The Craft of Translation

“Translations are like women: when they’re beautiful, they’re not faithful, and when they’re faithful, they’re not beautiful,” wrote Carl Bertrand in the introduction to his late nineteenth-century translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, not without the knee-jerk objectification of the other sex typical of the time. Like most aphoristic truths, it exaggerates, but my possibly too faithful translation reveals that in English “beautiful”, unlike “faithful”, has a more restricted meaning than it has in French.* Can a translation be beautiful? Is it even noticed?

To be sure, translation is not a flamboyant activity. Its practitioners are not required to dress either fashionably or in rags, to lead protests or disdain society altogether, or of course to drink absinthe late into the night. They are never extreme in their life style, because visibility is not only unnecessary – it is almost impossible to achieve. This is true even in countries where most books – certainly most novels – are in translation. It is truer still in the English-speaking world where translation is rare and mainly restricted to classic novels of the nineteenth century.

This does not mean that translators are all self-effacing Saint Jeromes drudging away with no other thought than the propagation of great literature into other languages and cultures. On the whole, I suspect that many or indeed most of them resent the failure of readers, critics and indeed writers to acknowledge their presence in a work. A translator’s elegant sentence is exactly that, and the elegance may not have been present in the original. Equally translators must take personal responsibility for the clumsy or confusing sentences that issue from their pens or word processors. But then, what profession is there that doesn’t feel undervalued? Translators should perhaps savour the freedom of their métier and its inconspicuousness.

Eight years ago I translated a novel set in Gorbachev’s Russia by a prominent Italian author, Alessandro Barbero. In a way, this work was already a kind of translation: the author, a medieval historian, writes novels by immersing himself in the language and ideas of a particular society. He had never visited the Soviet Union or Russia (nor has he since), but he was able to understand that society by reading its newspapers, magazines and reports on archival material. Central to the novel, which I entitled The Anonymous Novel,** was the narrative voice that cleverly reflected popular conceptions and prejudices in the Soviet Union shortly before its fall.

As Italian is a more “formal” language than English, in the sense that its uses more subordinate clauses, apposition, clauses in apposition and flexible word order (i.e. English uses more parataxis and Italian more hypotaxis), the same syntax that could appear to be that of a popular voice in Italian, became rather formal in English, undermining the author’s intentions. I resolved the problem by pushing the register of the narrative voice downwards, and effectively rewriting it. I sent a sample to the author, who has good English, and fortunately he immediately understood what I was trying to do and approved it.

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I should perhaps be honest and also admit that this was not always the case, and during the translation of that novel of truly Russian dimensions (187,000 words to be exact), we had quite a few stand-up arguments, often over a single word: a phenomenon only understandable to other pedants like the pair of us – monomaniac writer and monomaniac translator.

The significance of this example is that by distancing myself from a straight translation using the original syntax I was being more faithful to Barbero’s original intentions. By rejecting word-for-word translation we can sometimes produce a better translation, though we can also argue over what that might mean. In translation, as in so many other fields, particularly in literature, it is not a matter of generalised rules or even guidelines; it is a matter of judgement on a case-by-case basis. And we could endlessly dispute each of those judgements.

Bearing these points in mind, I will now examine the brief passage below in both English and the Italian original. Clearly every pair of source and target languages has a particular series of problems. The problems of translating from Chinese into English are quite distinct from those of Spanish to Russian or even Spanish to English. The examples here are of interest only as types: syntactical, semantic, stylistic, idiomatic and the like. I have put in bold the phrases or words I’ll focus on:


“But how can you say such things, Aleksandr Ivanych? It’s despicable!” said Tanya, losing heart. “Why ever the interests of capitalism? We only want…”

“Don’t think about what you want, Tatyana Borisovna. Think about what will happen. You are people with refined sensitivities – the Kirsanovs and Lopukhovs – but you won’t be in command. Despicable, you say. Well, I predict that a day is coming in not too many years’ time… yes, there will very soon be a day in which our people will ask us, Why have you done this? We did not want it! And they will shout in the squares, We want to live as we once did! But it will be too late. Here in Russia, it appears there can be no half measures: it is either black or white…”

They all went quiet.

“It’s got late,” Oleg declared.

Yes, it’s time we got going,” Tanya confirmed. Chimut-Dorzhev looked at all three knowingly.

What can I say, my friends? You have made an old man happy.”

In the hall, they put on their coats, tied up their scarves, and shook their host’s hand. By the time she was in the doorway, Tanya could resist no longer, “But Aleksandr Ivanych, do you really believe… that stuff about people shouting in the squares?”

Her host nodded, “They’ll be shouting, Tatyana Borisovna.”

He opened the lift door and slowly closed it behind them.

“Ma come può, Aleksandr Ivanyč, dire cose simili? È – è ignobile!” si disperò Tanya. “Perché mai, gli interessi del capitalismo? Noi non vogliamo soltanto…”

“Non pensi a ciò che voi volete, Tat’jana Borisovna. Pensi a ciò che avverrà. Voi siete anime belle, i Kirsanov e i Lopuchov; ma voi non comanderete. Ignobile, lei dice; ebbene io le predico che verrà un giorno, ma non fra molti anni, badate; verrà prestissimo un giorno, in cui il nostro popolo ci chiederà: perché avete fatto questo? Noi non volevamo! E grideranno nelle piazza: noi vogliamo vivere come prima! Ma sarà troppo tardi. Da noi, si vede, non sono possibili le mezze misure: o è bianco o è nero…”

Tacquero tutti.

“Be’, s’è fatto tardi,” dichiarò Oleg.

Sì, per noi è ora di andare,” confermò Tanja. Čimut-Doržev li guardò tutti e tre con aria sorniona.

Come dire, amici miei? Avete rallegrato un vecchio.”

Nell’ingresso infilarono i cappotti, annodarono le sciarpe, strinsero la mano all’ospite. Già sulla porta, Tanja non seppe resistere.

“Ma lei, Aleksandr Ivanyč, davvero crede… Insomma, grideranno nelle piazza?”

Il padrone di casa annuì.

“Grideranno, Tat’jana Borisovna.”

Aprì la porta dell’ascensore e la rinchiuse piano dietro di loro.


ignobile can be translated as “ignoble”, so they’re not what are called “false friends” (words in two languages from the same root but with distinct meanings), however it is best to consider carefully the choice suggested by etymology. “ignoble” is very low frequency in English and in Italian ignobile has lost most of its class connotations. My choice of “despicable” feels like the right fit. Tanya wants to make a point, but she isn’t trying to look smart. Earlier in the chapter I have the professorial Čimut-Doržev toast their coming together, “Well, to our felicitous meeting.” So some consideration of the kind of register each character uses also has to be taken into account.

Voi siete anime belle translated literally as “You are beautiful/good souls”, and this example reveals some of the more interesting inherent problems of translation. The original works very well. You feel that there could be an element of irony in host’s words, but also for him an essential truth. They are, he suggests, like Kirsanov and Lopukhov, idealised characters in Chernyshevsky’s radical, influential but now largely ignored novel, What Is to Be Done – in other words, impractical idealists themselves. It is not possible to reproduce the laconic precision of the original, so the translator is obliged to consider the meaning alone. “You are people with refined sensitivities” loses something but retains the ironic ambiguity of the sentence.

Da noi is an idiom with no real equivalent in English. We use a genitive to obtain a similar effect: “Let’s go round to Auntie Mary’s” could be translated as Andiamo dalla zia Maria. So Da noi… is literally “At our place…” but more often the “we” belongs to a larger collective unit, for instance a nation. We could say, “In our country”, but I chose to say “Here in Russia…” I felt that “In our country…” sounded pompous rather than ironic, and “In Russia” was too neutral. “Here in Russia” gives a sense of the “hereness” of what he is talking about. The older man is mainly criticising Russia, but there is a nuance: “We may be mad, but we’re special.”

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“Yes, it’s time we got going” is a very simple translation, worth mentioning because a translator should not be afraid of plain language, if that is what the original was. A writer often strives to avoid cliché, but a translator has to reproduce tone, which may be structurally very different in the target language. sornione means “artful dissimulation”, and I would not normally translate it as “knowingly” (adjectives are sometimes used as adverbs in Italian), but in this case I think that it fits. Throughout the chapter he has been slightly condescending to the young people, whom he thought to be students while in fact they are young professionals or in one case a postgraduate student (the character is based on the Soviet dissident Alexander Zinoviev).

Come dire is an intercalare, a word that doesn’t exist in English (as far as I know). It is a subgroup of exclamations – the ones that are placed within speech almost like verbal punctuations. An example in American English would be “like” as in “He was, like, a cool guy.” So it carries a certain demotic flavour which the professor adopts in this slightly awkward parting, but the question mark changes the meaning. Literally “How to say…”, it could be translated as “How could I put it?” but I take a looser approach: “What can I say?” which is both expansive and the register the speaker is seeking.

During the conversation Čimut-Doržev is referred to as both the ospite and the padrone di casa: the first is “host” and the second “house-owner” or “householder”, but more usually “landlord”. The situation is made more complex by the fact that ospite means both “host” and “guest” (perhaps because the original word for host, oste, is now mainly used for “publican”). Some may feel that I took a liberty by using “host” in both cases. Sometimes you have to follow your nose, and small and, more importantly, insignificant changes are justified if they avoid confusing the reader, with almost no semantic or stylistic loss. Perhaps none at all.

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“By the time she was in the doorway, Tanya could resist no longer” in a literal translation would have been “Already at the door, Tanya did not know how to resist.” This is a very simple translation, but if you’ve come across awkward sentences in translations, this is how they can come about. To understand this, you have to know that in Italian you would say, “Do you know how to go on a bicycle?” (Sai andare in bicicletta), while we Anglophones say, “Can you ride a bicycle?” These are the idioms and both work perfectly, though they arrive at the result through a different semantic route. It is amazing how often translators, even in the treatment of everyday idioms, slavishly stick to original syntax.

Having made that criticism, it’s only right that I confess that in the first chapter which I initially glanced at, I translated Ci siamo, pensò Viktor Nikolaevič. Gliel’avevo detto a Tanja… as “That’s it, thought Viktor Nikolayevich. I told Tanya that…” It’s the words “That’s it” which really don’t work. Ci siamo is used by a person who notices something happen that they have been expecting to happen – or in this case, have been afraid would happen. Its literal meaning “We’re there” or “We’re here” obviously won’t work either. So what should we say? “Just as I expected” feels like a good start. If that sounds a little too relaxed, we might be tempted by “There we go!” or “No surprise!” These all work in different ways, but none of them perfectly. My excuse for this error is that I translated the preface and the first chapter as a sample ten years before the full translation. Our profession requires a long apprenticeship and the two important lessons I learnt in that interim period were to translate the sentence and not the words, and to do so with boldness. We return to the compromise between beauty and faithfulness mentioned at the beginning, but it would be better to say between elegance and unbounded respect for the original meaning.

The Anonymous Novel
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* Beau has a much wider semantic field than "beautiful". It is not just that beau can be "fine", "good" (not in the moral sense), "noble" or "lofty" (un bel esprit could never be "a beautiful wit" but could be "a fine wit", just as une belle traduction could be "a fine translation"). Avoir beau jeu means "to have good cards" or "to have a great opportunity [to do something]". The word is everywhereand some could argue that this represents the innate aestheticism of the neo-Latin mind, though linguistic influences are definitely more complex than that. The fundamental point is that even with a simple aphorism about translation, a difficulty can emerge over the plainest of plain words between two closely related languages. What better demonstration of the spectrum of complexities in a planet of 6,000 languages!

** The novel's original title was Romanzo russo, which I could have called The Russian Novel or A Russian Novel. It was the author's intention to emphasise that this novel was in part about the Russian novel, which he greatly admires, but I felt that it could be mistaken for a work of literary criticism. Primarily, however, I was attracted by the novel's manuscript story which concerns an anonymous novel discovered and rediscovered on various occasions without anyone knowing where it could have come from. The title of a translated novel is not itself a translation. When choosing one, other considerations have to be taken into account, such as the cultural appropriateness or effectiveness of a direct translation. This is not merely some marketing decision; above all it should be an aesthetic and literary one. 


About the author: Allan Cameron is a writer and translator as well as the founder of Vagabond Voices. Read his full bio. 

Think in Translation Podcast Episode 1: We start the series with Allan Cameron, the founder of Vagabond Voices, translator of 24 books, and a writer himself. His most recent novel, Cinico, is a fictional translation of an Italian journalist's travelogue in Scotland. Allan talks about his favourite work of translation, the role translated work has in politics and shaping national thought, and the nuances involved in the act of translation itself.

Our Think in Translation project has been made possible thanks to The Space and Creative Scotland. To learn more about the project, visit the Think in Translation home page.