Translation Good is to be

This is a guest post by CalebJRoss as part of his Stranger Will Tour for Strange blog tour. He will be guest-posting beginning with the release of his novel Stranger Will in March 2011 to the release of his second novel, I Didn’t Mean to Be Kevin in November 2011. If you have connections to a lit blog of any type, professional journal or personal site, please contact him. To be a groupie and follow this tour,subscribe to the Caleb J Ross blog RSS feed. Follow him on Twitter: @calebjross.com. Friend him on Facebook: Facebook.com/rosscaleb

As an author, translation of my work scares me. As a reader, reading translated work scares me. As someone who stands to benefit financially from my work being translated, translation is meraviglioso.

Being as in love with words as I am, I understand that translation is very much more than the word conversion that many might assume it to be. Translation is quite literally a re-interpretation of a work. I am sure Erica could attest (though I don’t want to mis-translate her apparent love of translation), that crafting a piece of work—work that the author likely sculpted for hours upon hours, taking ridiculous care with each and every word—using an entirely foreign lexicon is a feat to be respected perhaps even as much as the writing of the native work.

So, with this fear baggage in tow, I reacted cautiously when friend and writer, Mlaz Corbier offered to translate a story from my chapbook, Charactered Pieces, into Dutch. Though I know very little of the Dutch language, I am confident that Mr. Corbier did wonderful things for the story. Because I know very little of the Dutch language, why not have some fun with a free online translation tool? The problem with these tools—and the source of fun for this blog post—is that these tools are excruciatingly literal. There is no room for local flavor, no room for context, and no room for idiomatic expressions.

Comparison 1:

Original

Pebbles and splintered mortar pushed to the ruptured foundation crescendo of final phrases belched from the extinguished lungs and flaccid lips of 21 families, now ghosts chained to the hallowed floor of a destroyed mosque. The voices blame. And Abel listens.

Corbier translation:

Steentjes en afgebrokkeld mortel worden door de verrotte fundering heen gedrukt, een crescendo van opgeboerde frasen uit uitgebluste longen en langs slappe lippen van eenentwintig families. Nu demonen, vastgeketend aan de heilige vloer van de vervallen moskee. De stemmen verwijten hem. En Abel… hij luistert.

FreeTranslation.com translation back to English:

Stones and crumbled off mortar become rotted pressed through the foundation away, a crescendo of opgeboerde phrases from extinguished lungs and along weak lips of twenty-one families.  Now demons, chained at the saint floor of the decay mosque.  The votes reproach him.  And Medieval… he listens.

I learn here that “ghosts” and “demons” are the same thing (no room for morally good souls, I suppose); “hallowed” translates as “saint,” which I guess is understandable; and “Able” and “Medieval” share etymological origins.

Comparison 2:

Original:

Each time he frees an arm, lifts his head, if only for a moment, he swears to the sound of survivors in the distance.

Corbier translation:

Iedere keer als hij een arm vrij krijgt steekt hij zijn hoofd op, ook al is het slechts een tel, zweert hij geluiden van overlevenden te horen in de verte.

FreeTranslation.com translation back to English:

Every turn as he a poor free sticks gets he its head on, in such a way is it only a count, swears to hear he sounds of survivors in the distance.

Wow. I’m all over the place with this one. Somehow the word “sticks” gets in there; I think because of the “he frees and arm” phrasing in the original. Other than that, I see the shared understanding of “survivors in the distance,” but not much else.

Reading translated work scares me, because I understand the potential for an incorrect or slightly wrong interpretation. Take Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, which is most commonly printed in English as The Stranger, but might be more appropriately titled The Outsider. A simple title difference is enough to encourage a completely different reading of the text. So, as a reader, am I getting L’Étranger? No. I am getting a version of L’Étranger. You know how in America, the original versions of movies are so often widely considered superior to any later remakes? That’s what it means to read a translated work.

But fear aside, without translation I would never have been able access some of my favorite writers including Jorge Louis Borges, Jose Saramago, Dante, and of course Albert Camus.

4 comments

  1. Pingback: Stranger Will tour stop #30: Phil Jourdan’s blog | Caleb J Ross The World's First Author Blog | calebjross

  2. Yeah, title translations can make all the difference in tone, just like a book cover can color your perception of the story inside. Take Stieg Larsson’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (not a fan, but it made for a pretty good film adaptation). His original Swedish title is “Men Who Hate Women.” Sounds like two totally different books!

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  3. RE: “I am sure Erica could attest (though I don’t want to mis-translate her apparent love of translation), that crafting a piece of work—work that the author likely sculpted for hours upon hours, taking ridiculous care with each and every word—using an entirely foreign lexicon is a feat to be respected perhaps even as much as the writing of the native work.”

    There’s also the interesting thing about how a lot of translators, especially of works considered “of high magnitude” or “important”, actually take careful time crafting work that the authors Did Not take hours and hours retooling and laboring over and freeting and balancing for “just the pefect set of words”–“cleaning it up” to make it seem “more refined” than it is in the mother tongue.

    There was a fascinating thing done about this regarding Dostoevsky and Sartre, for example, and much about Hamsun and…well, all manner of things. That there is the embedded idea that “great work is a matter of tinkering and carefully balancing and taking long amounts of time” etc. etc. which very often it is not; while translation (speaking generally) is a matter of meticulous thought and investigation, often of things totally outside textual interpretation (things such as “Did Dostoevsky write this sloppily on purpose, not on purpose, kind of on purpose–did he spend a long time with, a short time, and does that mean I, as translator, should try to write it as though an English writer didnt “spend a long time with it” and what does that mean?” etc.

    Anyway, good post again Caleb.

    Cheers

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  4. Great example, Gordon. I would have easily picked up the original title over the translation mass market translation. Then again, I’m probably not the typical reader.

    (KUBOA), I love this observation: “…actually take careful time crafting work that the authors DID NOT take hours and hours retooling and laboring over and fretting and balancing…” The translator as the author; I love it.

    And for those who don’t know, (KUBOA) has some great observations regarding translation here: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/03/06/mon01.asp

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