A Translation Experiment

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Translators are supposed to hew as closely to the original text as possible. But often, there is not one “perfect translation” that captures both the feel and the meaning of the original. Even the most conscientious translator has to make choices.

How do those choices change the meaning? That’s the question author and editor Adam Thirlwell tries to answer in his new book, Multiples: 12 Stories in 18 Languages by 61 Authors.

Thirlwell starts by taking 12 stories written in languages from across the globe. He has them translated into another language, and then back to English.  Then that translation is translated again, and so on, to end up with between four to six translations of each story.

The result is a book that the Guardian’s Daniel Hahn calls “big, preposterously ambitious and pleasingly silly. But meaningful, too, if you look closely enough. The devil, as every translator knows, is in the details.”

As the stories go from one language to another and back again, details both big and small are changed. Settings move in time and space. For example, Hahn describes the evolution of a story in Arabic by Lebanese writer Youssef Habchi El-Achkar:

“A Lebanese story by Youssef Habchi El-Achkar features a setting rendered by Rawi Hage as a “coffee shop”. Tristan Garcia’s French translation calls it “le café” – not quite the same thing. In English, under Joe Dunthorne, this becomes a “cafe-bar”. In Francesco Pacifico’s Italian, next, “il bar“. So we’re now, apparently, in a bar. And it’s in London. Which is absolutely not where we started.”

It’s worth noting that not all of the writers involved in this project were highly skilled in the languages they were supposed to translate. Also, they weren’t all conscientious- some of them played fast and loose with the original text on purpose.

According to the Guardian’s Lucian Robinson, the most successful translations in the collection were the ones that stayed faithful to the original source material, providing an important lesson for translators:

Multiples shows us that the most innovative translations are still crafted rather than invented from scratch.”