Re: RARA-AVIS: Books in Translation

From: Karin Montin (
Date: 17 Oct 2004

At 04:31 PM 17/10/2004 +0100, Donna wrote:

>I find books in translation a bit patchy. I think the extra layer of
>the translation gets in the way and makes me feel a bit distanced from
>the story and characters sometimes. That's not a very good way of
>explaining it but it's all I can come up with. I think the translation
>is a big factor and if I don't particularly like one book I try and find
>one by a different translator if at all possible. I find Henning
>Mankell rather flat too Karin (although there was a lot about the one I
>read that I did like), and because there were parts I did like, I put
>the flatness down to the translation rather than the author :o)
>Interesting that you should get that feeling after reading two different

I'm a translator myself, so I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the translator. (I might be less inclined to do so if the shoe were on the other foot.) As in any profession, there are good, bad and average practitioners, and every shade in between. In a translation, it's easy enough to strike a wrong note once in a while, but I think it would be kind of hard to produce a consistent tone that was at odds with the original throughout. Generally speaking, if the writer's sentences are short and clipped, the translator's tend to be; if the writer's terms are slangy, the translator's should be, etc.

Ideally, a translation should read as it would if the author had been able to write it in the target language. Obviously that's not really possible (or even necessarily possible to judge that way) because often what is being described would not happen in the world in which the target language is spoken. Jose Latour mentioned that difficulty.

>A panel I went to at Harrogate with 4 Europena crime fiction authors on
>talked about this issue. All of them are published in a number of
>languages and, on the whole they have to rely on their translators to do
>a good job as they (the authors) have no say in the choice of translator, nor (mostly) any contact with the translator (although there were a couple of exceptions to this). Where they DID have contact with the translators, these seemed to be the most successful translations.

It's not surprising that contact between translator and author results in a better translation. Most of the time I have questions for the author, whether the text is a Web site, a business report, a technical paper or a literary work. The author is in the best position to explain ambiguities, jargon, unusual idioms and other things (mistakes) that make a text hard to understand. When you're simply reading, it doesn't matter to anyone else whether you understand every single word or idea. When you're reading with a view to saying the same thing again in another language for other readers, you have to understand a lot more.

What is surprising to me is that not all authors hear from their translators, although strangely, my most unpleasant experiences have been with the literary authors I've written to. They're the ones who didn't reply for months, and were condescending and dismissive. Probably just my bad luck.

I asked Jose Latour why he wrote Outcast in English rather than having it translated. But he dodged the question of why he didn't get a translator when he said that he wanted to reach a wider English-speaking audience. He admitted that writing in English was extremely difficult and that he was dismayed to find out from his editor how many mistakes he made. I suspect that as he didn't yet have an English-language publisher, he didn't want to pay for the translation himself.

By the way, when asked why he had chosen to live in Canada--and he's only been here a little over a month, having spent two years in Spain waiting to be accepted--he said it was the closest thing to a democracy he could find.


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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 17 Oct 2004 EDT