First thing: I’ve several times tried to translate a story I’ve written in Finnish into English. I couldn’t, not without the result sounding childishly stilted. (Some would blame the story.) I had to rewrite the story instead (see “Liverwurst: A fairy tale“), with the same basic ideas expressed anew, the poor jokes most usually replaced when humor didn’t survive the transition, new ideas added to make the result cohere — not anything with enough fidelity to be called a translation, no correspondence of phrases, occasionally not even of paragraphs: just a re-telling in a different language.
So I acknowledge translating stories is difficult, okay? A machine can translate 80% of the content/words and 10% of the mood/associations, but (at the moment) it takes a very skilled, careful and thoughtful human artisan to drag both to the nineties.
If you ask me, the best possible translator would be a foreign mirror image of the original author. While the content is there already, and that part of “writing a book” is done, the task of putting it down in words succinctly and gracefully remains, made much more difficult by the need to adhere closely to the original. You don’t need as much “what-to-says”, but you may need even more “how-to-says” than the original author.
Indeed, you could even say that the translation of even the best book in the world won’t be any better than the translator. You have a chimp translating Shakespeare, you get chimp adventures; you got a Goethe translating Shakespeare and you get Shakes-worthy results. You got a Goethe translating chimp scribblings, I don’t know what the heck you’ll get. Maybe a book better than the original.
I don’t want that kind of a job, and don’t even want to handle its results if I can read the original. I’ve said something of the sort before —
[I]f I can, I much rather read without the additional layer of an interpreter (translator) between me and the author’s mind; it’s the old “but it feels better without a condom!” argument, with the part of the unwanted pregnancy being played by, just to given an example, your total inability to talk to anyone who’s read the translated Harry Potter books because you don’t know what the flibbertigibbet the characters are called.
My position there was that I’m interested in what the author had to say, and if I can, I much rather hear it without any intermediaries, no matter how precise and well-meaning: they can get the author through to the eighties, to the nineties, to 98% accuracy maybe, but if I know the original language well enough, I can do better since I don’t have to stop and express the ideas in an alien language. I can read English and think English, which is more direct and thus more accurate. (Though it’s rather scary when you notice you tend to think in a foreign language!) But that quote also brings up Harry Potter, about which I have some friendly translation-related griping to share.
My main gripe about translating Harry Potter is that the books are practically impossible to translate without a great loss of association. They’re difficult on a Tolkien level: and the Tolkien level means that the language is so deep in the story that one would have to do feats of invention equal to those of the original author to keep the feel of the original story intact.
To be totally consistent in translating Tolkien — not something anyone has, to my knowledge, ever done — one couldn’t stop with translating the Hobbit names, Bagginses and Proudfeet and such; one would need to turn Rohan’s Old English names into some Aulde Finniske. The translator would have to be philologist comparable to Tolkien himself, except an expert in Old Finnish and related languages!
For your knowledge — the Finnish translation turns all intelligible Hobbit-names and other words in English into Finnish (so Bilbo Baggins becomes Bilbo Reppuli), but leaves the Rohan-names alone. This might make the latter more distant and alien (I have no idea whether Rohirric names feel “a bit familiar but very old” to a modern English-native reader!), but it’s nothing compared to translators who won’t even bother with the Hobbits, who are supposed to be nice, familiar and utterly homely!
Now, Harry Potter, and one specific example from it.
The English language is closely associated with Latin: a huge amount of English words are mangled loans, especially many high-sounding ones. This is what makes the Latin-ish Harry Potter spells sound both lofty, plausible and semi-intelligible: for example, “Crucio!” sounds a bit like “excruciating”, and indeed it is a spell for pain; “Mobilicorpus!” mobilizes a corpse or moves a body, and so on. There’s even a Wikipedia page for HP spells, each with a Latin origin for the name; but you don’t need to know Latin to have an idea of what the spell does if you know English.
You can’t do this spell-name pig Latin in Finnish, because it would be unintelligible. Finnish doesn’t have such a hoard of Latin-derived words, or words from any foreign source that would sound impressive and intelligible enough. English is too new, German and Russian too little-known and Swedish has entirely wrong associations and is sunken too “deep” to sound grand anymore. Thus, as far as I know, those spell-names that are translated are mangled words of pure, common Finnish — and that is something that sounds to me more like a speech impediment than ancient words of power.
Imagine the word for the pain-spell being “Hurtzius!” or “Sufferola!” to get my drift. The actual term used seems to be “Kidutu!”, which is just a lopped-off nonsense derivation from “kidutus”, the plain Finnish word for torture. It is intelligible, but it has none of the old elegance, the scholarly distance, of the Latin-ish original. There simply isn’t an applicable facet in the Finnish language!
I must say that though I can’t force myself to pick up the Finnish Potter books, I have enormous respect for the translator, Jaana Kapari-Jatta. The Potter books are a good read, but they must have been an absolute hell to translate. I just think there are some things that won’t survive translation, not because of any fault of the translator, but because the two languages have so fundamentally different parts.
And now I have a long, meandering, pompous post I can point people to when they ask “whydja read that in English? It’s translated y’know!” — but the real reason is that the English original is cheaper.
(Edit: And the loss in HP spell names is not only that they don’t sound lofty — since they’re just mangled common words, they sound (to my ears) outright childish. I don’t know if this is just my view, but the translated HP names sound overall much “simpler” and more childish than the originals. It can be just because I view English differently than Finnish; or maybe the translator had no way, or no want, to keep the original feel.)