The task of the translator, to borrow the title of what is probably the twentieth century’s single most influential commentary about the goal of translation, is to create a text that improves upon the original. In all fairness to Walter Benjamin, this is not what he says in “The Task of the Translator.” Benjamin proposed that a good translation puts the same kind of pressure on the target language that the original puts on the source language, and so “to some degree all great texts contain their potential translation between the lines.” To claim that a translator aims to improve the original text flies in the face not only of Benjamin’s idealism but also of conventional wisdom, which holds that translation is impossible from the outset. As John Ciardi once said, translation is “the art of failure.” That the quote is frequently misattributed to Umberto Eco seems to back the point.
Yet this clichéd wisdom has little bearing on reality. In his marvelous book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, David Bellos demonstrates many of the ways that translation is not only possible but ubiquitous, so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our daily lives—from classrooms to international financial markets, from instruction manuals to poems—that if translation were somehow to become impossible, the world would descend into the zombie apocalypse faster than you can say “je ne sais quoi.” The European Union, for example, has twenty-four official languages; every legal document within the EU has to be translated into all of them, and every official translation is legally the original. There is clearly a tension between the varieties of “translation” happening all around us—every moment of every day, truly one of the fundamental activities that hold our world together—and the persistent recycling of platitudes about how this activity, so basic and ubiquitous, is impossible. If the platitudes are recalled more often than translation’s pervasiveness, it is only because translators are usually invisible, their work mysterious.
One reason translation is superior to the original is the access it grants. Without translation, Stieg Larsson would have had no appreciable presence on the beaches of the world these last few years, and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu would only have been a mesmerizing epic novel to those who could read French. For the rest of us, it could only be a doorstop. We tend to assume that all the best literature in a given language finds its way into English, and that—making a leap that sounds more sensible than plausible—if it’s worth reading, it’s probably already available in English. But this is simply not true. What gets translated and published in English in any given year is such a tiny fraction of literature available in other languages that we Anglophones can never hope to read all the worthwhile works of literature in other languages. Anyone who knows a foreign literature well would have little trouble naming titles, including major works by major writers in that language, that are unavailable in ours. The odds are strong that you will never be able to read what might have been your favorite book.
That a translation is superior because you can read it without knowing its source language seems obvious, yet it is a fact easily overlooked. Without that access, most literature might as well not exist—and within the range of our own experience, it doesn’t. The tasks of the translator for the most part are to increase the availability of information and to stage that information’s effect in the new language. A funny sentence about cats in Japanese cannot just be about cats in English: it also has to be funny, because a joke that doesn’t make you laugh is not really a joke. By the same token, the notorious difficulty of translating humor might be chalked up to the sad fact that so many brilliant translators just aren’t that funny. Whether on the stage or on the page, the difference between someone who comes up with a joke and someone who makes people laugh is entirely in the telling.