Consider the famous Italian adage “traduttore, traditore”—literally, translator, traitor. Maybe this untranslatability angst is one of the things that best defines the work of the translator. More often than not, translators are worried about failure, about things getting lost in translation.
A corollary to the saying above is that the true measure of a translation is its degree of invisibility: it is good as long as it is not perceived. The translated narrative must be as perfectly readable and enjoyable as if that were the original language. If the reader notices something is wrong in the text, she will most likely blame the translator rather than the author.
In 2003, I was invited by a Brazilian publishing house to do a new translation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. This classic novel had already been translated to Brazilian Portuguese in the early 1970s, and it was a prime quality job, done by an award-winning translator, Nelson Dantas. But, after thirty years, even the finest translations can become outdated. They are still good and readable, but they lose their edge, their élan, their vitality.
In A Clockwork Orange’s case, the earlier translation was fruit of the zeitgeist of the seventies: the slang was different then, the phrasal constructions and the kind of neologisms of one’s choice. (Agglutinations were all the rage then—portmanteau words sound wonderful in Portuguese.) Now, however, a second reading of that translation proved a weird experience to me—weird in a bad way.
[Peel more oranges...]