Don't Dare to Translate

Updated: Mar 15

By Yuliani Liputo

Last year, I got two volumes of Don Quijote, exactly on my birthday. It is a nice gift because this is the first time this book has been published in a full version in Indonesian. Gunawan Mohamad called this publication one of “two historical events in Indonesian art and literature” of 2019. Previously, this novel by Miguel de Cervantes in Indonesian was only available in a short abridged version for children.

(Literasia Creativa)

Yayasan Obor published the translation from the novel's first edition and launched it in July 2019 in two volumes, each with a number of pages around 400. This is an extraordinary work, considering the classic novel with a total of nearly a thousand pages was first published in Spain in 1605. Certainly, the Spanish language four centuries ago was very different from now, many words and terms need to be referred to the original meaning of the time. I applaud the efforts of the translator, Apsanti Djokosusanto.

In the preface, Ibu Apsanti, an active translator and professor of Indonesian literature, expressed her dissatisfaction with her translation. One year to translate such a large work was simply not enough. The translator's dissatisfaction then also spreads to the readers. The stumbling blocks encountered in reading make this novel not easy to enjoy comfortably.

Translating a work of that size is indeed a difficult challenge. To translate old classical literary works, the translator is like doing linguistic acrobatics to transfer culture across time and space. Imagine what understanding capacities were needed to be able to properly grasp the original author's intent and transmit it into an expression that could be understood by readers in places and countries far away in terms of culture and time.

I can imagine the complexity, grappling with a text that is understandable in the original language but requires tolerable modification in translation, the number of references required, the sense of claustrophobia of being inside the author's mind, and trying to see from his perspective. It's both tiring and exciting.

Faced with challenges such as this is what perhaps made Jacques Derrida famously loathed the act of translating, as he wrote in "What Is a 'Relevant' Translation?": 

“How dare one speak of translation before you make this sublime and impossible task your desire, your anxiety, your travail, your knowledge, and your knowing skill? No, precisely, I would never dare, I should never, could never, would never manage to pull it off.”

Derrida's statement can actually be read as an appreciation for the translators because, of course, translation is still necessary and continues to be done, regardless of the challenges. José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, gives translators the highest praise when he says authors write literary works in their respective native languages, but that world literature is the creation of the translators. 

Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer, also appreciated his translators by saying, “While I may appear to be fluent in English, in fact, I am not. My mother tongue is, of course, Turkish and I am embedded there. It is crucial to have a good translator, and Snow would never have found success in America without Maureen (name of the translator)."

(Literasia Creativa)
Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2006, in a book signing event in Sharjah last year.

Many great writers are also translators. Jorge Luis Borges, the greatest literary figure of all, has also consistently translated as a hobby throughout his life. When he was 9 years old, he translated Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince from English to Spanish. Borges’ first published work was a translation and no doubt that it had a profound influence on his original work, as well as ignited a passion for translation that would last throughout his life. 

Haruki Murakami, the most famous contemporary Japanese novelist, also calls translating "almost a hobby" for him. He started his job as a translator in 1981 and has continued with writing his bestselling novels. He translated many American novelists such as Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who later influenced many of his own writings.  

To produce a good translation, we need to learn from these writers who are also translators. 

Borges' philosophy of translation rests on his belief that "the work is more important than its creator." Borges has his own method of translating. He never rewarded the reader with a literal translation. In fact, Borges often omits parts of the source text that he deems redundant, insignificant, or inconsistent with the whole. He also removed "textual distraction" adding nuance, changing the title, and even rewriting the entire text from a different point of view. 

Sometimes Borges even includes a translation of the text of one of his own works. His aim: "to challenge the idea that original text is superior to translation” and reject the concept of a "definitive text."

If Borges' method seems too high to achieve, let's see what Vladimir Nabokov did. The novelist of Lolita translated Alexander Pushkin's poetry from Russian into English. Nabokov said, there are three routes that a poetry translator can choose: one, free translation with paraphrases and additions to the translator's whim; two, basic translation, with the words in the same order as the original – much like what you get with today’s online translator apps; or, three, “rendering, as closely as the syntactical capacities as another language allow, the exact contextual meaning of the original.” 

Nabokov himself prefers the third route. The most flexible, as well as the most difficult. The translation doesn't feel like a translation.

Here lies the irony of translating. As readers, of course, we expect a translated book that doesn't feel like a translation. The translation is so good that when you read it you don't feel any foreign sentence structure or odd meanings. 

We hope to read text that flows in a very natural and natural way, as the translator manages to transfer tone, style, and impression into the new language. The highest ideals for a translator's job are achieved when if his presence is not felt, his hard work makes him seem like he doesn't exist.

But what we often find is that translated books published in Indonesia are so unsatisfying. There are many criticisms for translated books that have been voiced for a long time. The famous among those criticism was from Alfons Taryadi in 2003, and most recently from Henry Manampiring enlivened social media timelines for sometime in August 2020.

The main complaint is that many books in translation are "too stiff," "too literal," as if they are machine translations without adequate editing. Translated books often fail to make comfortable reading, so many readers choose to get the original books instead. But of course, this is an exclusive solution, because imported books are expensive, not many people can get them. Poor translation limits public access to literature.

Reflecting on what Borges, Murakami, and Nabokov did, we need translators who take translating as a hobby, who do translations with love and pleasure. A good translation cannot be done hastily. It takes time and, of course: cost. 

Meanwhile, from the publisher's side, the tendency of readers to choose original books rather than reading translations should be a reminder to be more selective in presenting translated books. Translate only books that are really necessary for the public. This can also be a form of support for local writers to produce more original works, interspersed with doing the translation to strengthen literary skills.

Returning to Don Quijote, the translation pursued by Yayasan Obor deserves appreciation. Hopefully, this will be continued by presenting more important classical works, giving sufficient time to accomplish that to qualified translators. A new translation will always be appreciated. The translation of classic novels for modern readers should not be, as Borges said, one "definitive text".

Text and images are republished with permission from Yuliani Liputo. The original article can be read here