Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

These remarks are prompted by a recent short interview in The Guardian with Sam Taylor, a novelist and translator of 30 books from French into English. He comments

‘Ultimately, it’s a question of taste. My personal ideal for a translation is one that makes the reader forget they are reading a translation at all, but not everyone feels the same way.’

This happens to be my own view as well. I prefer reading well-crafted English, rather than English that is constantly reminding me that it is a transliteration from another language. One could compare the two translations of Foucault’s Histoire de la folie in this context. The first translation of the abridged edition by Richard Howard, Madness and Civilization was a wonderful poetic excursion that flowed beautifully in English, just as Foucault’s book flowed in its original language. The two translators of the more recent and complete History of Madness have opted for the transliteration style – constantly reminding the reader that it was a book originally written in French. Perhaps these respective choices were made due to the relative celebrity of Foucault at the time of each translation. Howard’s translation appeared in 1964 when Foucault was little known even in France. In 2006, when the second translation by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa was published, Foucault’s name brought an immense baggage of previous translation and interpretation.

To turn to other examples – this time in the realm of television. The 1970s American buddy cop TV series Starsky and Hutch was immensely popular in France as witty asides were added in the French dub that were not there in the original.

The late 70s Japanese TV show, Monkey  was also entertainingly rendered into English by David Weir who didn’t speak Japanese. He worked with a translation of the dialogue and rewrote it to work for an English speaking audience and also to fit what was happening on screen. (See a short list of lines from his script -some more dubious than others- that I put together back in the early days of the net). As Rebecca Hausler remarks in a recent article in The Conversation the “translation of Monkey was really more of a complete re-writing … adding plenty of puns, double-entendres, and pseudo philosophical musings”. I would qualify this by saying that perhaps the musings are not always so pseudo given that many of them refer to Buddhist scripture.

So which is best – a meticulously and technically accurate translation or one that works in the language into which it is translated? I would argue that there is a place for both approaches.

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