Regular visitors to the Chawed Rosin are probably aware that literary translation is a grievously misunderstood profession. Many people who have never given the matter much thought think of translating as a sort of mechanical activity, a process of substituting a word from one language with a word from another.
I think of a translator as a very particular kind of performance artist, not unlike a musician or an actor. Like a musician’s score or an actor’s script, a text to be translated is the original creation of one person or group of people that is then interpreted by another when it’s translated. A translator brings a work of literature to life for a new readership just as an actor brings the work of a playwright to life for a new audience.
Once this similarity between translation and other kinds of performing arts is perceived, certain misconceptions about translation seem to clear themselves up. For example, although translation does require technical knowledge of vocabulary, punctuation, etc., it is not the sum of its technical parts any more than a piece of music is merely the sum of its notes. Just as the performance of a demanding piece of music will be partially judged on the technical skill and accuracy of the musicians playing it, translation is rightly judged on how accurately it captures the qualities of the original. But we don’t judge a piano recital merely by whether the pianist hit any wrong notes, we judge it for its beauty, for its musicality, for the quality of the interpretation. Translation should be judged the same way.
When you conceive of translation as a form of performance art, you also see the irrelevance of questions of the relative value of translations versus original texts, or dead-end discussions of whether it’s “possible” to translate poetry from one language to another. That’s like asking whether it’s worth the trouble to record a cover version of a song, since it will never be exactly like the original recording, or questioning whether it’s “possible” to play balalaika music on a banjo. Of course it’s possible, and if you haven’t got a balalaika, or your audience can’t read Russian, it’s very worthwhile indeed.