NA Comment of the Week: Martin Aitken on translation

I’ve no clear-cut answer to the question: ‘What makes a good translation?’ But I think the first thing one has to be clear about is that there’s no algorithm: for any literary text, ten translators will produce ten different translations, none necessarily better or worse than any other. So the idea of 1:1 is an illusion, there’s no “correct” version out there waiting to be done. A translation is an interpretation, as Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations is an interpretation of Bach’s original, or Polanski’s Macbeth an interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.

I recently read Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights in Jennifer Croft’s luminous translation, and one of the blurbs on the inside cover especially spoke to me. It was by Adam Mars-Jones from his review in the London Review of Books, and it said: “Jennifer Croft’s translation is exceptionally adventurous … she can give the impression, not of passing on meanings long after the event, but of being present at the moment when language reached out to thought.” What that means, I suppose, is that the translation comes across with all the immediacy and vigour of an original work. That’s what we have to be striving towards, and in that context it matters less that a particular word or phrase isn’t the “same” as in the original. Nothing is the same, because that’s the point.

Martin Aitken, is a literary translator (Norwegian and Danish to English). In 2019 he won the PEN America Translation Prize for his translation of Love by Hanne Ørstavik (And Other Stories). And in 2018 he translated the final volume in Karl Ove Knausgaar’s celebrated cycle of autofiction books, My Struggle: The End (Vintage). For more on Aitken, read our NA Meets interview.