The Perfect Reader and the Ideal Reader

I went to hear a lecture on translation recently where the topic of a perfect reader came up.  After all, how do you translate the ambiguities in a text?  Are you reading too much into something, seeing what you want to see?  Or are you not seeing enough because you’re too different from the author, you’re not the targeted audience, or you’re not a specific subset of the audience who is being targeted with subtext (or thinks they’re being targeted/baited)?

But my question is: can there be such a thing as a perfect reader?

I personally like the idea of the ‘ideal reader’: the reader who the book is specifically written for (thank you to Stephen King and his book ‘On Writing’ for the term and definition).  Stephen King says his ideal reader is his wife, and he writes with her in mind.

Does that mean his wife is the only person who can translate the book?  Of course not!  But it means that the subtext and ambiguity is probably directed at her, so you want her point of view as your base for a translation.

Now, I know, I know, most authors aren’t kind enough to tell us quite so directly who their ideal reader is or if they even have one.  And, further, most (I’m not daring enough to say ‘all’) writers want a lot of people to read their books.  So maybe some writers have a lot of ‘ideal readers’, all of whom are coming from different backgrounds, different viewpoints, and carrying different prejudices.

What does that mean for translation?  That a translator shouldn’t be concerned about an ideal reader or a perfect reader.  What they should be concerned with was how THEY read the book/poem/what-have-you and what THEY got out of it.  Their concern should be how they want to present it in the target language.

Yes, it’s important to stay true to the spirit of the original work, but everyone’s going to have a different opinion on how you should do that.  That’s why there are multiple translations for some works; because people didn’t agree with a prior translation and wanted to create the one they thought was right or accurate–or, as in the case of ‘The Tale of Genji’, to create the one that translated the full story.

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