enorme; los términos confusos le impidieron seguir el hilo. Puso el libro sobre el edredón. 

Translation poses challenges, no doubt about that. But it is distinctly unfair to call a translator a traitor, as the Italian dictum quoted at the start has it. You would be better off calling her a creator or recreator. There is a real satisfaction to be had if you get it just right: the word, the tone, the association, the lot. A good translator, as Nathanial Gardner pointed out in the previous edition, disappears into the background. They are like Laozi’s best of all rulers: a mere shadowy presence. But sometimes, when I read a really good translation, I marvel at the artfulness of the creative spirit behind it and I think: this is such a good, apt, appropriate and beautiful and/or funny expression, can it ever have been written in any language other than English? It sounds so natural, so… perfect. What on earth could it say in the original? In most cases I will never find out, since I cannot read it. Why else would I be reading a translation, after all? And that is fine too: to be struck with silent admiration for the often unsung heroines and heroes of literary translation. 


‘Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.’ 

– Anthony Burgess 

‘Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes.’  

– Günther Grass 

‘Writers make national literature, while translators make universal literature.’  

– José Saramago 

‘Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.’ 

– Italo Calvino 

‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.’  

– Walter Benjamin 


On the translation of Cien años de soledad by Gabriel García Márquez: 

On the history of the translation of Borges’s short stories: 

On the challenges of translating Lorca: 

On the challenges of translating Cervantes. 


I once went to a translation duel. Two established translators were given the opening pages of Cien años de soledad and had ten days or so to prepare a translation. Then they were invited to explain and defend their versions on stage with a moderator to guide the discussion. It was fascinating. I have used the hand-out in my lessons ever since. You could recreate this experience by finding different English translations of the same text and let pupils discuss which version they prefer and why, paying attention to how certain problems have been solved and challenges overcome. 

There are quite a few translations of Lorca’s plays out there, as well as a few translations of Cervantes’s Don Quijote