Friday, February 27, 2004

In Translation

The Bookman and I watched the movie Lost in Translation last night, a wonderful flick if you haven't yet seen it. It got me started thinking about books in translation and the whole art of translating (the movie has nothing to do with books, but in my mind everything gets connected with books). Translating is an art. In an early scene of the movie Bob (Bill Murray) is in Japan filming a whiskey commercial, the Japanese director of the commercial talks long and passionately in Japanese about what he wants Bob to do. The translator boils it down to "he wants you to turn and look intense." Bob asks which way he should turn and the translator says a lot for such a short question to which the director replies with an even longer response and the translator tells Bob to "just turn with intensity." And Bob asks, "is that all he said because it seemed like he had a lot more to say." Sometimes when I read a book in translation, especially if it isn't very good, I wonder what happened? What was left out? Is this what the original was like? I felt that way reading Paradise of the Blind a fascinating novel about Vietnam. I also wondered about Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrenstein, a Dutch novelist. The book was a bestseller in her country but I found myself wondering why. When I am reading a book in translation and I don't like it, I always wonder if it is the story I don't like or the translation? In the last decade it has become popular in translated poetry books to have the original poem on one page and the translation on the other. This is all fine and good but it helps me not a bit. Sure I took Spanish in high school, but that was long ago and it doesn't help me when it comes to reading Pablo Neruda. I suppose it is interesting to see how the original poem looks on the page in comparison with the translation, but really what is the purpose of having the original and the translation side by side? If I could read the original I wouldn't need the translated version. I have read some amazing books in translation. These books were so good that not once did I think about it as being translated. Here are a few I highly recommend:

  • Twenty Poems by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and translated by Vera Sandomirsky Dunham and Jane Kenyon (a wonderful poet herself).
  • Blindness by Portuguese author Jose Saramago and translated by Giovanni Pontiero. This book is about what happens when everyone suddenly goes blind. An interesting study in human nature.
  • If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, translated from the Italian by William Weaver. This gem is about a man that just wants to find out how the book ends.
  • Too Loud a Solitude by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Michael H. Heim. The main character job is compacting paper trash and he has made it his mission to save as many books that come his way as he can.
I have also not yet met a book by Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez that I did not like. I've begun the long journey which is Marcel Proust with the Kilmartin and Scott-Moncrieff translation. A new translation by Lydia Davis came out in the fall of last year but it hasn't gotten very good reviews. A new translation which has gotten great reviews, and which I hope to acquire, is Edith Grossman's Don Quixote. While it sure seems like there is a huge choice of translated books, it isn't really so. Many of the books that get translated are the "classics" or come from big names like Allende and Marquez, and were originally written in Spanish or other European language. It is only in the last few years that Japanese fiction has begun being translated with any sort or regularity. Whether this is due to the popularity of Japanese graphic novels and comics or someone finally having an "aha" moment we may never know. The important thing is that it is being translated. We not only broaden our understanding of the world by reading translations, we also make a human connection--people in Vietnam get hungry just like I do, people in Nigeria feel sad just like I do, people in Russia feel scared just like I do and people in China get mad at their government just like I do. The way I see it, the more access we have to literature from other countries the more likely we are to learn something about the other country and about ourselves. And that can only be a good thing. Let's hope that publishers will start making an effort to not only translate works from other countries, but to translate them well.