There’s an old proverb that goes ‘translator traitor.’ It refers to the fact that even the best of translations can misrepresent the meaning of the original. It has also been applied to translations where over enthusiastic liberties have been taken to deliberately misrepresent the meaning of the original. That sounds a pretty awful thing to do but when it happens, the majority of the time the translator’s intention was not malicious in any way – merely very poorly thought through.
One example is the translation of the works of Chuang Tzu by Herbert A. Giles. He was an exemplary scholar and a talented translator. The setback was that he allowed his ardent Christian faith to sometimes cloud his judgement. That’s not a criticism of Christianity; it’s a criticism of Giles. His translation of Chuang Tzu is very readable and enjoyable. The trouble is that he betrays the original text and its meaning by presenting the writings of the Taoist as being essentially Christian in places, even though they were written hundreds of years before Christianity was created. He goes so far as to include God, God with a capital G, God of the Old and New Testament, in the text of Chuang Tzu despite the fact that God is never mentioned once in the original book. Giles even goes so far as to abandon the real title of one chapter and replace it with The Tao of God.
Giles’ choices involved a decision to not translate at times and to fictionalize a part of the text. He was not alone in this ‘translator traitor’ activity. One of the more creative translators, who is now ironically praised for his creativity in doing it, was Edward Fitzgerald who rewrote more than translated the text in regards to his version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. A more modern offender, more liable to cause offence, was J. B. Phillips. He was a scholar who knew Classical Greek and translated the New Testament. He too allowed his personal view of Christianity, his interpretation of it, to interfere with writing a truly accurate translation: he rewrote parts of the New Testament that personally offended him. Not big parts; merely little parts; not many parts; but nevertheless he rewrote what he believed to be Holy Writ. He was, of course, taken up on it by other scholars.
An example is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus asks to see the body of Lazarus the reply is a concern about the smell of a body that has been decomposing for some days – Jesus ignores that and repeats his request. For Phillips, the idea that the odour of putrefaction should dare to enter the Holy nostrils of Christ so offended him that he rewrote the brief passage rather than provide a true translation of it. I’m not mocking Phillips in describing his reasoning that way because that is how he described it himself when he tried to defend his ‘translation.’ Bizarrely, he didn’t seem to understand the fuss about his occasional creativity regards translating the New Testament and his translation is still available, completely uncorrected, and is sometimes described as a paraphrasing of the text rather than a translation.
The reason for these examples is to show that no area of translation - be it religious, historical, philosophical or whatever - is free from the phenomena of Translator Traitor. Also, that such behaviour is not always deliberately mischievous. The intention, not thought through, is usually well meaning.
That brings me to suggesting to those that can that they should read and compare Professor Hoffmann’s translation of Robert Houdin’s Secrets of Conjuring and the original French text. Even if your French is abysmal, it becomes apparent that Hoffmann (Angelo John Lewis) applied a lot of effort in tinkering with the text. There are footnotes where he admits as much but they hardly touch on the amount changes he made. In his preface, Hoffmann writes regarding his translation “I have aimed at substantial rather than absolute fidelity” and he calls his preface the Editor’s Preface and not the Translator’s Preface. All in all, I don’t criticise Hoffmann for his translation but for those interested in the history of magic I do recommend taking time to compare the texts. On one hand, Hoffmann did the editorial job that Robert Houdin’s original (completely uncritical and lazy) publishers should have done and so the text gained something. On the other hand, the particular tone of Robert Houdin’s character expressed in his text is lost and replaced by that of Hoffmann. If you compare Hoffmann’s Modern Magic with his translation of The Secrets of Conjuring it is evident that the author’s ‘voice’ and ‘character’ are one and the same. Robert Houdin’s character in the original text is less formal than Hoffmann; his forms of expression reflect the French society he grew up in and not Hoffmann’s British Victorian stuffed shirt society.
The differences in Robert Houdin’s text and that of Hoffmann are, thankfully, not as dramatic as the examples given regarding Giles, Fitzgerald and Phillips. Nevertheless, it truly is worth a look.