Saturday 16 November 2013

Translated Texts vs the Originals: When Language Becomes a Problem

Tim Mackintosh Smith, author and translator.
His work with the writing of Moroccan traveller
and writer Ibn Battutah has earned him deserved plaudits
Unless we happen to be some kind of superhuman polyglot, all of us are going to read a translated text at some point. Of the thirty highest ranked novels in The Guardian’s much lauded/argued over “Top 100” list, eight were written in a language other than English. Meanwhile, novels translated into English repeatedly bother the upper reaches of bestseller charts, proving that literature truly is a beast that transcends geolinguistic boundaries.

The work of novelists such as Norway’s Jo Nesbø and Sweden’s Stieg Larsson have proved phenomenally popular in Anglophonic countries, and the English translations of texts such as “Crime and Punishment”, “Madame Bovary” and “The Dangerous Liasons” continue to shift copies many generations after their original publication.

So, does it matter that the book we are reading is perhaps not the one envisaged by the author?

There are several schools of thought on this, the most popular being a pragmatic one: of course we should try to read works of literature in the language in which they were written, but we should also recognize that this will not always be possible.

Last week marked the 100th anniversary of birth of Albert Camus, an event that went almost unnoticed in the author’s homelands of France and Algeria, but caused the global blogosphere to explode into life. Between the tributes and the reminiscences on the author’s career, a discussion opened about the comparative merits of reading works like “The Outsider” (“L’Etranger”) or “The Plague” (“La Peste”) in English or in the original French.

Lexical cross-pollination is rife between English and French; both languages are peppered with words that have hopped the Channel and nestled snuggly in the dictionaries of their neighbours. As a result, the division between our two tongues is a fluid one: your average Marseillais would probably be able to order a beer in Birmingham, while a Geordie would be similarly at ease in the bars and taverns of Bordeaux.

However, getting to grips with a novel – with all its nuance, subtlety and hidden depth – is another matter entirely. Such a feat is likely to be beyond the linguistical abilities of most readers (myself included). As the discussion raged online, an unpleasant level of snobbery began to arise, belittling the experiences of people who had read Camus’ novels in English compared with those who tackled the books en Français.

Is this snobbery ever justified? I suppose it can be argued that the very action of translating a text involves straying into a dangerous area. By translating a text, particularly a text by an author who is no longer around to oversee it, we are transposing our own judgment onto the words of the original. In doing so, we run the risk of adding our own graduations and variations in content, style and tone.

Barthes’ famous “Author” did not suffer death just so another one could come along and project his or her own vision onto a text; we should remember that a text is very much alive and open to interpretation, and so all tinkering and translating must be done with the lightest of touches.

A light touch becomes even more necessary when we encounter words that are unique to a certain language. These so-called untranslatable words provide something of a quandary for a translator: should such words be translated as literally as possible – creating occasionally clunky and awkward sentences but preserving the original meaning – or should more weight be placed on retaining the author’s intentionally streamlined prose style.

Milan Kundera – after writing “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” in his native Czech tongue – oversaw its translation into French, adding an entire chapter devoted to explaining the Czech word litost, roughly meaning a psychological state of self-torment followed by a desire to equalize matters through physical revenge. Writer Dilshan Boange describes litost asa state of emotions that is rooted in the individual feeling himself to be a singular entity in the face of overwhelming hopelessness and a painfully evident helplessness.”    

Kundera’s litost is by no means the only example of a word whose meaning does not bridge the social-cultural boundaries of language. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Waldeinsamkeit” uses 12 stanzas to explore the depth and complexity of its title; a German word that is can be tentatively translated to English as a ‘solitary oneness with – or an abandonment of oneself to – nature’.

Another example – picked at random, but a concept that many empty-headed internet keyboard warriors would do well to employ – is the Catalan word Enraonar, meaning “to discuss in a civilised manner, using meticulous reasoning.”

These words, and the thousands of others that proliferate across the globe, serve as proof of the richness and diversity of the human consciousness. In a world where culture is in increasing danger of becoming homogenized and contained in order to fit with the lingua franca of accepted global thought, these words provide refreshing new perspectives, allowing people of all cultures to think outside the constraints imposed by their own language.

German academic, Thorsten Pattberg recognizes this. In a recent article for The Shanghai Daily, Dr Pattberg warns against Western media outlets “coercing their authors to hold back non-English words or eliminate them from their submissions” in an attempt to retain the purity and readability of their newspapers. Pattberg also calls for an end to “irresponsible translations of foreign key terminologies” and urges us to “work overtime to find the untranslatable words in each language”.

Dr Pattberg is correct; as lovers of literature we must welcome anything that broadens the scope of writing and reading. We must admit that language is, and forever will be, only a limited tool of expression, and so must embrace any methods that can decrease those limitations, both in an artistic and in an anthropological sense.

However, the fact remains that literary translation is a vital and invaluable endeavour. It democratizes literature, removes it from the preserve of the few and hands it to the many, while also facilitating the spread of ideas and debate around the world. Translation is as much an art as authorship; it requires patience, skill and an astounding amount of selflessness to produce a successful translation.

Many translations have been derided as failures, while others have been criticized as diluting the power and impact of the original. However, the work of translators such as Michael Glenny – whose adaptation of Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” into English was particularly lauded – and Giovanni Pontiero, who was concerned primarily with translating Portuguese texts into English, introduced the British book-buying public to spell-binding editions of some of the cornerstones of our global literary heritage.

The key is to find a balance; to embrace the heterogeneous nature of language and literature while also promoting the lightness of touch and lack of egocentricity required to produce a truly masterful translation.

In the coming weeks I plan to have a crack at Alaa Al Aswany’s 2002 novel "Imārat Ya‘qūbiān". As my Arabic is not fully up to scratch (read: nonexistent) I will have to rely on Humphrey Davies’ translation. And still the world keeps on turning. 

Click here for more information on untranslatable words.


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