In The Task of the Translator, an essay on the dilemmas of translation in the 20th century, Walter Benjamin remarks:
The traditional concepts in any discussion of translations are fidelity and license … [but] fidelity in the translation of individual words can almost never fully reproduce the meaning they have in the original. For sense in its poetic significance is not limited to meaning, but derives from the connotations conveyed by the word chosen to express it. … A literal rendering of the syntax … is a direct threat to comprehensibility.… Thus no case for literalness can be based on a desire to retain the meaning.
Translation studies have long since abandoned attempts to perfect the word-for-word equivalence whose “fidelity” Benjamin decries as incomprehensible. Instead, it is moving steadily towards a more versatile model that focuses on a work’s context, putting unfamiliar references and idioms into terms that new readers can understand. But this doesn’t go far enough, because in many cases an important factor is still neglected: what new information each translator is actually trying to convey to their audience about the text. This omission is rather surprising, since without knowing this we can hardly hope to fully understand why less conventional translators make the decisions they do – and without knowing that, we risk devaluing a whole class of translations that can tell new and familiar readers alike something different about the works they are reading.
If instead a reader were to consider multiple styles of translations all to be equally valid as translations, they would be able to engage with a much richer network of complementary translations that all enhance different facets of their understanding. By looking at some examples of various styles of translation, I hope to show how much of both text and translation we miss if we refuse to allow unconventional translators to give us new ideas about them.
What is a ‘faithful traitor’? The writer and translator Frederic Will coined the term in a 1973 essay in which he advocated translating the ‘thrust’ of a work rather than its literal meaning, and thus being a ‘traitor’ to its individual words, but creating a ‘faithful’ reproduction of its impact. I therefore use this term to refer to those translators who traitorously recontextualise their subjects to give access to a more faithful representation than conventional translation practices allow.
It’s obvious that the problems of linguistic and cultural differences that Benjamin experienced in translating from French to German are exacerbated in any attempt to translate an ancient text, when the language and culture that the reader must somehow understand are two millennia distant. What follows is an exploration of several extracts from three very different translations of the first book of Horace’s Odes. Two of these “recontextualise” the Latin text: Maureen Almond, who recasts the Odes as a series of reflections on the experience of writing contemporary poetry in a collection entitled Chasing the Ivy; and Heather McHugh, who applies her penchant for wordplay to Horace in McClatchy’s The Odes: New Translations by Contemporary Poets (2005). A third, David West, chooses instead to preserve the context of Horace’s time in his more academically-oriented translations (The Complete Odes and Epodes, 2008).
The introduction to West’s translations claims not to be a “literal” rendition useful only to students, but one that is “wordier … but closer to the Latin”. In other words, he takes the stance that using additional words to explicate nuances of the Latin is the best approach to achieve his aim. It’s also important to note that West was not a poet but a Classics professor writing for a university press, although he did still hope to appeal to non-classicists. In contrast, Almond and McHugh are both poets in their own right, and their translations rework Horace in their own distinctive styles, thus bringing the Latin texts to a readership that might not otherwise seek them out. This is evident enough in McHugh’s use of thoroughly contemporary language, but the Odes anthology featuring her translations is still likely to have readers already familiar with Horace. Almond’s collections, meanwhile, are completely free-standing and can be read with no prior knowledge at all.
It’s undoubtedly true that West’s translations are extremely accomplished, and are based on a far more comprehensive knowledge of Latin than those of either Almond or McHugh. What will emerge from this analysis, however, is that if all three were approached by the same readership, West’s versions would appear staid and lifeless in comparison. The critical reception of the two recontextualised works provides some evidence for this. It must, therefore, be versions by translators like Almond and McHugh, the “faithful traitors” to the text that will help ensure the continued appreciation of ancient works by new, wider audiences.
We have… a strong case for arguing that conventional translations by themselves do not produce the most nuanced renditions. The next step is clear: if we avoid the identification of any single translation – conventional or otherwise – as “definitive”, we can instead encourage the reading of multiple translations that promote different elements. By looking at readers’ and reviewers’ reactions to the translations explored above, we can see the impact of this complementary approach on their understanding of the texts – and how much work there is still to be done.
One issue at play here is that of the commercial viability of various types of translation. Lawrence Venuti explains in The Translator’s Invisibility (2008) that the reason for the undervaluing of unconventional translations is “economic value: … fluency results in translations that are eminently readable and therefore consumable on the book market” The particular problem faced in translating ancient texts is that mainstream publishers like Penguin and the Oxford World’s Classics series deem most readable precisely those translations that do the least to render the texts accessible and meaningful to non-specialist audiences. While such texts are undoubtedly useful for the academic market, their distribution by publishers with substantial non-academic reputations must contribute to the wider perception of these texts as obsolete or difficult.
… [There] is clearly still a place for “faithful” translations among readers familiar with the context, and that in itself isn’t a problem. The trouble is that this goes hand in hand with the perception, even among students of the literature, that such translations are definitive, and that those that promote other aspects are supplementary at best. This shows that there is a need for more recontextualised translations to be promoted as translations, in order to cultivate the idea that translations can supplement each other and that it is reductive to identify any one as definitive….
Alternative translations, as much as conventional ones, can and do introduce texts to new audiences, broaden the reader’s knowledge of texts and their authors, and provoke them to reconsider and re-engage with them. Each translator chooses different elements to sacrifice and promote in their renditions, producing poems that are radically different from each other, but that all contribute different facets to their various audiences’ understanding. Far from needing to designate one translation as the “best”, “definitive” version, this plurality of interpretations actively encourages the practice of reading several versions of the same text. The result of this must be a more comprehensive understanding of both the text itself and the nature and problems of its language and translation.
That no single translation can convey all features of the text to all audiences is important for two reasons. Firstly, a plurality of available translations serves the serious need for the “democratisation” of the classics. The favourable reactions to Almond and McHugh’s versions by specialists in classical reception studies, undergraduate students and lay readers alike are testament to the effectiveness of their translation methods. In order to continue to bring ancient texts to new audiences, there is an urgent need for more translations like these, which render the classics accessible and relevant in ways that conventional translations do not.
Secondly, and equally importantly, none of this is to argue that recontextualised versions should replace conventional translations. Instead, it should be clear that all methods of translation complement each other by promoting different aspects of the text, including those that retain its context. Experienced classicists, as much as readers who have never encountered Horace before, can benefit from translations that prompt them to reconsider works with which they believe themselves familiar.
Classical literature will continue to be perceived as elite and remote, and therefore underappreciated, unless there is an increase in the availability of translations that show why it is still relevant and worth studying. Furthermore, the different facets promoted by different styles of translation mean that reading multiple translations should be encouraged, including by means of distribution by mainstream publishers, in order to reduce the overpromotion of conventional translations. Only by promoting this plurality can the paradox of the “faithful traitor” be properly resolved.