← Back to Arc Publications

Should you only translate "good" literature?


Here’s a question about choosing which texts to translate: if you are translating texts with a documentary, as well as a literary, status (war poetry etc.), does it have to be good literature? Isn’t there a case for translating what is less good in a purely poetic sense, if it says things we need to hear?


I guess that most of us are happiest when we translate work that we like, but often we need the money so have to do it anyway, and I agree with J that many texts have an important documentary status and need to be read in other languages: Mein Kampf might be an example of that. I have recently been translating some French poems by an important philosopher that are of interest because of the light that they shed on her life.

So here is a question: should we try to make good literature out of indifferent literature? Or is the question wrong-headed? (We would surely correct errors in a cookery book, for example.)


But how do we know what are errors? It’s obvious in a cookery book, but maybe not if you’re translating an unknown poet. You might feel you can improve. Sometimes I must admit I do just this. But I am not sure we should.


As you both say there is a case for both good and indifferent literature to be translated, but the purposes are clearly different and when put in context will be, or should be, clear to the reader. But as to the question should you try and make a silk purse from a pigs ear the answer must surely be in the negative. I can not think of a reason why one would want to knowingly translate work of an inferior quality. The result would be neither true to the original work or to the intelligence of the reader. However there would be nothing wrong in taking ideas from a second rate work and composing work “around” the original in order to give the concept a fresh appraisal or interpretation; but then it is plainly not translation.
The idea of the improvement however is a different cup of tea altogether!


I think that when we are in these situations, then the crucial thing is to signal to the reader what is going on, e.g. through a note or introductory material. I recently translated a poem by Wittgenstein - who was not a poet - for the Austrian Wittgenstein Society and presented it with paratextual material and also in three translations: a gloss, a close version by Peter Winch and my own more experimental rendering. I also showed in the paratext that Wittgenstein was writing a pastiche of Moerike. As a poem it is of no great value, but it shows an interesting side of the philosopher - that he had a sense of humour, because scholars have worked out that what looks like a love lyric is actually a thank you note for a pair of socks - and is worth reading as such.


I agree that you can translate poetry that maybe isn’t really that good as long as you tell your readers why you’re doing it, and how you’re doing it. I think most people would agree with Tony that if you just take an idea from an original poem and rework it in another language that’s not translation. But I’m not sure I agree myself. I wouldn’t necessarily do it, but I don’t see why that’s not translation. People do it with new versions of the Classics such as Catullus. Perhaps it’s easier when the poet isn’t around to object.


Good or bad - translate it anyway, for the joy! Exercise your skill! If it was good enough to be printed in one language, it’s good enought to be put into another.
A friend asked me to translate William Morris into Spanish - he was giving a gift. ‘Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. I said: ‘My Spanish is no better than yours’. Then it came to me:
No tengas en tu casa
ninguna cosa
sin saber que es ventajosa
o creer que es hermosa. …You never know till you try!