Q: Don't you just use the dictionary?
A: Most people think translating is something akin to painting-by-numbers. With the help of a good dictionary, all you have to do is trade the reds and greens for yellows and blues, and you`ll end up with a perfectly acceptable replica of the original, only in a different color palette. But in literary translation, mechanical skill is not enough. The translator has to have an artist`s eye, and know that a dab of raw umber here or a lick of white there may be necessary to inject brightness or depth into the work. The dictionary may present you with a dozen possible word choices, and yet you may find that not one of these gives the text the exact sense you are looking for. After all, even in the original language, every word is itself a metaphor, an abstraction that stands for something else. At some point you have to throw away the dictionary and reach into yourself as a writer for your own instinctive feel for the language.
At the same time, you have to take into account the literary conventions of the two languages, which are bound to clash at some point. If the author uses simple language and clipped sentences, the translator must try to follow suit, yet avoid making it sound childish or simplistic. If the author prefers a compound- word vocabulary and a complex sentence structure, the translator may have to nudge the English up to a loftier, more Latinate register — yet without making it sound overly ponderous, because what is authoritative in one language may be pretentious in the next.
The translator has to avoid anachronisms, and carefully match the idioms to the time period in which the book is set. Humor, irony and sarcasm need a deft hand, since every language has its own sense of humor, its own culture of irony. There is also the matter of class, race, and regional idiosyncrasies — how to transfer dialect in one language into an appropriate equivalent. And then there is slang, so crucial in the writing of convincing dialogue, which is a minefield all by itself — you have to keep up with the rapidly changing nature of colloquialisms, swear words, street talk, teen speech and technical jargon, if you don't want the translation to sound archaic or false.
Finally, you have to pay particular attention to syntax, and to the rhythms the translated words produce on the page. All too often, after being put through the translation mill, a book will end up having all the life knocked out of it. For too strict a translation will turn a book into something neutral and uninspired at best; at worst, it will come out sounding sad, flat, plodding, and dated — a far cry, surely, from what the author intended.
-- From Translation, or the Forger`s Art by Hester Velmans, published in The Low Countries: Crossroads of Cultures, Nodus 2006