Creating Translations that are Faithful, Not Literal

300hAn interview with Marian Schwartz, who most recently translated Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov and Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, in The Boston Globe:

Q. Can one language be faithful to the meaning of another?

A. That question, I think, points to the English speaker’s discomfort with the idea of a translation as two simultaneously existing texts. For readers accustomed to foreign languages, the issue is not as fraught. Of course, a translation is never going to be the same as the original. The idea is to use the tools and strengths of English to re-create the intention and effects of the original. As a simple example, Russian does not have auxiliary verbs like “seem’’ and “would,’’ although it conveys those notions by other means. “Seemingly, he is unhappy’’ is a neutral sentence in Russian but stilted in English. “He seems unhappy’’ is the good English translation. Different languages also have different levels of emotion. English favors understatement. We love subtlety and precision. But what comes across in Russian as neutral can seem histrionic in English. Even today, Russian fiction uses “alas’’ regularly, but I’ve yet to be able to keep the word in a translation because it almost always sounds ridiculous.