Re-translation consists of translating a text which has previously been translated. There are several ways of re-translating a text: re-translate an original text which has already been translated in that foreign language, translate in a new language from a translation (as opposed to from the original text), or carry out a back-translation into the original language from a translation.
Re-translation is a practice which is yet to be fully studied but which is becoming more important in literary circles, notably in the translation of old literary texts. As languages evolve, translations become dated, which explains why translations are « re-translated » so that they are updated and enriched linguistically. However, there are numerous debates surrounding the re-translation of literary classics to update them to current vernacular.
Several variables come into play and it isn’t always justified to depend on a re-translation to check a translation, especially in literature, as this recent article shows. Adam Thirwell, a novelist and critic, published a book which brings together 12 stories whose originals (which are not printed) are variously written in Danish, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, German, Arabic, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Italian, Hungarian, English and Italian again. These were translated into 18 different languages by 61 authors. The aim of this book was to prove that it was possible to translate a story which was written in a language the translator doesn’t speak using re-translation techniques. 10 stories were translated into English, the other two remained in German and Spanish. These stories were then translated into a new language from the previous translation – the longest chain included six translations in English. The translators didn’t have sight of the original and only used previous translations to create their own translations.
The main objective of this project was to show how translations could transform intelligently, or not as the case may be, previous versions of the stories. Many re-translations worked very well whereas others became very far removed from the original meaning of the text.
The results of this ambitious projects is a literary version of what we would call « Chinese whispers » (which the French call an « Arab telephone »), which is absolutely fascinating! The succession of re-translations sometimes resulted in slightly kooky versions, for example « je peux reprendre mon souffle » which means I can catch my breath becomes « I must slip away to reprimand my souffle ».
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