Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 22, 2016

Translation, A Very Short Introduction (2016), by Matthew Reynolds

translation-a-very-short-introductionReading plans, pshaw!

Every now and again a book turns up in the letter box and I drop what I’m doing and simply sit down and read it.  And that’s what happened with Translation, a Very Short Introduction by Matthew Reynolds.  It’s a new title in a series called Very Short Introductions and yes, it is very short, only 120 pages not counting the References, Further Reading, Publisher’s acknowledgements and the Index, which takes the book up to 142 pages.   I read it in an afternoon.

I was interested in it because the worth of translation per se is a topic that is persistent in the literary world.  There are people who loudly scorn translations because they can’t possibly be true to the original, and so they confine themselves with lofty moralising to books in languages that they know. Every now and again there’s a little flurry on Twitter with links to someone or other pontificating about what a distorted experience it is to read in translation, or picking to pieces this translation versus that one and how this is proof that the whole process of translation is a bad idea.

For the opposition there are bloggers like Stu at Winston’s Dad, Tara at Reading@Large (formerly Book Sexy), Jacqui at JacquieWine and plenty of others as well and you will find links to their reviews of books in translations all over this blog.  I like to read and review books in translation, because it brings me worlds I cannot otherwise know.  I can just about read books in Indonesian and in French, but it is hard work, and I know I’ll never be able to read in all the languages that I’d like to.  I can’t imagine life without having read The Great Russians, Zola or Balzac, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Bible or Thomas Mann, and that’s just to mention ones that come quickly to mind.  Orhan Pamuk, Marguerite Duras, Hans Fallada, Irene Nemirovsky, Simone de Beauvoir, Ismail Kadare, Jose Saramago, Herta Muller, Veronique Olmi, Patrick Modiano … once I get started there’s no stopping!

Well, Matthew Reynolds tackles the topic with aplomb.  He’s Professor of English and Comparative Criticism at the University of Oxford and his books include The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer and Petrarch to Homer and Logue (OUP, 2011) and he’s a judge for the annual Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize.  So we know what ‘side’ he’s on.  And a nicely reasoned argument it is too. Chapter 1 ‘Crossing Languages’ deals with the instances of translation that occur: everything from school translations when we’re learning a language to flexibly negotiating languages with someone else not a native speaker of your language, something that happens all the time in multicultural Melbourne or when we travel.  There’s the jargon that we encounter from the medical profession; there are different kinds of English with different idiom; there are sign languages like Auslan and languages in different scripts.  There are dialects and slang and the strange language that Gen X, Y & Z speak.  Shakespeare and Chaucer need some hard work in interpretation when we read them in the original English with its non-standard spelling.  There are sub titles and international icons; there are the very carefully nuanced translations for the diplomacy of the European Union, and there are precise legally binding translations in courts and asylum seekers applications.  These are everyday instances of translation and they all have features in common:

  • Translation does not simply jump from one language to another.  It also ‘crosses languages’ in the sense of blending them. (p.5)
  • All translation involves diplomacy, because the aim of conveying what a speaker or source text is saying has to be tempered by an awareness of what the listener or reader is prepared to take on board. (p.6)
  • All translation involves the crowd, whether through the use of commentaries, dictionaries, multiple source texts or Google Translate, and the translator’s own linguistic competence is honed through other texts and conversations. (p.9)

Even the word ‘translation’ can’t be exactly translated, and that’s the starting point for Chapter 2, ‘Definitions’.  Reynolds says that’s because there is no exact translation of any word.  The image of bread that comes to mind when you think of the French le pain is not the same as the Indonesian roti or the German brot.  In Chapter 3, ‘Words, Contexts and Purposes’ he invites us to try this with the various words for ‘house’ which looks like a universal word until you try it and then the English word ‘scone’ as in clotted cream and jam, which is clearly culturally specific and a word for which there are no easy correspondences e.g. in Chinese.  (He could have done the same with the French word madeleine, eh?)

So translation does not translate the meanings of words; at least, not in the sense of taking the meaning of a word in one language and finding a word with the same meaning in another.  Many words are like ‘scone’, with propositional meanings that can’t be matched by any single words in other languages. So the translator performs some workaround, explaining the troublesome source-language word, or simply pulling it across in to the language of the translation. (p.30)

Dryden in 1680 summed up the issue in a way still influential in translation theory today:

  • metaphrase, now called word-by-word or very literal translation, not varying the word order or anything else, relying on language standardisation;
  • paraphrase, or translation with latitude: now meaning translation within a language rather than between them, with words not so strictly followed as the sense;
  • imitation, now described as ‘versions’, where the translator feels free to vary the words and the sense as s/he sees fit.

Reynolds warns us that translation is infinitely complex, influenced by factors such as

your historical moment and political situation, the genre of the text you are talking about, its context and purpose, the features of it that seem most important. (p.18)

In Chapter 4 ‘Forms, identities and interpretations’ he discusses everything from comics to the poetry of Dante.  A reader has to choose between a translation that preserves the unique rhyme scheme (Dorothy L Sayers’ version) or abandoning it (Longfellow’s or Mark Musa’s) or rewriting it in quatrains (Clive James).  (I’ve got a version on my iPad too, but I have no idea who the translator is, it’s really not an App worth having).

I do take issue with Reynolds on one issue.  He seems to think that we should take a robust attitude to ‘tone’  and he is quite stern about reviewers of translations.  I think this is a bit rich, considering that we are doing our very best to promote literature in translation and it’s better to comment on translation issues than to ignore the translator as if he s/he doesn’t exist.  IMO Tone matters in literature when a translator is trying to render the connotations of speech and context, and I’ve had some horrible experiences reading Zola’s novels where they’ve been translated using modern slang which has crassly altered the class distinctions that Zola was aiming to render.  I don’t agree that the original has no tone or spirit in itself; it takes readers to imagine those into being.  Good authors choose words carefully to capture age, class and identity; as you can see if you have to choose one of these for a translation of ‘maman’ from the French:  ‘mum’, ‘mummy’, ‘Mother’,  and ‘ma’.  Even ‘mummy’ has different connotations depending on context: in Australia, it’s quite common for little kids to use ‘mummy’ but the same word used by an adult for a parent is an occasion for mockery because it’s associated here with being an upper class British twit.  (No one has ever raised an eyebrow over my use of the Anglo-Irish ‘Mother’, but I’ve betrayed myself again and again with my use of ‘Daddy’ which is what I’ve called him ever since childhood).  No Australian, I think, would ever use the American ‘mom’…

What’s nice is that Reynolds acknowledges that translation of literary fiction is difficult because

literary texts are open to a great variety of interpretations: that is part of what it means for them to be ‘literary’.  Critical essays give their readers fewer interpretive options.  One reason for this is the way they are written: they don’t, on the whole, play with ambiguity, fictionality, and form the way that literary texts tend to. (p.60)

This review is getting a bit long: I’m going to wrap it up by telling you that Chapter 5 is about ‘Power, Religion and Choice’  (with an interesting venture into the impact of translation on the Treaty of Waitangi and some exploration of censorship issues; while Chapter 6 is about ‘Words in the World’ exploring the languages that are translated often in the book trade, which is what I’m interested in  (i.e. 40-%: English in all its forms, French, German and Russian) and those translated less (1-3%) – Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Japanese,  Danish, Latin, Dutch, Ancient Greek, and Czech).  Chinese, Arabic and Portuguese less so, and Hindi not much, even though these are the most commonly spoken languages in the world.  (If you’ve read some of these, well done!) And then there are languages that barely register: Ahom, Lushootseed, and Tok Pisin.  (Tok Pisin is spoken in New Guinea, but I’ve never heard of the others).  Chapter 7 is called ‘Translational Literature’ and it explores nationality and culture, and literature as a nation-building force, and the opportunities of multilingual texts in the modern world…

There’s a huge range of books in this series but I think you can see why this particular title appealed to me:)

Author: Matthew Reynolds
Title: Translation, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2016
ISBN: 9780198712114
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Available from Fishpond: Translation: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)


  1. Wow, Lisa! Can tell you loved the book because the energy jumps off the page. I’m with you regarding translations, imperfect as they are, I would have hated to have been deprived of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, or Sartre and Camus not to mention Cixous or de Beauvoir and of course so many great philosophers, ancient texts etc. I went to an afternoon at the Italian Embassy a few years ago and heard a talk by the American writer who translated Inspector Montalbano, the detective novels by Andrea Camilleri. I know you don’t have interest in genre novels but it was fascinating learning his process for translating, the immersion in the world of the novelist, amount of research, and effort, to understand the nuances of dialects and culture to ensure the English translation was as true as can be to the author’s characters, plot and intentions. I have a young Turkish woman in my Monday class who is keen to translate Australian short stories and novels into Turkish and we have some interesting conversations about the nuances of Aussie English:) Thanks for an interesting review.


    • I think translation is fascinating: I went to a seminar run by AALITRA a while back and Rodney Hall was there talking about his books getting translated. He said that nobody loves your book like your translator, because s/he has to read it so many times.
      I wonder which stories your Turkish friend is keen to translate? The classic ones – Henry Lawson et al? Or contemporary ones?


  2. Thinking about how translations work, and it is something you quite often discuss, has helped me think about how English works, how literature works. But a reading plan! There’s an idea! I just read what’s in front of me and turn guiltily from books like Clara Morrison, who await their turn with increasing impatience.


    • *chuckle* There are actually people out there in the litblog sphere who dutifully plan their reading and execute it, but more often I think we have vague statements of intention oft honoured in the breach.
      But I was going to get on with reading Ann Summers because I’ve been neglecting her…


    • I’d forgotten I was waiting for your Summers. I was a bit critical of her in my dissertation.


      • Good. I like a bit of argy-bargy.
        I like her, but she is critical of modern feminists who’ve moved on to other stuff like body-shaming and are not active enough in working together for other stuff identified as a problem back in the 70s and still not achieved.


  3. And in American English (my native dialect) we have Mother, Mom, Mommy (not Mummy), Mama, and Ma. Each has different connotations as to age of the speaker and social class. A good translator understands this. My favorite example of not understanding is the translation into French of a “bunch” of friends as a bouquet.

    Sometimes there are objections to writers to write in a language that is not their native language, rather than being translated. Conrad and Nabokov are examples, although Nabokov says that he spoke English from childhood. I run into it with Indian writers who, educated in English, write and publish in English. Why should these writers cut themselves off from a wider audience? It is a cultural issue for some who claim these writers are denying their roots or rejecting their culture of failing to support their national language.


    • Nabokov is quite opinionated about translation. He has a lofty attitude, which he can afford to have because he can read Russian. And if you could read Russian and English, you could be satisfied with reading a great deal of great literature, I suppose.
      But re writing in English as a 2nd language, it is a political issue as well as a linguistic one. The language we choose to use always reflects power: when I go to France, I can choose to order a coffee in English if I like because I know it will be understood. It will be understood because the waiter has to submit to the economic and political reality that English has supplanted French as the international language. What really cheeses me off is when I ask for that coffee in French as a matter of respect and the French waiter hears the ‘Englishness’ in my Australian accent and treats me with contempt anyway!


  4. This is a topic I could talk about forever. Last week I was volunteering with our local word festival, and on one shift in the artist’s liaison room at the hotel, most of the volunteers were fluently bilingual. When I told someone that the majority of the books I review—Canadian or otherwise—are in translation, she asked me how I could possibly review a translated book without speaking the original language. It’s hard to describe how one can read and review a translated work on its own terms (and that doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes question whether a problem you might have with a work is intrinsic to the original or a result of the translation).


    • Yes, that’s a whole extra issue, isn’t it? But IMO asking someone how they can review a book without knowing the source language is like asking how can you talk about the ideas in it? If you have faith in the translator and the translation process, then although you might comment on clunkiness or the odd faux-pas (like bouquet/bunch in Nancy’s comment above or fluency) you are not reviewing the translation per se, you are reviewing the author’s ideas and the way they’ve been expressed.
      I am reading Doctor Faustus at the moment, and some parts of it make me very thoughtful indeed. To suggest that I should deny myself this great work of art until I have mastered German is IMO absurd.


  5. My experience is that the people who dismiss translation entirely have no knowledge about what translators do or how translation works. They could use this book! Although they would be unlikely to read it.


    • Yes, I think so too. If only we could harness the delight of small children when they encounter bilingual texts and have them retain that enthusiasm into adulthood.


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