the complete review Quarterly
Volume IV, Issue 4   --   November, 2003

Twice Removed
The Baffling Phenomenon of the
Translated and then Re-Translated Text

Foreign-language literature in translation
Double translations
Getting away with it
An Eastern European problem ?
The future

- C a s e    S t u d i e s -
Witold Gombrowicz: Cosmos, Pornografia, -- and Ferdydurke
Ismail Kadare
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris and The Invincible
Sándor Márai: Embers
the Strugatskys: Hard to be a God


       English may currently be the dominant world language, but a great deal of literature, classical and contemporary, was and is written in other languages. These works are accessible only to those who either know or learn the language they are written in -- or, more easily (but less accurately) in translation.
       Translation is not a simple, harmless operation: literature is not readily convertible from one language to another, and even the simplest sentence can rarely be rendered with the identical meaning (and implications and allusions) in another language. Translation changes a text, and is thus something that should be approached warily and suspiciously. Nevertheless, given the impossibility of learning all languages to an adequate degree of fluency that would allow one to read all foreign-language texts, translation is also a necessity.
       All texts suffer some damage in being translated from one language to another, and one would imagine that an effort would be made to keep this damage to a minimum. Given that it is the terrible leap from one language to another where (generally) most of the damage occurs, it would seem incumbent on all involved to insure that any literary work subject to this awful process at least be re-presented in English by the most direct route possible -- i.e. translated directly from the original. Astonishingly, this is not always the case: English translations via third languages -- the English version being based on, say, the French translation of a book originally written in Polish -- continue to be commissioned and published.
       This is not a new situation, nor one unique to English. For several reason, however, it is particularly disappointing that it still occurs so frequently with regards to foreign literature published in English. Readers (and, indeed, many reviewers) also seem unaware of the issue, and the consequences of this ugly practise, and it is our hope to at least raise consumer awareness.

       This piece focusses specifically on the case of second-hand translation of fiction (specifically, but not exclusively contemporary fiction), offering a discussion of the situation, considering (albeit not very sympathetically) possible reasons and/or excuses, as well as a offering case studies of twice-removed translations -- paying particular attention to critical reactions to the practise

       (Note: Second-hand translation -- or even the "translation" of a work by someone unfamiliar with the language it was written in -- is actually a fairly common practise in English translations of foreign-language poetry. There are many issues raised by various approaches to translating foreign-language poetry, but it seems to us most of these are so different that they should be considered separately from the question of translations of works of fiction.)

Note: This piece should be considered a work-in-progress; our hope is to add to the case studies, and then to adjust our findings and conclusions accordingly. Readers are encouraged to e-mail us with any additional examples they come across. (Remember: only contemporary (post-World War II) translations (though the translated works can be pre-WWII), and only works of fiction.)

- Return to top of the page -

Foreign-language literature in translation

       Both the US and The UK are considered relatively hostile to literature in translation; compared to most other countries and cultures (with a few large exceptions, such as the practically anti-literary contemporary Arabic world) a very small portion of the American and British book market consists of literature in translation. The reasons for the small market share are unclear: publishers tend to claim readers aren't interested in literature in translation, but given how few samples of the product they offer they at least share in the blame. Certainly, there is a general disinterest in the international literary scene and community, by publishers, the media, and readers in America and Britain, that stands in stark contrast to almost every other area of the world.
       English is the dominant literary language of our times, and original English-language works seem to hold great appeal both in the domestic markets (apparently crowding out most translated literature), as well as in many international markets. In addition, a great deal of foreign literature available in the US and UK is now being written in English -- mainly by authors from India, the Caribbean, Africa, and Oceania. It might even be argued that English has become so much the dominant literary language that English-language products (in the original, or translated into the world's many languages) can serve all literary needs -- and hence obviates the need of any translation of any literary works into English.
       Fortunately, the situation is not (yet ?) quite so grim: there is an enormous, rich, and varied literary output in languages other than English, and a smattering of it is even made available to English-speaking audiences in translation. The works of a select number of major foreign-language authors -- Umberto Eco, Günter Grass, Kenzaburo Oe, Mario Vargas Llosa, among others -- are generally quickly (within a few years of original publication) translated, and at least some works by many other authors are also made available in English. In addition, even where translations already exist, one finds classical works frequently being translated anew: in recent years there have been new versions of Don Quixote, Proust, Freud, and others.
       The re-translation of classical works, in particular, suggests considerable awareness of the significance of translation: language changes over time, and a hundred year-old translation can sound dated. A classical foreign work, however, can be 'updated' for a contemporary audience (in a way a classical work written in English can not -- or at least not as easily) merely by being translated anew. More common in poetry and drama, there are also a considerable number of new translations of previously translated works of fiction that appear annually: publishers, the media, and readers all are apparently willing to take a fresh look at what are often familiar works.

       The fact that so very little fiction is translated into English every year (it is difficult to find a precise number, but there appear to be no more than a few hundred translations of works of fiction annually in both the US and UK) would seem to at least permit publishers to take particular care with the few works they do bring to English-speaking audiences. The continuing effort to re-translate classical texts, i.e. provide translations best suited to contemporary audiences, even if there already are older translations, suggests an awareness of the importance of translation: not just any English version will do. These two facts might lead one to believe that it is consistently the best possible translations that are presented to consumers. This may, generally speaking, be true -- but there are enough glaring exceptions, specifically in the form of books translated via a third language, to suggest readers are being short-changed (and the writers of the originals misrepresented).

- Return to top of the page -

Double translations

       The idea of translating a work first from language A to language B, and only then to language C (instead of directly from A to C) seems senseless, but there are, of course, circumstances under which such a roundabout way must be taken -- specifically if there are no qualified translators who could render a text from language A to C.
       Such double translation was, for a long time, not that unusual. Until relatively recently cultures lived in much greater isolation. Literature was often transferred via lingua francas like Latin, and when Europe became aware of the literature of, for example, the Orient (Near, Middle, and Far East) it was not unusual for texts -- from the Arabian Nights on -- to come to Europe via some major language (generally French, German, or English) and then be translated on into other European languages.
       Even nowadays, direct translation is often difficult simply because there are too few (if any) qualified translators -- how many Norwegians could translate a Thai novel ? how many Nepalis a Portuguese one ? etc. Translation via a third language remains, under such circumstances, the only possibility.

       The situation in the US and UK, especially today, is a different one, however. English is clearly currently the world's only lingua franca. If anything, one would expect English to be the in-between language that is used in bringing texts from obscure language A to obscure language C. There are examples of this, but English does not appear to have become the leading such transfer language, at least of literary texts (it appears to be French) -- in large part, no doubt, because so little foreign literature is translated into English in the first place (i.e. there's so little to choose from).
       More significantly, the incredible prominence and popularity of English, as well as the relatively large and (linguistically) varied immigrant population in the US, suggest that if there were any language in which one could find qualified translators it would be English. Despite being notoriously monoglot, the large British and American populations, as well as the large number of English-speakers beyond their borders must yield a sufficient number of translators for all but the obscurest languages. Nevertheless, publishers still occasionally prefer to publish second-hand translations instead of seeking out qualified translators who could translate directly -- in some cases (from languages such as Polish) where it is absolutely inconceivable that a qualified translator could not have been found.

       There not being any qualified translators would seem to be the only plausible explanation for translating a text via a third language. As far as simple linguistic competence goes, this would not appear to be a convincing argument regarding the translation of such works into English: there are simply too many English-speakers also fluent in practically any language one might want to translate from. But publishers might argue that linguistic fluency isn't enough: it's literature that's being translated, and so a translator with that creative touch is needed to properly convey the text.
       Given how poor many translations are even without going by way of a third language this does not seem a very convincing argument either, but it is certainly the only one publishers can make. The most prominent recent twice-removed literary translation, Carol Brown Janeway's second-hand translation of Sándor Márai's Hungarian novel Embers (see our discussion), can surely only be defended on such grounds. While not widely spoken, there have been several literary translations directly from the Hungarian over the past few years, but the English-language publishers chose to translate this book indirectly. Carol Brown Janeway has translated numerous works -- but not from the Hungarian. (She is also apparently an editor at Embers-publisher Knopf; what influence that had on this decision is unclear.) Most reviewers didn't bother discussing the translation issues, but those that did generally were impressed by what Janeway had done (though barely any were qualified to compare it with the Hungarian original). Perhaps Janeway's art really did make this route the best one.
       (Recent Nobel laureate Imre Kertész is apparently less than thrilled about the translations (directly from the Hungarian) of his two novels available in English -- and, despite his large oeuvre, no additional translations have made it to market yet, suggesting there are very real difficulties with translation directly from the Hungarian.)

       A final possibility for the bizarre choice of translating a text already once removed from the original comes in the form of what it is a publisher wants to present: perhaps it really is not the original that the publisher hopes to bring to an English-speaking audience, but rather the translation -- i.e. not Sándor Márai's A gyertyák csonkig égnek, but rather Christina Viragh's German rendering, Die Glut. Given the critical and sales-success of Viragh's version (and the fact that Márai's 1942 Hungarian version hadn't made much of an impression for some six decades) this almost doesn't sound too far-fetched.
       Something is undeniably lost in translation (and other things, possibly even good ones, gained). The German rendering of Embers is surely a very different book from Márai's original -- and perhaps the English publishers felt that these changes were all for the best, and that it is this version of the book that would appeal to their audiences, rather than a version that relied on the Hungarian (and might include some of what Viragh had managed to get rid of in her version).

- Return to top of the page -

Getting away with it

       There is little enthusiasm among authors, translators, and critics about second-hand translations -- but, of course, all publishers care about is selling their product, and consumers are in no position to demand a better one. While some out-of-copyright texts are available in multiple translations, contemporary literature is almost inevitably available -- if it is available at all -- only in a single translation (with the very occasional exception if US and UK rights are held separately). There is no such thing as consumer choice. Knopf owns the US rights to Embers, Viking the UK ones, and that's that: the translation they offer is the only one that will be available, regardless of how terrible it is.
       Consumers are generally in no position to judge the quality of the translation they are offered: if they knew the language the original is written in they presumably would read the text in the original; as is, they likely can't compare the English version with the original. Most reviewers are in no position to judge the quality of a translation either, but even when they are they appear to be no more have concerned about second-hand translations than first-hand ones, treating them equally roughly (or kindly). (Second-hand translation has the advantage of offering an additional layer of immunity from criticism: few, indeed, are the reviewers and critics qualified to comment on a work in three different languages !)

       While translators and authors alike appear to overwhelmingly disapprove of the practise of second-hand translation their concerns are rarely properly brought to the attention of readers. In the introduction to her interview with Janeway on All Things Considered, Jacki Lyden mentions that the translation of Embers is not from the original Hungarian -- but then doesn't ask Janeway a single question about this in the actual interview.
       In an interview with translator J.Philip Gabriel, Maya Mirsky mentions the Embers double-translation, to which Gabriel responds:
I havenít heard of the case, but I know that sort of practice goes on far too much. The German translation of Murakamiís South of the Border, West of the Sun, for instance, was based on my translation of a Murakami novel, not the original. A hundred years ago this kind of second-generation translation was more common, but nowadays, when there are many good translators out there, I have trouble understanding the justification for the practice.
       It's telling that even he, someone in the business, hadn't heard of the Embers double-translation -- and that the one example he then gives of the outrageous practise (admittedly the example closest to him) is one that is of no consequence to English-speaking readers. (Disappointing, too, his statement that: "I know that sort of practice goes on far too much.")

       Reviewers -- perhaps the major intermediaries between book-sellers and the book-buying public -- generally do not take the opportunity they have to apprise readers of what it means to deal with a text in translation -- and especially one in a double-translation. Even the reviewers that made readers aware of the fact that Embers was not translated from the Hungarian chose not to make very much of it. J.M. Coetzee (The New York Review of Books, 20 December 2001) did little more than suggest that this was "questionable professional practice", while Tibor Fischer (The Guardian, 5 January 2002) was irate -- but still found: "the translation is, oddly, surprisingly faithful to the original."
       Perhaps reviewers are so surprised and grateful that there is any literature in translation being made available to English-speaking audiences that they are willing to accept second-hand translations (and worse).

       The case of the German translation of Murakami Harukiís South of the Border, West of the Sun is an instructive one. While most of Murakami's books have been translated into German directly from the Japanese, at least two (South of the Border, West of the Sun -- published in German as Gefährliche Geliebte -- and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle -- published in German as Mister Aufziehvogel) were translations of the English translations. In the case of Gefährliche Geliebte this caused a major scandal (as far as literary scandals go) and the publishers were harshly criticised by the reviewers, in a debate extensively covered in the media. (The consequences are also instructive: the publishers were not shamed into withdrawing the book from the market, or promising to commission a first-hand translation: they just ignored the fuss. Consumers, left with no alternative, also don't appear to have boycotted the title (or the publisher) en masse: it appears to have sold well.)
       Murakami, in an interview by Ulrike Haak in Die Zeit, expresses some of the confoundment (and impotence) of the author whose work has been tampered with:
ZEIT: Haben Sie gewusst, dass Gefährliche Geliebte nicht aus dem Japanischen, sondern aus dem Amerikanischen ins Deutsche übersetzt wurde ?
MURAKAMI: Auf die Idee bin ich nicht gekommen, deswegen habe ich das nicht überprüft. Wenn der Verlag mich gefragt hätte, hätte ich darauf bestanden, dass man einen Japanisch-Übersetzer findet.

(ZEIT: Did you know that Gefährliche Geliebte wasn't translated into German from the Japanese but from the American ?
MURAKAMI: The idea didn't occur to me, that's why I didn't even check that. If the publishers had asked me I would have insisted that they find a Japanese translator.)
       One would think that an author like Murakami has had enough dealings with publishers to know that they have little interest in the author's (or the book's) best interest, and that with something like translation they'll do what's easiest (and, presumably, cheapest) rather than what's best every time. (Murakami is, after all, the rare contemporary author who has managed to get one of his novels (Norwegian Wood) translated (directly) into English twice over.) Murakami might actually have enough clout so that he could influence a publisher (by insisting on it in the contract) that translations be directly from the original. Less well-known authors (or dead ones, like Márai, the handling of whose work is now in the hands of some literary executor) are likely unable to resist the huge temptation of getting into a major market like the English-language one, whatever the compromises.
       Once a translation of a contemporary work exists it is almost impossible to supplant it. Occasionally, there are different translations for the US and UK markets, but that's usually the extent of it. (Murakami's Norwegian Wood was only re-translated into English because the English-language rights for the first translation apparently only covered Japan.) Even Murakami, despite being displeased to find that some of his novels were translated into German via a third language, appears to have done nothing to try to rectify this situation. While he presumably had little legal recourse (he signed away the rights, after all -- without looking at the contract too carefully) he could at the very least have tried to exert pressure on the publishers, or publicly disavowed these renderings. Instead, he seems to accept the fact with a shrug of the shoulders. The losers in all this are the readers -- while Murakami and his publishers rake in the money.

       Even in the rare instance where an author does vociferously complain, as Stanislaw Lem has regarding the second-hand translation of his classic, Solaris (see our discussion), publishers choose not to act. With little outside pressure from critics or readers -- and continued strong sales of whatever version they toss on the market -- publishers have essentially no incentive to commission new translations of doubly-translated works.

       Unfortunately, there seems little correlation between bad translations (second-hand or otherwise) and low sales -- the one incentive that would cause publishers to take action. Most literature translated into English sells poorly, for reasons that probably include: bad translation, bad (if any) marketing, and limited (if any) critical interest (i.e. review coverage). The fact that a book is presented to English-speaking audiences via two translations clearly does not necessarily have an adverse effect on sales: Sándor Márai's Embers and Lem's Solaris have both sold very well, while other twice-translated works haven't.

- Return to top of the page -

An Eastern European problem ?

       All the examples of twice-translated texts we have (see our case studies) are of fiction originally written in Eastern European languages: Albanian, Hungarian, Polish, and Russian. This is not entirely surprising.
       English is the dominant world language and, as we've noted, one would actually expect English to be the in-between language that is used in bringing texts from one language to another (if one can't, or doesn't want to, directly). Often this is the case -- as with the German version of Murakami's South of the Border, West of the Sun , etc. -- and with many of the major non-European languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Thai, among others) it is unlikely that books would be translated into English via a third language. The major exceptions might be Arabic and Farsi, as literature in these languages appears to be considerably more extensively translated into European languages such as French and German than English.
       Literature written in most Western European languages, including those widely spoken elsewhere (French, Portuguese, and Spanish) is not subject to the threat of double-translation, as there are simply too many qualified translators from these languages to even consider such a route (though one shouldn't put anything past publishers ...). However, less widely spoken languages (the Scandinavian ones, for example) might be subject to the second-hand route. But it is Eastern European literature that is the one area where a great deal is translated throughout Europe and very little is in the US and UK.
       American publishers are notoriously uninformed (and uninterested) in foreign literary markets, and most likely have no one on staff (or on retainer) who reads East European languages -- but, with a tiny claim to culture, there are usually a few people in the office who read French and/or German. It is thus works translated into those languages that might -- and every so often do -- catch the eye of publishers, and that is often why they get published. (As to why so many publishers are unable to find translators who could translate the work directly from the original, that remains something of a mystery.)
       One might have imagined that with the end of the Cold War and a trend towards globalisation and the rapid spread of English now even throughout Eastern Europe as a major language that second-hand translations from the local languages would become less prevalent. This does not seem the case. The continuing second-hand approach to Ismail Kadare's work, and the great success of Márai's Embers suggest publishers have no intention or interest in making matters better.

- Return to top of the page -

The future

       Unless there is some great revolt against second-hand translation -- by readers, reviewers, authors, and translators themselves -- it is likely that second-hand translations will continue to be published. Given what appears to be a general unawareness of the issue among almost all readers and most reviewers, as well as translator complicity in the creation of these second-hand works, it does not appear that change will come any time soon.
       Though they would seem to be undermining the integrity of their craft by engaging in it, translator complicity is vaguely understandable: double-translations mean work for two translators, after all: it makes for a sort of international solidarity in a tough business. Readers don't know any better, and reviewers generally aren't willing or able to tell them. And publishers seem perfectly willing to continue to present second-hand translations when it suits them, the best interests of the work, the author, and the reader be damned.

       One might expect that in the future there will be far more second-hand translation with English as the intermediate language; ironically, this seems unlikely -- for the simple reason that there is so little intermediary material to work with (because so little foreign literature is translated into English in the first place).
       Translations into English via a third language will likely continue much as before -- an occasional fall-back. Works originally in Eastern European languages are likely to continue to be the target of choice, while other languages from which this might occur include other small European ones, Arabic, Farsi, and possibly local languages from Francophone and Lusophone Africa -- the few areas where English is not yet the second language of choice.

       One hopes that in the future there will be a greater awareness of this (and all other) issues of translation. Not only should the role of the translator into English be acknowledged, but in cases of double-translation, at the very least, there should be the appropriate acknowledgement of the translator to the intermediate language (as is, admirably, the case with many of Ismail Kadare's books).
       One always wishes for an introductory 'translator's note', explaining how a foreign work was rendered into English -- and double translations are even more in need of such explanatory prefaces. If publishers are serious about finding an audience for translated literature they should be honest and upfront with them, making clear what it means to read a text in translation: introductory material in the form of a translator's note can help both to reassure and inform readers. (As publishers prefer to dissemble and distort -- witness the ridiculous misleading blurbs they put on their books instead of actual information -- it seems unlikely there will be much movement in this direction.)
       The one area where there is room for the most improvement is in review and critical coverage. At the very least, reviewers should always point out that a book has been doubly-translated; if possible, of course, one would wish for at least some discussion of the implications of that as well.

       Finally, of course, one hopes that all discussion of doubly-translated texts becomes moot, as the process is recognised for the foolishness it is and the idea itself becomes considered laughable both by readers and publishers, completely ending this odd method of bringing foreign texts to English-speaking audiences.

- go to: C a s e    S t u d i e s -

- Return to top of the page -

Current Issue | Archive | about the crQuarterly | the Literary Saloon | the complete review

to e-mail us:

© 2003 the complete review Quarterly
© 2003 the complete review