Disclaimer: I’m talking about books translated into English, but the same things apply to books translated from/to any language.
When I’m reading, I usually don’t notice the writing style unless it is awkward or incredibly fluid. The latter usually only stands out to me if the story fell flat because I couldn’t help but keep reading for some reason! Otherwise, I think really good writing often goes unnoticed for me unless I consciously think about it. As it should! I think writing style, unless it’s doing something unusual, like design, shouldn’t be obtrusive or really noticed… (Maybe that’s controversial? I don’t know. What do you guys think about that?)
But every time I read a book in translation whose writing style I love/hate, I think…should I be praising/criticising the author for those smooth/awkward sentences and beautiful/nonsensical metaphors…or the translator?
Haruki Murakami is fluent in English and, apparently, he proofreads and approves all English translations of his books. To me, that means I can praise or slate the writing style all I want knowing that the author was not only intimately involved in the process, but also put his final seal on it basically saying “Yes! That’s what I was saying and that’s how I intended to say it.”
But what about non-English-speaking authors who can’t provide that kind of quality control? Should I blame them if their book was badly written or the translator? (Well, there doesn’t have to be any “blame” at all, but I’ll probably mention it when reviewing if I think the writing is noticeably great or horrible…Who made it that way?) After all, there are so many ways to translate something. For example, it could be:
- A direct/word-for-word/literal translation
- A translation of the overall mood/feel where events aren’t always completely true to the original..almost translating the culture into English equivalents too
- A modern translation (or older books/or classics) using contemporary terms for older/antiquated language
None of these translations are better or worse than any others. But if you’re reading a conversation that seems stiff and awkward, is it because the source material was that way or because the translator did a bad job? Is it really a translator’s job to cover up an author’s bad writing? How much creative license does a translator really have? When translating for an audience with a different culture, how many changes are needed? Should nothing be changed at all and the audience just be expected to look into the culture rather than the translator finding an acceptable cultural equivalent??
Obviously the answers will all change depending on the circumstances under which the book is being published and there’s no across the board answer… But these are things I sometimes wonder about when reading books in translation…