"A Greater Fidelity":. How Closely Should A Literary Translation Stick to the Source?

              Deborah Smith and Han Kang

             Deborah Smith and Han Kang

I've always been fascinated by the complexities of literary translation. When I started out as a translator, I had a very naive point of view about this very difficult art form. It was simply a matter of finding the equivalent, I reasoned, and it must not be that hard to simply find one word to substitute another. But as I progressed in my career, and as I naturally turned toward translating literature, I discovered just how difficult - and frustrating - translating a work can really be. I'm currently translating a book of short stories by the Spanish author David Roas into English and am discovering these issues first-hand.

I ran across an article about the Korean author Han Kang in The New Yorker that touched on the subject of how closely a translation must stick to the source. Kang's novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 and the prize was awarded to both the author and its translator, Deborah Smith. Praise was widespread for both the writer (her book was the first Korean-language winner of the Man Booker Prize) and the translator (who was at the time a young doctoral student). 

However, criticism of Smith's work quickly mounted with some saying that the book was rife with mistranslations. Another critic said that "Smith amplifies Han’s spare, quiet style and embellishes it with adverbs, superlatives and other emphatic word choices that are nowhere in the original...this doesn’t just happen once or twice, but on virtually every other page. It’s as though Raymond Carver had been made to sound like Charles Dickens." 

As for Smith, she held her own. From the article:

Smith defended herself at the Seoul International Book Fair, saying, “I would only permit myself an infidelity for the sake of a greater fidelity.”

There's clearly no right answer, and many different schools of thought on the subject. However, I found Smith's response both refreshing and curiously freeing. She seems to suggest about the other component of translation that is critical, especially in literary translation: the question of choice. I posted an interview with Gregory Rabassa, the late translator of the great Gabriel García Márquez, where Rabassa made a similar point. "Translation is a matter of choice," he said. "And I wonder if what we chose is always the best choice."

No two languages are identical in terms of structure, vocabulary, or even their particular way of describing the world. In a sense, then, the source and its translation will necessarily be two different books. To me, then, it makes sense that we as translators have to first understand the source text enough to be able to interpret it. We then have to choose the best way to express this in the target language in a way that sounds natural and appealing and that (hopefully) creates the same effect for the reader if she were to read the original. For me, then, a translator has to stray from the source to create something original. I personally try to keep the style of the original as much as I can, but this isn't always possible.

 For me, there's that constant doubt that Rabassa described: Have I chosen the right word, or have I omitted something important? What's the best word for this in my language and that still has the same effect? Does this "sound" like a translation? Have I over-interpreted? Or have I not interpreted the scene/image/dialogue tag enough?

Questions, ultimately, that we as translators are constantly asking ourselves whenever we translate literature.