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Reflections on translation

Translating is a fascinating activity. Each translation project that drops into my inbox takes me to a different part of the world, offering me a window into how other people are living out their lives…


“The paradox … is that successful translators pass unnoticed. A good English translation will read as if the book were written in English in the first place.  A translation that is stilted or clumsy will scream its presence … Samuel Johnson remarked that ‘the task of a translator is to be like his author, it is not his business to excel him’ – and there is something in this. Among the most remarkable feats of translation in the last century was to render into English the worst of all books. Ralph Manheim, an American, was commissioned to translate Mein Kampf in the early years of the Second World War.  It has remained the definitive, scholarly edition of a volume that has long been banned in Germany.  Its peculiar skill lies in replicating the ranting, incoherent and prolix tone of the original.  The art of translation offers a window into history and the human mind.” – from “Found in Translation” in The Times, 10 January 2010.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Mark Twain, Letter to George Bainton, 1888

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’  – from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, Chapter VI, Humpty Dumpty

“Writers create national literatures with their language, but world literature is written by translators.'”– Jose Saramago, Portugese novelist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature.