Translating a written work from one language to another is a tricky business or a tricky art or a Sisyphean task with a boulder weighing more than the universe. Translating is not transliteration, which is simple, if awkward – even ugly – word-for-word replacement. Almost anyone with a 20-pound dictionary and lots of patience can do it – you take a word or two in, say, Russian, then look them up, hope you don’t have to spend the weekend digging through verb conjugations, then put those down in, say, English. And you do this until you are finished. And when you are finished, what do you have? A polished, faithful transmission of the thought, the ambience, the idea of the original? No. You have a clunky, misshapen, machine translation-like rendition of something – God knows what.
In his translation of Francoise Sagan’s La Chamade, Douglas Hofstadter states the case for a certain leeway in the transmission of a novel in French to one in English, at least for HIS translation style. His favorite analogy seems to be a musical one, wherein he recounts how one piece of music which is performed in many different ways by different artists. The music is written, solid, there for all to see, but when some particular singer or band renders it, it’s different – the same, but different, re-interpreted. […]