Thanks a lot to Zachary for sending me the link to a NY Times article about how bad the English translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s highly influencial "Le deuxième sexe" is. The article won’t be available for much longer, so I suggest you go and read it quickly before you have to pay for it.
Why was it so badly translated? Because the translator, Howard Madison Parshley, was a "retired professor of zoology who had written a book on human reproduction and regularly reviewed books on sex for The New York Herald Tribune". He had never studied philosophy or existentialism. No wonder he did such a poor job; the language used by De Beauvoir is highly specific to a certain current of philosophy and she was developing a new vision of what it meant to be a woman: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." It was thus rather optimistic to hope that an ageing sexologist might come up with a faithful translation of a radical (at the time) feminist’s work.
In his post, Zachary mentions the fact that you need to have a solid knowledge of a subject in order to undertake a translation, and that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to understand this. He’s right. I’ve often had people approaching me to translate documents on areas I’m totally ignorant in. They are generally shocked and annoyed when I turn the job down and seem to fail to understand that there are several aspects in a document: even if I master its language, I won’t be able to do a good job if I’m not familiar, as least to a reasonable degree, with its subject matter.
… and thanks to Adeline for sending me the link to a new forum dedicated to translation issues.