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Scholarly translations are a constant battle between literal accuracy and literary interpretation.


The problem with translation is that as an idea moves from one language to another. It cannot survive wholly intact, and this problem has existed from the very start.

Esther Allen: Our preoccupation about translation stems from this concern with the sacredness of the word. We have an absolute literary masterpiece. We could discredit the King James, and say, oh you know, “It’s not correct.”

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

Allen: We’ve learned that it’s not actually “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” but it turns out it doesn’t matter! There is an emotion in those words that has been vivid and real since the King James Bible was published. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death is what’s in all our heads, it’s the reality that is present within our language.

Esther Allen is among a very select group of Americans that includes Meryl Streep, Ornette Coleman and Jim Jarmusch, who’ve received France’s Order of Arts and Letters. But she’s not a performer, she’s a literary translator. The craft that today suffers from the same indifference that for centuries was the plight of other artists who we now glorify.

Allen: It takes quite a long time before actors emerge to the forefront in the world of the theater, and in the development of the European theater. For quite a long time, they’re anonymous figures. They’re even despised, because unlike the orator they’re just speaking somebody else’s words. And it’s very similar to the ways in which translators today are kind of rendered invisible or irrelevant.

Kristen Dykstra: A California apple costs 30 centavos. A tiny apple that arrived in our port as contraband. It fits inside a fist. I give it to my daughter. It’s sweet, yet acidic at the same time. Like all true apples, it trades flavor for a price.

And literary translation will always require bounds between conveying literal meaning and preserving the original literary style, says translator Kristen Dykstra.

Dykstra: Because I have a very utopian drive of the impossible translation, I want the literary impact, and I also want it to be relatively technically correct.

Both Dykstra and Allen have found gold in previously under-appreciated Spanish language works. Peter Cole’s specialty is Hebrew poetry from medieval Spain.

Peter Cole: I give everything I own for that gazelle who, rising at night to his harp and flute, saw a cup in my hand and said, “Drink your grape blood against my lips.” And it’s incredibly rich and sexy and devotional and witty.

ACP: And the subject matter is

Cole: Everything.

And when attempting to translate whole worlds of words, Esther Allen says it’s crucial to remember that language isn’t something to be deciphered.

Allen: Code obviously has a single right way of decoding it. And when you’re transmitting messages via code, it’s very important that that be the case, that the troops are arriving via the Rhine River. Once you’ve deciphered whatever numbers or letters equal that message, you don’t want it to be at all ambiguous. Whereas language is inherently ambiguous. And yet, it’s not something to be deplored. The fact that we don’t all see everything in exactly the same way, it’s something to be celebrated as an integral part of our humanity.

And the process of our translation is so fundamentally human, as Peter Cole discovered when he met with programmers at the forefront of translation technology.

Cole: I did ask one of them at one point, what about translating tone, and what about the things that go into making a good poem. And he said, “It’s never gonna happen.” They can’t do that. ‘Cause there you’re moving from science, from the realm of technology. There are dimensions of the art involved that they don’t feel, at least with the paradigms they’re working with now, they’ll ever get to.

Not least of all because of the visceral nature of words.

Cole: The shapes, the feel of words, what is it like to have a word in your mouth? That’s a very complicated place to be. I always tell my students, you translated a line of poetry or a paragraph. Now, you’re biting into it. What’s happening in your mouth, when you bite into that? Is it aluminum foil on your teeth? Is it balsa wood? Is it peanut butter? And what was the original like?

Matching an author’s flavor is no easy task, even for a seasoned translator like Kristen Dykstra.

Dykstra: And every time I get something that’s a different style, at first I think, I can’t do this. And then you spend time with it, and eventually, if you give yourself enough time, you realize that you can, but you have to find that moment where you click with the material, and you have to figure out how to make it click. My favorite is Angel Escobar, very sonorous poet, and had a long background in the theater. And there was a point when I suddenly realized I need to try to bring out the sonorous resounding qualities of his poetry, that’s the sound. You need to fill the room, that’s what Escobar did when he was in his space. So what I did was I went back over sort of maybe the literally correct material and replaced it.

Allen: So if all you’re trying to do as a translator is create something of a distant echo of the original text, then you yourself are doing something that’s doomed to fail. You have to create something that’s real and alive on the page, and that isn’t just a sort of pale shadow or cliff note or sketch of something else, somewhere else.

But the where of that somewhere else is a material consideration.

Cole: Ireland, England, it’s pretty close, but yes and no, right? So, northern Spain, southern Spain, Christian Spain, Muslim Spain? So to get the distinctiveness of each poet was a real challenge. But if he turned out to be on his own, cut off like a branch from a tree, without a mother or father, with neither a brother nor sister, wifeless without a child, and without kin nor neighbor or friends, I’d be content. I would like to think that you could tell pretty quickly those poets from each other in my translations, but you could also tell my translations from somebody else’s translation. So it’s a kind of meeting of sensibilities.

Balancing the sensibilities of author and translator can be an emotionally-charged process.

Cole: You have your innermost thoughts and feelings, you have your reputation in the world, there’s gonna be some friction, there just has to be! And you learn to live with it, sometimes you deal with it better, sometimes worse.

Allen: First of all, there’s kind of a mistrust, because the author doesn’t speak the language the book is being translated into. I’m looking at a translation of my work into Japanese. I have no idea, right? No idea!

And though a translation will always be a compromise between the original intent and the words of the translator, the alternative, says Kristen Dykstra, is not worth contemplating.

Dykstra: People have so much idealism around translation and the idea that things are un-translatable, that at some point, you have to let it go. Turn it around and say: “What happens if I don’t translate this?” “What happens if we don’t try to translate works of poetry, philosophy, other types of difficult translation and we only translate technical manuals because we feel most comfortable with our capabilities?”

And so it would seem that . . . It is better to get lost in translation than never to have translated at all.