In a very good essay about the Russian writer Isaac Babel, Gary Saul Morson also provides a useful mini-lesson on the perils of translation:
Babel’s prose depends on his silences, on what he does not say. Like his contemporaries the Russian Formalists, he wanted to shock readers out of cliché and routine perceptions, and so he cultivated a style demanding interpretations he did not provide. When convention or common sense suggests one word, he provides another, slightly but significantly different. The test of a good translator is whether she preserves the strangeness. When Babel writes “invisible voices,” does the translator supply (as Walter Morison does) “mysterious voices”? Without realizing it, most translators betray Babel’s style by interpreting his words.
The new translations. . .provide a readable text that captures much of what makes Babel’s stories great, but they often explain—that is, explain away—Babel’s oddities. In the story “Pan Apolek,” Babel begins a sentence: “V Novograd-Volynske, v naspekh smyatom gorode, sredi skruchennykh razvalin,” which, as literally as possible, means: “In Novograd-Volynsk, in the hastily crumpled city, amid the crooked ruins….” Vinokur gives us “In Novograd-Volynsk, among the twisted ruins of that swiftly crushed town,” while Dralyuk offers “In Novograd-Volynsk, among the gnarled ruins of that hastily crushed city.” And Morison: “In Novograd-Volynsk, among the ruins of a town swiftly brought to confusion….”
These are all interpretations, almost paraphrases. Babel describes the city as “crumpled” (smyatyi), the way one crumples a piece of paper before throwing it away. The ruins are not twisted or gnarled or brought to confusion, but crooked: the word skruchennyi, as my colleague Nina Gourianova reminds me, is the one used in Samuil Marshak’s famous translation of the English nursery rhyme about a crooked man in a crooked house. Babel’s strange lexicon, and the peculiar image of a town resembling a crumpled letter, disappear. And the translators omit the double use of the word “in” (“In Novograd-Volynsk, in the hastily crumpled city”), so the sentence’s rhythm changes.
[Boris] Dralyuk makes a principle of explaining. His introduction offers as an example of his method a passage where Babel describes old letters as istlevshikh (rotten, decaying). Dralyuk alters this to “letters worn thin”: “If one takes a moment to imagine what Babel’s narrator imagines…one can conjure the fragile letters before one’s eyes, feel their texture; they have been ‘worn thin’ by friction and sweat.” But Babel does not describe them as worn thin, and the Red Cavalry stories constantly offer images of rot, decay, and moldering.
All translations are always, unavoidably, interpretations. This is a fact we have to accept, since otherwise we would have no access at all to some of the world's greatest writing. In this case, Babel's style hasn't truly been "betrayed," or it has only if you are fluent in Russian and know what Babel really wrote. Most of us, alas, are not in a position to know this, and must settle for the interpretation (although certainly some interpretations might be better than others). We should acknowledge--and this is true for reviewers of translated books especially--that we are reading a necessary (and essential) substitute for the work the author in fact created, not the "thing itself," which abides as itself only in the language its author actually used.