The Translation Delusion

  • onSeptember 26, 2017
  • Vol.37 Autumn 2017
  • byTim Parks

A text cannot exist without a reader. This reflection is worth bearing in mind when we think about literature and particularly the internationalization of literature. If a novel were found, from the past, in a language no one knows, it would not exist as a novel. We would recognize that the signs on the page were probably writing, but unable to complete the act of communication that began with whoever set down those signs, we would have no idea whether this were a technical manual, or a history chronicle or a surreal account of space travel.

The novel comes into existence when someone who shares its language reads it. And that someone is an individual, holding particular opinions and attitudes that intersect with the novel in different ways. However stable and absolute a work of literature may seem sitting on its shelf in a bookshop, as soon as it meets a reader and begins to exist as a novel, or poem or play, its identity is extremely unstable. When we read a book from the past, some of the language may seem odd to us; some of the characters’ actions may seem improbable. We become aware how much times have changed. We are aware that this period is now admired for its enterprising spirit but condemned for its treatment of the poor. We read with a certain sense of superiority perhaps, or awe, or envy, or pity. From time to time we have to check a word in a dictionary, and then we realize how different it is to know and feel a word, because it is part of our lives, and to learn its dictionary definition. Each person brings a different competence to a work.

Is there an ideal reader who will fully grasp the author’s intended meaning? Does the author really know what he or she meant? Is literature really about meaning? Perhaps the one thing we can say is that the closer the reader is to the world in which the writer writes, the more context they share about daily life, about other books, about cultural behavior and beliefs, the more aware the reader will be of possible nuance, more likely to assent, but also perhaps to disagree. In short, the more our own experience and knowledge overlaps with that of the writer, the more intense our reading of the novel is likely to be. If I read about Dickens’s London, or Flaubert’s Paris, I accept their descriptions on trust. I presume their observations are generally accurate. I don’t argue with the book. If I read Martin Amis writing about London, I have a right to say, yes, that is exactly what London is like, or no, I’m sorry, London is not like that at all.

When a novel from Korea—or China or Kenya—is published in the West, two reactions dominate. The first, and by far the more frequent, at least in the literary world, is enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that may seem quite independent from any assessment of the quality of the work. Daniel Hahn expressed this attitude very eloquently in the pages of this magazine. Reading works by Korean writers, he says, he has “imaginatively inhabited dozens of varied Korean lives.” Such empathy with people in distant places, he reflects, is good for the soul, it “makes racism more difficult, it makes mean-spirited negligence more difficult, it makes selfishness more difficult.” In this view, to read a work from a foreign country is actually better than to read a work written locally, in that one is contributing to global understanding. All this while knowing, as Hahn admits, next to nothing about Korean culture.

But another reader might wonder: If this work is really addressed by a Korean writer primarily to Korean readers, how can I, without any of the necessary context, really experience the book, except in so far as it addresses those existential questions common to all human beings? But what exactly are those common questions? Isn’t our reaction to, say, aging culturally determined? Isn’t our lovemaking, at least to an extent, culturally specific? I can no doubt savor a foreign book’s strangeness, which may be exciting and intriguing, but can I really suppose I am “inhabiting” dozens of Korean lives?

My only experience of a Korean novel is Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. It involves, as you know, a ferocious denunciation of a carnivorous male chauvinism and oppressively conservative social mores at the expense of a sensitive, largely passive young woman. Of course I have no way of knowing if Korea is really as Han describes it. In fact the only context I can bring to the novel is our own liberal struggle, in the West, to be free of the chauvinism and reactionary customs Han describes as dominant in Korea. Hence I read the novel inside a larger narrative of social progress where Korea is like our own European or American past and the novel’s author someone who, like us, has gone beyond narrow, antiquated social views and is more “modern” than the society she describes.

These ideas are reinforced by the information in the author biography that tells me Han has spent time in the US, and again by a translation that constantly feels old-fashioned, as if we were reading an early translation of Chekhov. Everything seems outdated and a little quaint, as if Koreans spoke and thought in quaint ways. As a result, the reader might legitimately suppose that we in the West are somehow ahead of the Koreans, a reassuring thought, and at the same time feel a great solidarity toward the author who is urging her country to become more like the West, where a wife is free to be a vegetarian or even a vegan without her family bothering her too much. Alternatively, we might suspect some opportunism on the part of the publishers, or even the author, who understand that a narrative like this is bound to be read sympathetically in the West, regardless of the real cultural situation in Korea, whatever that is.

You will have understood my point. It may be encouraging for those involved in writing, translating, and publishing literature to imagine that they are involved in a morally positive project, promoting world peace perhaps, but in truth any notion that reading one novel from here and another from there will give us a profound awareness of what life is like in those countries is naïve. Indeed, it might be more salutary if such books left us with a profound sense that we haven’t understood. It’s also worth recalling that in 1930’s Europe the two countries that translated most works of foreign fiction were Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. At the time Britain and America translated very little, and indeed continue to translate very little. This is not to suggest that reading translated fiction is not a wonderful and enriching experience, but it would be a mistake to think of it as a panacea in times of rapid globalization and potential conflict. 


Tim Parks
Novelist, Translator, Essayist
Professor of English, IULM University, Milan