I generally tend to focus on books and book reviews here in my blog, but as some of you might know, I am also passionate about translation. I study Translation Studies in university and also work part-time as a freelance translator. However, what I feel most passionate about within the sphere of translation is – surprise surprise – literary translation. So I thought that I’d share with you a bit about why I think translation matters and also few of the things that matter in translation.
The world of book publishing is full of actors that work behind the scenes and are rarely credited for their effort. Think about cover designers, layout designers and publicists booking events and talking about the book to various medias. In case of foreign fiction, a translator is also one of them. The style, the idiomatic expressions, and the beauty of the writing is often credited to the author, but more often than not, it is the translator who has worked hard to make that text as great in another language as it was in the original.
Translated fiction provides us worlds outside of our immediate surroundings. If books let you travel back to the past of to another country, a translation might let you to travel into the shoes of someone living in a completely different culture. Today English is often used as a lingua franca and the bestsellers and canon of English language fiction are also widely read in different countries – more often in translation than in the original language. English is one of the dominant languages in the world and consequently countries in which English is the first official language tend to export more literature than to import – the marginal 3% of translated fiction is still a reality.
My first language, however, isn’t English. I grew up in Finland speaking only Finnish and most of the books I read as a child were translated from other languages – such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the Harry Potter series, the Anne of Green Gables series. I read authors such as Astrid Lindgren, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl, and Louisa M. Alcott – all in translation. Naturally I also read Finnish books and Finnish authors, but translations were a big part of the fiction and non-fiction that I consumed in my early years. It was only later when I went to school and started learning other languages that I also began to read books in the language they were originally written. However, I never stopped reading books in translation.
When reading translated books I naturally expect the translation to be faithful to the original. It’s not that I want to read translator X’s interpretation of author Y’s book. No, I want to read author Y’s book and – perhaps not being able to read the language – trust translator X to convey the story. The question of faithfulness is not, however, simply black and white because to convey, for example, a specific style or irony, the translator might have to make some necessary changes to the text. Let’s take an example. If a character in a novel would unexpectedly say: “Good day, axe-handle!” you’d probably think that he’d either a vicious axe murderer or a carpenter who is bit OCD about his tools, right? Nevertheless, this would be an exact translation of what the character says. What you probably didn’t know is that this is a Nordic idiom (based on a Norwegian folktale) and it means that the person is either ducking a question by giving a nonsensical answer or pointing out that the two parties are talking past each other. Thus if we were to translate what the character means, the translation might be something like: “Wednesday, you say?” So you see, a faithful translation always requires more background knowledge on the culture and the customs from the reader, whereas a fluent translation allows you to read the story without previous knowledge of the culture or history of the country where the story is from. This is one of the reasons why many readers find academic translations – often representing the more exact and faithful translation strategy – much harder to read than the more popular ones. Both have their pros and cons, but having no knowledge of ancient Greek literature I’d personally go first for the popular translation of Iliad instead of the academic one.
As stated in the beginning, a fluent translation is often very much the work of the translator, not the author. And as shown in the example above, the same goes also for other areas of translation. One that I’ve come across and always find interesting and amusing are product names that change from one country to another. For example, did you know that the deodorant known as Sure in the UK is Degree in the U.S. but Rexona in the Nordic countries? Or that the dishwashing liquid Fairy is also Fairy in Finland but Yes in Sweden? Some of these are because the joke or pun in the name doesn’t work in the target language and some due to different marketing strategies. Nevertheless, aside from fiction and marketing texts, there are also texts, such as user manuals, official documents and so on, that do not require or even allow as much adaptation. These, too, might require some cultural-specific changes, but for the most part it is business as usual.
Often translators work on either literary texts that require a lot of changes and adapting or on technical texts that require larger knowledge of terminology and textual standards in specific fields. The later also often use translation tools and software and translation memories that help to keep the terminology consistent and, in the case of repetitive phrases, remember the previous translation. These tools are a great help for translators translating 100-paged documents under tight schedules, but in the case of literary translation, they are often useless. Literary translator needs to translate more than just the words – she or he needs to recreate the sense and the feeling of the original. A bad example of this was the “Amazongate” about a year ago when Amazon was selling translations of popular classics that had been translated by a machine – think Google Translate, for example – without any post-editing. Needless to say the result was horrendous, and the translations were quickly drawn back.
I will give another quick example to illustrate my point. Think of the sentence “A black cat crossed the road”. The meaning is simple enough and people usually learn to form such sentences quite early on when studying a foreign language. Translating it wouldn’t be hard task. However, the sentence doesn’t stand on its own in the text – it is part of the context, that is, the book. “A black cat crossed the road” would carry a completely different meaning in a paranormal mystery or a science-fiction novel set in space than in a novel about the suburban life in 1950s. Hence even such a simple phrase could be translated differently depending on the context. And that is a fraction of the magic of language. In a column published last year in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik describes translation as Word Magic. If you are interested in the subject, I highly recommend that you go and read Gopnik’s wonderful piece for it really does explain the challenges of translation even to those who are unacquainted with the field.
So what is translation for me as a translator, a student, language learner and an avid reader? Translation can be magical or it can be something completely ordinary. It can be awfully frustrating trying to come up with an colloquial expression that would carry the same meaning as the original or trying to hunt down a term that you’ve never heard before. But it can also be very rewarding as upon researching the use of an idiom you also learn something new every day (that’s right – I didn’t of the etymology of the “Good day, axe-handle” idiom before I looked it up for this post). It is understandably harder to translate the witty nonsense verses of Lewis Carroll than, say, Gillian Flynn, but both have their own challenges and require time, skills and effort from the translator. Thus it would be more than amazing if these people were to receive more credit for their hard work than they currently do. Because sometimes it takes a translation to make a decently selling book a bestseller.