Translation: Friend or Foe?

I’ve been a translator for over a year now. I finished courses on both translation and translation studies, wrote many translation analyses during my studies and still, after all that, cannot decide whether I actually endorse translations.

You’re probably thinking, what the …? Why wouldn’t you like translations? Isn’t the fact that we can share our experiences, even when we’re from different countries, different cultures and speak different languages, one of the most important things?


But, and this is a big one, people usually don’t keep in mind that translations ALWAYS alter the text. It’s not possible to translate something exactly as it is (nor should a translator aim to do that). This might seem obvious, but you would be surprised how many people don’t think about this when they pick up a translation.

To make clear how extremely important this is, I will give you two examples of English-Dutch and Dutch-English translations (I won’t use quotes so even if you don’t speak Dutch you can still follow it).

The first book that I want to discuss is Allan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. This is a funny, lighthearted novella about the Queen who finds her passion for reading and neglects all her other tasks.

This novella was translated in 2008 (De Ongewone Lezer) and this Dutch version changed the informal tone of the book. Why is this a big deal? Because the whole point of including an informal tone is to make the Queen more like us, more like a common reader. In the Dutch version she stays the Queen, with very formal language usage and old-fashioned, difficult words (I even had to look some up), which changes the whole reading experience of this novella!

The second work I want to discuss is also a novella (a happy coincidence). Hella S. Haasse was a Dutch writer, and one of my favourite ones, who wrote a lot about Indonesia (The Dutch East Indies) because she grew up there. Her novella Oeroeg (don’t try to pronounce it if you’re not Dutch. It’s almost impossible) was published in 1948 when the Netherlands was in a violent conflict with the Dutch East Indies because the latter wanted to become independent. In this period, a heated discussion was in progress between those who thought that the Dutch Indies should become independent and the people who disagreed. This tension is clearly visible in Haasse’s Oeroeg. It can be said that it’s both postcolonial and colonial, which makes this such a great work. It reflects the disagreement of that time perfectly.

Rightfully so, this novella was translated in 1996 (titled Forever a Stranger) and again in 2012 (titled The Black Lake). So what do these translations change? These translators both look at Haasse’s work through postcolonial lenses. Which is of course very logical. We’re all affected by modern thought. But when you’re translating a text this can be really harmful, which is what happened to Oeroeg.

The first translation softens the colonial discourses, even removes some of them and gives a less severe portrayal of the colonial past. In contrast, the newest translation emphasises and adds to colonial discourses and weakens the postcolonial parts. The tension between postcolonial and colonial elements, which is so important in Haasse’s work, thus basically disappears.

As you can see, translations can (and usually do) change a lot. They can even alter the book in such a way that it isn’t really that book anymore. When you cannot (or will not) read anything other than the translation, this should always, always be in the back of your mind. Also do this in a positive way though: do you like the sentence flow? The word usage? The rhythm of the text? Then give credits to the translator. It’s such a difficult job. As Gayatri Spivak says:

Translators “transfer content because [they] must, knowing it cannot be done” (from her article “Translating into English”).

So is a translation a friend or a foe? I still don’t know.



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