‘“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ Francis Bacon saw a ‘delight in giddiness’ in those who, like Pilate, would much prefer to slip quietly away from any attempt to pin down the nature of truth. The fact is, though, on a day to day basis, it is much easier and more comfortable to keep your head down, get on with the washing-up, put out the bins, and accept the ineluctable fact that bus timetables and Amazon delivery schedules are, for all their apparent reliability, simply theoretical constructs which touch on lived experience, occasionally, by chance. Plumbers’ promises, too, frequently inhabit the same nebulous, hypothetical domain.

No such luxury for translators. Truth, for them, is at the core of all they do — often a bed of nails, sometimes a bed of Procrustes, rarely, if ever, a bed of roses. Why such discomfort?

In part, quite simply, because languages don’t map over one another with complete equivalency. Even where words apparently signify the same object, they come with different resonances, different flavours, and those differences require decisions on the part of the translator. Even more perilous, though, are the semantic gaps. You can be working your way peacefully through a text, and then suddenly you’re hanging on by your toes to the edge of an abyss of meaning.

Take, for instance, the apparently innocent ‘heaven’ in English, and the lack of a French equivalent. For the French, ciel denotes both ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’ — for them, it could be said, heaven is the sky, and the sky is heaven. The difficulties this can present were brought forcefully to my attention when, some years ago, I was asked to review a French translation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems. Best to draw a veil over the fact that the translator, who shall be nameless, chose to transform Hopkins’ bony sprung rhythm into classical alexandrines. The point here is the difficulty which he encountered when attempting to deal with the title of ‘Heaven-Haven’, a difficulty which could not be simply resolved, partly, of course, because of the word play, but also, fundamentally, because there is no easy way to turn the sky, open, overarching, infinite, into the close embracing comfort of a shelter, a refuge, a haven.

Of course, translating Hopkins can be seen as being at the far end of a very long spectrum, ranging from instructions for assembling flatpack furniture at one end to the most complex and allusive of literary texts at the other. And the fact is that the two extremes, which can be characterized as the factual on the one hand and the literary on the other, require entirely different approaches by the translator — an adherence, if you like, to different kinds of truth.

My own experience as a translator has touched both ends of the spectrum, although generally hovering more towards the nonfiction end, ranging from information books for young children to fairly challenging books on history and the history of ideas. Fernand Braudel’s On History (runner-up for the Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation, 1980) and Alain Besançon’s The Intellectual Origins of Leninism were perhaps the thorniest in terms of getting to grips with the concepts and presenting them appropriately to the reader. The children’s information books offered other challenges, particularly when working on a series such as Gallimard Jeunesse’s Mes Premières Découvertes, where the publisher I was working with for the English editions bought the illustration film from Gallimard, and it was my job to fit the English into the spaces in and around the illustrations, spaces which had previously been occupied by French text. When working on these delightful little books, it proved very helpful that English can, on occasions, be terser than French, and can give the same information in, quite literally, less space. This was especially useful when composing text to fit underneath an illustration printed on acetate on the previous page, so that the words were revealed when the reader lifted the acetate. Never in my experience has character count been quite so crucial.

We are fortunate, those of us who write in English, in having such a hybrid linguistic heritage to draw on and, in particular, in having the choice of selecting from either a Norman French Latinate lexicon or the older, Germanic Anglo-Saxon. It was the Anglo-Saxon which often came to my rescue when translating the children’s books — and not just the four-letter expletives which occasionally rose to my lips when presented with a particularly vexatious French passage.

Having said that, I was fascinated to learn, when discussing translation with a crime-writing colleague, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, that she was delighted with the range of swear words available in English. ‘One thing that I do enjoy in the English translation process,’ she told me, ‘is having the opportunity to amend the dialogue where cursing is involved. Icelandic cursing is very tame, mostly using old religious terms, i.e. like djöfull, fjandi or andskoti (devil) and helvíti (hell). The English curse words are more potent and very often fit much better to the context of what is being cursed in the book’s dialogue.’ So sometimes a translation might perhaps be more truthful than the original? Very rarely, though, I’d suggest.

The core of a translator’s task is to provide the reader with an experience as close as possible to that of a reader of the original text, to whom the original is their mother tongue. The question, though, is what is the reader looking for in that experience? In nonfiction, by and large, the reader is looking for accuracy of information — when putting up a flatpack wardrobe, you really just want to know which are the dowels and which are the Phillips cross-head screws. But what about when the author is using a technical term which has no equivalent in any other language? This was the case with Fernand Braudel when he wrote of the longue durée, a term which was coined in France in the 1940s, and which alludes to the deep structures of slow historical change. After much debate with the editor at Weidenfeld and Nicholson, the decision was made to simply keep the French, as it was as much a precise technical term as a Phillips screw.

When translating fiction and poetry, however, the experience the translator is seeking to capture is quite different. Here it is not a question of factual accuracy, but of evocation, of providing the reader of the translation with an equivalent emotional and cultural experience to that of the mother-tongue reader of the original. So, as a translator, you may not be entirely, literally true to the text — in order to be faithful to its essence, you need to find the rhythms, the metaphors, the allusions, which will recreate in the reader’s mind not just the narrative but also the flavour of the original. Bruno Gaurier’s translations of Hopkins’ poems, newly revised and re-published last year, are a superb example of just how imaginative deviation can provide an accurate rendering of the feel and flavor of the original.

The truth of the translation of fiction and of poetry is different to the truth of the translation of nonfiction. Two truths, or two different kinds of truth? In my view, the translation of nonfiction and the translation of fiction and poetry are fundamentally different in their aims and outcomes. I would like to suggest it as being rather like different Christian views of Communion, that is to say, the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation. For some Protestants, as I understand it, the wafer and the wine maintain their own wafery and winy essence while also becoming the body and blood of Christ — consubstantiation, both things at once. Whereas for Catholics, again, as far as I understand, the wafer and the wine are changed, transubstantiated, into the actual body and blood of Christ — the essential nature of the wafer and wine is changed.

My instinct is that something of the same is true of the difference between translating nonfiction and translating fiction. When translating nonfiction, the original text can somehow exist alongside the translation, whereas in translating fiction, the original text is transformed into something different, in order to recreate the original in a different cultural and linguistic setting.

An analogy too far? Perhaps it’ll sound different in French…

Sarah Williams has published textbooks and nonfiction children’s books, and edited Conan Doyle’s short stories and Huckleberry Finn. She has also published translations of books on history and the history of ideas. Her crime novel, Small Deaths, appears under the name S. W. Williams.


You might also like:

Harriet Castor speaks with Julia Copus about engaging young readers with history, and why she wanted to climb inside the head of Henry VIII.

Kathy Henderson shares the pleasure of global lullaby collecting, and highlights the enduring importance of this powerful, universal blend of words and music.

Harriet Castor is often asked how she first got published — but why is this question so popular, and is it really the right one to ask?

Susan Fletcher speaks with Caroline Sanderson about the importance of setting to her novels, how her love of the natural world and writing outside helps her bring poetry to her prose, and what really motivates her as a novelist.