Yevgeny Yevtushenko once said, ‘Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.’ ‘Translation is betrayal’, announces another (‘traduire traditore,’ in the original Italian). These maxims hold some truth, although the first one could be phrased less objectionably.  

This kind of sweeping quip is wheeled out every now and then, as the opening gambit to a personal statement or on the covers of books about linguistic oddities that pile up on the tables of Waterstone’s in December. They reassure us of how different one people is from another; how unique our languages and cultures are and how intricately the two interact in some ephemeral, intangible way. They also act as excuses for translators: you can never reach the gold standard of a perfect translation, but it’s okay because your cultural boundaries are unbridgeable anyway.

My study of translation has been, by contrast, fairly concrete. After a while, my reflex when presented with a tricky sentence is to reach for my box of fairly banal tricks. Turn nouns into verbs to make it readable, add in a few more passives to make things sound English and dust with some commas for effect. The words reeled off in ‘Top Ten List of Untranslatable Words’ lose their sparkle as it becomes clear that, though an ‘untranslatable word’ may not have one exact equivalent in English, it can often be rendered perfectly well in three.

My unglamourised view of translation, however, has evolved in tandem with a fascination for the murky world that surrounds it. Walk into any lecture on literary translation and you will find the academic illustrating his or her point with thinly veiled attacks on the translator, or translators, du jour. It makes sense: people mentioned in lectures are rarely alive, so why not use the opportunity to get a dig in. Translation is a cannibal: a new translation of a text means that, by definition, the old one was deemed insufficient. To make room for the new you have to criticise the old, and the people best placed to criticise a translation are not the target audience, since they are capable of reading in the original. The effect is frustrating, as a popular translation does not have to be rigorous. A lecturer once commented that it is very rare that a person can write good prose which spans all genres and registers. So why try – and probably fail – to be a jack of all trades when it comes to translation?

The remark was a pointed reference to a contemporary pair of translators, but history is full of similar hubris. Constance Garnett translated 71 volumes of Russian literary works and single-handedly brought what are now classics to the English-speaking world: before her, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were unknown to English speakers. Sadly, many readers were hard pushed to find any real differences between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy’s writing, since both sounded a bit like Constance Garnett. Her methodology was also lacking in areas: books were translated frenziedly and all at once while standing up at her desk, with any tricky phrases simply omitted.

So yes, translation probably is betrayal. But it’s easy to get bogged down in detail. Translation should be about making works attractive and accessible to a wider audience, and it’s here that Yevtushenko’s comment falls apart a little. If a beautiful and popular text becomes a beautiful and popular translation, this is surely the most faithful way of translating it.