The Ethics of Translation

Recently I read an interview with the Hungarian translator of Harry Potter. Needless to say, he is a very good translator who rendered the Harry Potter books into Hungarian in a way that retained the books’ style, atmosphere and play on words (e.g.: riddles, character names) etc… What struck me in the interview was that when asked if he enjoyed translating this series of extremely popular children’s novels he answered: „To me this is work.”

That’s exactly how I felt the last couple of weeks/months. No matter how funny, serious, deep or philosophical the source text is; whether I agree or disagree, at the end of the day: it’s work. Every single sentence has to be unpacked and understood at all its levels (style, grammar, tense, purpose, register, cultural references, etc…) and translated into the target language preserving as much authenticity as possible on as many of these levels as possible. It’s hard work. Torturous at times. But if I had to pick my most important priority, especially when doing literary translations, it is to preserve the voice of the author and the impact that that voice creates on the reader. Sometimes this is hard to do, because what I came to realise is that the same voice can be acceptable in one culture and offensive in another. In some cultures, readers subject themselves more readily to the text. They might be impressed by the authority of the tone, the way things are said and don’t question the content so much.

As readers we get a feel for books, they make an emotional impact on us, they either talk to us or they don’t. We might agree or disagree with what we read, it might leave us hot or cold. But we rarely ask: why? It’s just the way it is. The process of translation, however, opens my eyes to small nuances that I would otherwise easily overlook if I was only to skim through a text. Translation uncovers small contradictions, gaps in reasoning, fallacies in logic, cultural incompatibilities, prejudice, racism, sexism, incoherence and so forth.

One of my favourite sayings – apparently from Einstein – is:

„If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

I couldn’t agree more and I have coined its equivalent in translation:

„You can’t say you understand it until you have translated it accurately.”

The big question is, and this is where ethics comes in, what to do when you find that you have discovered minor or major ‘issues’ with the source text? I can’t call them ‘flaws’ or ‘mistakes’ because sometimes they are deliberate. Your instincts tell you that what you are translating is either going to cause offence, it’s going to lead to culture shock or it’s going to alienate your target audience. Should you speak up? Or are us translators nothing but intelligent machines with the added bonus of being able to interpret and transfer human emotion from one text to another? I think much depends on the author and whether they respect you as a person or see you as a tool. I have encountered both kinds this summer which has taught me to tread carefully. Ethical translation to me is a piece of work that I feel happy to put my name to. This means choosing the type of work I accept very carefully.

Forever Footloose


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting question. I find that problem translating from Spanish. If you leave the phrase length Spanish prose sounds bombastic in English, but if you add punctuation you are making a style decision. Swearing is similar: you can’t literally translate Spanish swearing; the language is too earthy and visual in the translation. No one is thinking what “I shit in the milk” means literally. How do you translate that?


    1. Hi Jason. Thank you for your comment. I agree, English has a limit to how much it can express within one sentence/thought. I often have to reduce the number of adverbs and adjectives or break up sentences when translating from Dutch. Dealing with swearing is very hard. It’s hard to find the equivalent in another language that has the same degree of rudeness: not worse than the original but not too ‘prim’ either. I love your example! very graphic! 🙂


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