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25 - Literary translation quality

"One ascribes the qualities of light to [knowledge], the speed at which it would like to spread is the highest, and one honors it by describing it as enlightenment"1.

The translation of fiction is one of the rarest activities in the general scene of translation production. Of a hundred translated pages, roughly one is to be ascribed to the category of literary translation; however, many translators and translators-to-be dream of becoming literary translators.

The production of literary translations can be divided into two categories: translation of contemporary works and re-translation of classical literature. While the causes of the former are well evident to all, why should classics be translated that were already translated five, ten, twenty years before is a subject of reflection and, sometimes, perplexity.

The explanation for the ageing of translations of classics lies in the fact that the translation process aims at translating a text in the receiving culture, a culture that obviously is in part a product of its age. The more a translation tends toward the acceptability pole in the receiving culture, the more it is subject to ageing. And, in contemporary publishing, a proclivity for the production of acceptable texts in the receiving culture (by market standards) is a marked one. Hence the need to re-translate classics to adapt them every time to the need of the public.

One of the key questions in literary production is the assessment of the product's quality. Quality is a key question in the educational institutions (higher schools of cultural mediation, post-graduate courses in translation), where literary translation is taught and students must be assessed; and it is a serious problem for publishers, where the question is in the hands of decision-makers and decision-enforcers.

Juliane House (1998) has a very well structured analysis of the main approaches to the evaluation of translation quality.

The first group outlined is the analysis based on personal and subjective experience. It is the approach preferred by those who never studied translation theory and criticism and even by many translators and editors who, having studied in this field, however feel that theory is misleading, and that the only important element is personal practice. Such an intuitive approach has the flaw of not being able to explain precisely in operational terms what is meant by "fidelity to the original" and "natural fluency of the translated text". Being intuitive approaches, they are intrinsically what is farthest from theory, they don't event contemplate the possibility of following general principles. Those who take side with such an approach usually argue that the most important elements are personal knowledge, intuition and the translator's artistic competence.

Another approach is that oriented at directing the reader's reaction, i.e. Nida's dynamic equivalence: The good quality of a translation is measured by the fact that the reader reacts to it in an analogous way as the reader of the original. The problem with such an approach is that from an operational point of view there is no way to test the similarities between the readers' reactions. Secondly, if the former problem could be solved, and a text producing the same reaction could be produced, we would get a markedly acceptable text for the receiving culture and not adequate to the original. That is why Nida's response-oriented approach implies an ideological choice: to adapt the text to the reader, not to give the reader the tools to approach the text in a form that is as similar to the original as possible.

The are text-based approaches, then, among which Wilss', according to which the assessment yardstick is the set of fruitive rules existing in the two cultural communities. When a translation is far from the use rules widespread in the receiving culture, such variance is considered as a fault of the translation. It does not escape notice that such an approach can penalize the texts that in the source culture have marked deviations from cultural rules. Koller's method, that bears many similarities to Wilss', has three stages: critical analysis of the prototext and its translatability in the receiving culture; comparison of translation and original, also taking into consideration the method applied; evaluation of the translation by speakers of the target culture able to give a metalingual assessment based on the specific textual features formerly outlined.

Reiss and Vermeer too, with the skopos theory, stress the importance of the translation's aim. Since all attention is devoted to the way the prototext was adapted to the receiving culture's needs, obviously philological interest for the original and semiotic interest for the diversity of the source culture are lost from sight. The prototext is considered as a source of pragmatic information; therefore I think that such an approach is not good for literary translation.

Then there is Juliane House's theory, with two important points. In the first, overt translation is distinguished from covert translation.

An overt translation is required whenever the source text is heavily dependent on the source culture and has independent status within it; a covert translation is required when neither condition holds, i.e. when the source text is not source culture specific (1998: 199).

The other interesting concept is that of cultural filter, that is the filter the translator applies in the translation process to produce a metatext. Here is how House defines it:

a set of cross-cultural dimensions along which members of the two cultures differ in sociocultural predispositions and communicative preferences. This also makes evaluation difficult because it involves assessing the quality of the cultural filters introduced in translation (ibidem).

To all these difficulties in evaluating a literary translation, for publishers, the further problem added is that most editors, in Italy at least , adhere to the first approach outlined, the intuitive approach enemy of theory. Often the best way to have your translation accepted depends on many random factors, and on the fact that given instinctual proclivities of the translator match the editor's. But if one had to discuss theoretically why a given version is more or less acceptable, a problem would arise:

Such intuitive treatments of translation quality are atheoretical in nature, and the possibility of establishing general principles for translation quality is generally rejected (House 1998: 197).


Bibliographical references

CANETTI ELIAS Die gerettete Zunge. - Die Fackel im Ohr. - Das Augenspiel, München, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995, ISBN 3-446-18062-1.

CANETTI ELIAS The Tongue Set Free. Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 0-374-19950-7, p. 1-286.

HOUSE JULIANE Quality of Translation, in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies edited by Mona Baker, London, Routledge, 1998, ISBN 0-415-09380-5, p. 197-200.

1 Canetti 1980: 280.