Tuesday, September 6, 2011

You must translate: 'tis fit we understand them.

One of the things that appeals to me about Time's list of 100 novels, is the fact that they are all English-language books.  I don't say this because I have something against other languages.  Nor do I think their books to be inferior or anything like that.  But I am always a little leery of translated books, because I'm not reading the author's words.

If translations and languages worked in a simple, linear form, then this wouldn't be a problem; 'A' in this language equals 'B' in this language.  Of course this isn't the case, and as a result, you could be getting two very different books.  Just as we all interpret a book differently, be it the themes, the characters' motives, anything, it would be impossible for a translator not to do the same thing.  Each translation will be different.

I recently finished reading Funeral for a Dog, German author Thomas Pletzinger's first novel.  I found it to be an enjoyable read, following a journalist, Daniel Mandelkern, and his quest to interview Dirk Svensson, a reclusive children's author.  The book has a couple of different story lines, following each man's past, the present and their interview, as well as the story of Lua, a three-legged dog, who's fate shouldn't be a surprise to the reader.

While I was enjoying the story (it starts out a little slow but the second half was quite engaging), and I was enjoying the characters, both of whom had interesting back stories, I always knew in the back of my mind it was a translation.  I know I should be more open, but I fear that I'm not getting what Pletzinger had intended.  When Daniel thinks of himself as Nick Carraway, interviewing Svensson's Jay Gatsby, I couldn't help wonder if Pletzinger originally referred to a notable German novel instead of a staple of American fiction.

I also wonder how much of the word play and language was 'lost in translation.'  I was recently talking to someone about this, when they mentioned there was a line in The Little Prince, which in French read, "tu n'est pas un champion, tu est un champignon."  While it is clever in French, the English translation of "you're not a champion, you're a mushroom" doesn't necessarily carry the same meaning.  It simply cannot be translated without either losing the pun or losing the meaning.

Of course this isn't paramount to the enjoyment or appreciation of the book, but it was something I was always thinking about, and perhaps always distracted by, to some small degree.  This doesn't mean I will shun non-English books because of this, and am sure I will be reading more foreign works in the future.  But it is why I will always prefer to read an English book over one written in a different language.

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