Found in Translation

translationAs I’ve said previously, I’m trying to make a proper effort to read more books in translation – my aim is for roughly half of what I read to originate somewhere else. I’ve been thinking a lot about translation as a thing recently. Despite the fact there are far too many books published in English to read in a lifetime, I still think you’re limiting yourself if you only stick to your native tongue. Every culture has their own way of telling stories, and types of stories they choose to tell. You only have to look at the oldest surviving stories, the ones that originated in the oral tradition, the fairy tales, proverbs and myths, to see there are similarities but differences too. To only read your own culture’s stories is to put yourself in a bubble, and lose out on so many new perspectives and angles.

I am a stereotypical rubbish English person, and can only speak/read in English (I do plan to rectify this eventually). So, to access these other worlds, I need a go-between. I have loads of questions about how representative of the literary culture the selection of available translations are (i.e. we have a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction, but is that just because it’s fashionable in Britain right now, or does that represent Scandinavian literature – my guess is the former), but mostly I’ve been thinking about how interesting translation is in itself.

I find translation as a concept fascinating. I just don’t understand how they do it. It’s partly those words that have no equivalent in another language, or a certain way of saying something like ‘he’ that the word ‘he’ just can’t quite convey. Or those phrases that are idiosyncratic to a country or a region that just don’t make sense when translated word for word into another language, especially when it comes to humour. I really like this quote from Francesco Pacifico in McSweeney’s 42 (which I’ll talk about in a minute):

“Different languages offer new combinations of sound and meaning. A song in B flat on a piano usually has a nice, round sound. A song in B flat on a guitar feels awkward.”

In that sense, the translator acts as a co-writer – making decisions about how to express a carefully crafted thought in a true but different way. Rodrigo Fresán says it better than I could:

“Translating is using somebody else’s hat and hoping it fits great on your head. It doesn’t, of course. So you make some alterations, thinking with your head in someone other’s head. And hoping he likes what you did to his favourite/perfect/impossible-to-better hat.”

Because it’s not just about the individual words/phrases, it’s also about style. There are some books that you read and can almost instantly tell who the writer is, because their stylistic footprint is stamped all over it. How do you translate that, given that so many things will likely change when moving from one language to the next? How do you properly translate a mood or feeling that comes from between the lines, from the way something is written? I really need to make friends with a translator and pick their brain, though I’m sure there are some interesting blogs a quick google away…

A recent issue of McSweeney’s (number 42, ‘multiples’) explored the idea of evolution through changes in language. They asked various writers and translators to translate stories in and out of English, roughly five or six times. Each iteration used a different translator, and each translator only had access to the preceding version to their own. They were told to ‘provide an accurate copy that was also a live story’, which meant some tried to translate the style of their original, and others translated the story then re-wrote it in their own way. It was also complicated by the fact that some of the writer/translators didn’t read/write the language they were using, so those variations don’t represent exactly how a proper translator would work, but it’s still a hugely interesting game of literary pass-the-message. (I wish I could read the other languages so I could see where changes came in).

Edit: I was writing this thing about translation and it turns out it’s International Translation Day. Yay serendipity! Now go and read something great in translation to celebrate.

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