There is this great article by John McWhorter that is being shared widely on the literary translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Anybody who is interested in language and how translation of words and concepts works will enjoy this brilliant piece.
I want to explain the origins of the phenomenon that McWhorter describes in the article. There is this theory that has dominated translation studies and has held literary translators in the US captive for 30 years. The theory is that when you translate a literary text and make it sound normal and smooth in the target language, you are committing an act of colonialist aggression.
So instead of looking for words and expressions in English that transmit the meaning of the original while not sounding completely weird to a native speaker of English, you should do the opposite. Translate but in a way that just sounds off and slightly bizarre to an Anglo reader. Because that’s the only way you avoid colonially aggressing against the culture of the author you are translating.
Got it? Make the author you are translating sound weird on purpose to avoid colonial aggression. It’s an actual theory, and it has had an enormous impact on the practice of literary translation. Without knowing where it all comes from, the phenomenon that McWhorter so beautifully analyzes is incomprehensible. If you come across such a translation, you will now know why it sounds so quaint.