When is a Translation Superior to the Original?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

Surely the answer is subjective, but is it beyond the realm of possibility?

By Edward Nawotka

Professor Nabokov was a purist and believed it was not possible.

Literary translation is itself the act of creation — a delicate balance between the sensibilities of the original text, the writer’s intent, and the vagaries of language and culture. There are times, though, when a translator is so “present” in a text, that what they’ve created is essentially an entirely new work of literature. This is especially true in verse, where exact replication is often far more challenging in prose.

As author Kenneth Rexroth, a prolific translator himself, noted:

The ideal translator, as we all know well, is not engaged in matching the words of a text with the words of his own language. He is hardly even a proxy, but rather an all out advocate. His job is one of the most extreme examples of special pleading. So the prime criterion of successful poetic translation is assumability. Does it get across to the jury?

The question is whether or not a translation can itself be superior as a literary work to the original text.

Vladimir Nabokov, for one, would wholeheartedly disagree, having once written, “The clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.”

Are there, in fact times, when a translation can be superior to the original? Surely the answer is subjective, based on your tastes, but is it beyond the realm of possibility?

Let us know what you think in the comments. And if you have instances when this is the case, please name names.

And for more choice quotes on translation, see this page from the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Texas in Dallas.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.