Notes on Reading and Literature: Translation

This was first posted on Quora as an answer to the question, “When reading a novel translated into English, are we really experiencing what the author intended, given that their original prose has been lost?”

Do we ever read what authors intend, even when we read their work in the original language? That’s an interestingly labyrinthine question all by itself; my point, however, is this: all readings are interpretations. I feel this is the best way to approach a translated work of fiction too—as a close, but inevitably subjective, reading of the original and, hence, an interpretation.

To the best of my knowledge, the only English translation of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is the one by Gregory Rabassa. I know nothing whatsoever about the original Spanish text. But I do know that Rabassa’s text is magical and a work of literature all by itself. Would my experience of this masterpiece have been the same had I known Spanish and had read the original? I have no way of knowing and, for all I know, it may not have been. I see Rabassa’s text as an interpretative outcome of a collaboration (whether literal or metaphorical shouldn’t be a reader’s concern) between Rabassa himself and Garcia Marquez: distinct from the original and a work of art in its own right. This, in my opinion, holds true for any translation of a work of fiction from one language to another.

P.S. Anyone truly interested in the problem of translation and its nuances and ramifications should read David Bellos’s wonderfully readable Is that a Fish in Your Ear?

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