Lost in Translation

I recently read a review in The Economist of a new translation by the poet John Ashbery of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations.  Rimbaud, of course, was l’enfant terrible of nineteenth century French poetry, but also a creative genius who died as a trader in Africa, never even knowing that Verlaine and others had published his various poems in book form in his absence.

One of the aspects of Rimbaud’s genius, according to the reviewer, was the way in which he used words, often choosing words with multiple and conflicting definitions, where each definition of the word imparted a differing but still relevant meaning to the line and the poem as a whole.  The reviewer also points out, that in some cases, because the English translations of the French words do not have such multiple meanings, that Ashbery was forced to choose between one of two or three English words, thus limiting the impact of the word or line as rendered in English.

As a writer, I’ve also come across similar problems in dealing with the translation of my words into another language.  The most obvious case was the Swedish translation of The Magic of Recluce.  I was initially approached by a Swedish reader who was also a translator.  He told me that the name “Recluce” did not translate into Swedish, and that the allusions contained in Recluce didn’t, either. We talked for a time, and then he later emailed me with good news and bad news.  The good news was that the alternative names he’d worked out for certain places in the Recluce Saga had been accepted by a Swedish publisher, and that the book would be translated into Swedish.  The bad news was that he didn’t get the translation assignment. [I did give him an exclusive interview, which he said he’d managed to sell.]  So, The Magic of Recluce appeared in Sweden and the Scandinavian countries as Larlingstid: Sarlands Historia… and I have no idea what the connotations and allusions of that title are in Swedish.

The problems in translation, unhappily, go well beyond the simple, because there’s more than the meaning of mere words to deal with. Terry Pratchett, for example, once said that a translator contacted him and complained that quite a number of terms and puns and other things didn’t translate into the language at hand.  Sir Terry is reputed to have said, “Don’t translate it literally.  Just make it funny!”  I pity the translator, but supposedly he did the job… and well.

And at times, a writer’s very outlook can’t be conveyed into another language.  When I was told that a Russian publisher had picked up the rights to several of my novels, my initial reaction was to say, “Please… no…”  But I followed the professional’s creed, smiled, pocketed the modest royalties… and winced in silence.  From what I can tell, the books did horribly, and that didn’t surprise me, from what I’ve learned about Russian outlooks and culture from a number of close Russian friends.  Interestingly enough, and far from surprising, the only readers I know who like the Russian versions are people who are bilingual in Russian and English.

At times, though, translations work marvelously well.  I know a mid-list writer who’s never had a smashing success in the United States, but who wrote a historical fantasy set in Turkey – and the Turkish edition was at the top of the Turkish best-seller list for close to a year.  It may have helped that the translation was done by a well-known Turkish poet [even in Turkey, it appears, poets can’t make a living on just their poetry].

Then there’s the English/American issue.  More than a handful of famous people and wits have deplored the fact that Americans and Brits, not to mention Scots, the Irish, and even Aussies, don’t speak the same language, even when we’re using the same words.  For some reason, it appears that I write in a form of English that appeals to certain people in all English-speaking lands, but appeals only to a handful of editors, even in the United States.  Perhaps the one area where my appeal to readers is as great, if not greater on a percentage basis, as in the United States is in the central and western reaches of Canada.  Can I explain why?  No… but I’m grateful, whatever the reason.

Based on observation and experience, I’d caution beginning writers not to agonize over translations. All you can do is hope for a good translator who can make your words work… and pocket the royalties with a smile.

4 thoughts on “Lost in Translation”

  1. Val says:

    A couple of weeks ago I was at a reading given by a Dutch author. He told us he’d managed to sell one of his stories in the UK, which is a huge achievement for him. In order to have even the slightest chance of getting published in English, authors here have to provide their own translation. He had it done by a professional and it set him back (the equivalent of) more than a thousand dollars. Which is way more than he could ever hope to earn with that one story. It will be interesting to see if this investment pays off for him.

  2. Bob Howard says:

    I can understand your perspective. I can imagine that if I were a published author, having a foreign language edition come out would be thrilling. I think I’d prefer not to read it, though. I’ve used Russian translations of familiar scifi novels to improve my skills, and have been in turn amazed, disgusted, intrigued and hugely entertained by the range of quality of each translator’s concept of the original. Sometimes the idiomatic expressions of the author come through with cultually-appropriate equivalents (a big plus for someone trying to learn the language); othertimes, it is a clumsy direct translation that ranges from comical to bizarre. The poor unsuspecting reader is left to determine whether it’s the author or the translator who’s the greater idiot!

  3. Brian Kelman says:

    As a Canadian who lives in the central part of the country (South Western Ontario), I may be able to shed some light on your appeal here. Your main characters are generally ‘reluctant’ heroes who get the job done so that they can return to their normal life. The consequences of their actions may result in glory, power and riches, but their primary motivation is to do the right thing with a certain amount of humility. This is a character trait and way of behaviour that we believe we possess and covet. For example, as the Canadian military role in Afghanistan comes to a close, we are very proud of the fact that they depart having ‘done the right thing’ and having made a difference to the people they defended. Whether this character trait and behaviour is a true reflection of reality or we are just fooling ourselves I leave for others to decide. It’s just that your characters, in my estimation, are so ‘Canadian’ in the ideal. And you have the ability to tell gripping stories that are hard to put down.

  4. Bethany says:

    I used to read/watch a lot of Japanese manga and anime, and translations are a huge deal with the fanbase. The culture itself is extremely hierarchical, and dropping the honorifics from names or even using first names loses a layer of the story.

    Your stories make the reader think – ethics and morals aren’t shied away from, unlike a lot of other literature that’s out there now (The Hunger Games, blagh). I’m not saying definitively that western Canada and central US are more ethical, but maybe the culture appreciates the stories that have morals and make you think.

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