- why I blog about books,
- how I rate my books,
- following book lists,
- planning the books to be read,
- and signed books.
So for the third quarter of the year, let’s talk about books translated into other languages. This topic has been bothering me for the past couple of weeks, and we have two books to blame: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. For the first book, I have this unquenchable desire to immediately read the translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find a copy. As for the second book, I was going to start reading Ralph Manheim’s translation when by some accident, I found out that he made some omissions from the original text.
I put it back on my shelf and asked the local book stores if they have the Breon Mitchell translation available. I’m luckier with this one; I am currently reading it and I am not making a lot of progress because I often find myself comparing it with the older translation that propelled Grass to worldwide fame and ultimately, to the Nobel.
With my minor comparisons (really, I just picked some notorious paragraphs and winding sentences), I found out that the meaning is not lost. The thought is still there, although one could discern the style of the translator with his diction. Let’s take the opening paragraph of each translation.
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed like me.
Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can’t see through blue-eyed types like me.
Not a lot of difference, right? Yes, but for the reader who’s sensitive to style, there’s something to consider. Disclaimer: I am no literary person. I didn’t major in the letters, I don’t work in the publishing industry. I am merely a reader who appreciates some style.
So please check out that second semi-colon in Manheim’s version; it is dropped in Mitchell’s version. The first translation sounds a little terse to me because of the repeated punctuation mark; the other one is more fluid, which is, according to Grass himself, the narrator’s manner of speaking. This is may be something only for the finicky reader, but if we consider the cumulative effect of trying to make the two languages as parallel as possible, it is worth obsessing which translation to read.
The rest of the first page consists mostly of differences in word choice. Everything seems to be present. I wonder what’s omitted from the older translation?
I jumped to the afterword and found out that there weren’t more than five whole sentences omitted. One of them is about a comparison of a smell with that of a condom, and another one is about the splattering of semen somewhere. Others are hard to translate German dialogues that play with sound and style, and these were either dropped or translated into readable English.
To illustrate that, here’s another example, and with this, we will truly appreciate the insurmountable effort that translators put in their craft.
From the original text:
Auch fiel mir auf, das Tätigkeiten wie: Daumendrehen, Stirnrunzeln, Köpfchensenken, Händeschütteln, Kindermachen, Falschgeldprägen, Lichtausknipsen, Zähneputzen, Totschießen und Trockenlegen überall, wenn auch nicht gleichmäßig geschickt, geübt wurden.
I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill.
And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill.
Whoa! I don’t understand German, but looking at those German words mostly ending in -en (an assonance or consonance?), there’s a rhythmic pattern produced. And that took some time to type; I had to be loyal to the diacritical marks.
The same issue of being loyal to stylistic sound effects pervades the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. Take this short sentence: Kápli kápali. Obviously an alliteration, but older translations dropped the effect and turned it instead into “The branches dripped,” or “The trees were dripping.” The duo, which are my favorite translators, went with “Drops dripped.”
Also, the duo kept the French dialogues unchanged. That made reading the novel a little tougher since I had to refer to the footnotes for the English translations. Other translations, such as Constance Garnett’s, translated everything into English. Nothing wrong, but it felt that everyone was speaking the some tongue, which I think isn’t the effect intended by Tolstoy.
We barely have a clue on how translators work their magic and how they go about their translations. Should they be loyal to the text or should they make the text more readable? Should they preserve the feel and culture of the text or should they make the text fit the feel and culture of the language where it is being translated?
I can’t help pondering these questions because I love world literature. I want to read novels from as many countries as possible. I guess it’s my way of traveling and learning about the world. There’s so little time and we can only do so much. Not all of us can travel everywhere in this lifetime or learn the languages of lofty literature, so we have to thank these translators who do the dirty tasks for us.
In the photo below are shown some books which are not originally written in English and which I rated with either 4 or 5 stars. Below are their original titles and the translators I am indebted to:
- 2666 – ditto (translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)
- Atomised (UK); The Elementary Particles (US) – Les Particules Élémentaires (translated from French by Frank Wynne)
- Fatelessness – Sorstalanság (translated from Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson)
- The Gospel According to Jesus Christ – O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero)
- Hunger – Sult (translated from Norwegian by Robert Bly)
- Independent People – Sjálfstætt Fólk (translated from Icelandic by J. A. Thompson)
- The Land of Green Plums – Herztier (translated from German by Michael Hofmann)
- My Name Is Red – Benim Adım Kırmızı (translated from Turkish by Erdağ M. Göknar)
- Noli Me Tangere – ditto (translated from Spanish by Soledad Lacson-Locsin)
- One Hundred Years of Solitude – Cien Años de Soledad (translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa)
- The Piano Teacher – Die Klavierspielerin (translated from German by Joachim Neugroschel)
- The Tin Drum – Die Blechtrommel (translated from German by Breon Mitchell)
- War and Peace – Война и миръ (translated from Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)
Some notes on this list: I guess I’d have to hunt for other translations of my favorite book, Hunger. There are two more by George Egerton and Sverre Lyngstad. And look! That’s nine languages of great literature!
And oh, I made it seem here that Breon Mitchell is butchering Ralph Manheim’s work. That is not the case. The former is actually very grateful to the latter. He just had the great opportunity to work with Gunter Grass himself in coming up with a 50th anniversary edition of his first novel. He also mentioned that new translations for great works of literature are necessary for they do not endure as long as the original text. In addition, new translations of any work do not seek to be a better edition. Rather, they present different reading experiences that are totally separate from each other.
So if I get the translation that I don’t dig, I shouldn’t worry too much, right? I guess I should just do some more research when it comes to this matter. And good thing that I learned early on that the Fahnestock-MacAfee translation of Les Miserables is the one that I might enjoy. The book is just too damn long for me to read another translation of it.