Some things are lost in translation, as the old saying goes. One imagines this to be especially true for literary fiction, but if you don’t read the original language, if you don’t have the two books sitting side by side as you read, how are you supposed to know what has been lost?

This is a problem even for the folks giving a new translation award. Rather than figure out for themselves the best translation of a work of fiction, beginning next month the judges of Britain’s prestigious Man Booker prize will dole out an extra 15,000 pounds to their yearly fiction winner. It will then be up to the author to decide which translator of his or her work gets the cash. No word on what to do if the winner isn’t a literary superstar who has been translated into several languages; nor, perhaps, have the Booker people considered what to do if the translations aren’t very good. After all, they’re not judging!

In his introduction to The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, released late last year, John le Carré offers up a hint on what to look for in a translation: simplicity. He points out that Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous stories, though great, were short on “fine turns of phrase” and “clever adjectives,” allowing them to translate “without loss into practically any language.”

There’s an irony in this. Those writers who are least interested in language—those writers, in other words, who are least interesting—are best to read in other languages. The prolific Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld may be a case in point, except that he is anything but an uninteresting writer. In two recent memoirs, the Holocaust survivor emphasizes his suspicion of any “fluent stream of words.” “I prefer stuttering,” he writes in The Story of a Life, published in English last fall and translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter, “for in stuttering I hear the friction and the disquiet, the effort to purge impurities from the words, the desire to offer something from inside you. Smooth, fluent sentences leave me with a feeling of uncleanness, of order that hides emptiness.”

Not words you expect to hear from a writer, but they are born out by Appelfeld’s style, which is one of haunting simplicity. In A Table for One: Under the Light of Jerusalem (also translated by Halter), a beautiful coffee-table book of Appelfeld essays about café life in Jerusalem accompanied by paintings and drawings of the city by his son Meir, he tells of needing to avoid people while on the run during World War II. “This turned me into a mute creature,” he writes. “Any time that I was asked something, the words would be stuck in my mouth.”

Perhaps because of his unornamented style, Appelfeld’s writing feels particularly immediate. It doesn’t seem to be translated at all. Go to Amazon.com, meanwhile, or even the publisher Schocken’s Web site, and you won’t find Halter’s name. Do his literary benefactors wish to preserve the impression he’s writing in English?

This is not an issue, however, for a recent novel by Vietnamese dissident Duong Thu Huong. How do you know you’re reading a bad translation? When you keep stumbling over phrases like “tutelary genies”  or nearly correct idioms like “two-edged sword” or mystifying bits of dialogue like “I just don’t remember, full stop.” No Man’s Land is a wonderful novel—the story of happily married Mien being claimed by her supposedly dead first husband is heartbreaking and thought-provoking—but is nevertheless ill-served by translators Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong. (Although this is the fifth Huong novel the pair has rendered into English, their names can be found only in fine print on the copyright page.)

It helps to articulate a rule of thumb here: When reading a good translation (or any good writing, for that matter), your focus remains immersed in the story. A bad translation, on the other hand, calls attention to itself. “Danger had left front stage,” Huong writes, whatever that means.

Of course, translations must convey more than language; they must communicate a different culture. They must acknowledge that through language we announce our distinctive ways of understanding the world. This may be why the translation for My Father’s Rife: A Childhood in Kurdistan, a new memoir by Hiner Saleem, seems so effortless. Catherine Temerson is translating from the French, a language that reflects a worldview not so different from our own (politics aside). Saleem’s writing is clipped and vigorous, American even, in the fashion of Hemingway. Vietnamese, by comparison, is a much more foreign tongue, forever distinguishingrelationships and class rankings. In No Man’s Land, this leads to unfortunate exchanges where characters yell things like “Hey there, mother of my son!”

A good translation, then, must give us a sense of the foreign without being too literal. No language is more hierarchical than Korean, its verbs recognizing distinctions that are largely invisible in English. In Three Generations, the classic Korean novel by Yom Sang-seop just translated into English by Yu Young-nan, the young man Deok-gi uncomfortably runs into his father’s former mistress, a beautiful woman his own age named Gyeong-ae. How should he address her? As a woman, as a peer or as an elder who once had a relationship with his father? While such a dilemma would be instantly recognizable to Korean readers, Americans need some help.

“I leave tomorrow …” Deok-gi hesitated, not knowing how to end his sentence. He wasn’t inclined to use a formal ending, but it was difficult to justify a familiar one.

A Korean-speaking critic objected to parts of Yu’s translation for not adequately conveying the energy of the original dialogue. But that would be impossible! Instead, Yu balances the foreignness of Korean with the constraints of English. For all that may be lost in the process, this is the great, imperfect pleasure of reading translations.

The Story of a Life and A Table for One: Under the Light of Jerusalem by Aharon Appelfeld; No Man’s Land by Duong Thu Huong; My Father’s Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan by Hiner Saleem; and Three Generations by Yom Sang-seop
Concord (NH) Monitor, May 2005