Two weeks ago I did a mishmash of a ‘review’ about two, (at least), books and touched on the fact that they were translated. Something that had been nagging in the back of my head for many decades came to the front:
“How much of the original writer’s work do we see in a translation?”
Granted, the STORY may come through pretty well intact, but even then, there are nuances and subtleties in the wordings or descriptions which the original writer may have placed in purposely but were lost to the translator.
Example? As I wrote about Boris Pasternak in the review, in translation one of his poems reads: “A candle burned on the table; a candle burned”, yet in another translation it reads: “A candle flamed upon a table; a candle flamed”.
I am sure everyone who is a reader, let alone a writer, can see the difference.
When I was a teen I would watch a ‘ladies’ talk show with my mother and one segment always stayed with me. A woman guest was about to sing a song in French, but first, she offered the translation and added, (dewy-eyed), “Isn’t that beautiful?” Her host blurted out, “But it doesn’t rhyme!” The singer looked back at the other woman and said coolly, “It does in French.
We know and love many songs that have been translated. Lyrics have to be changed to conform to the music, be made to rhyme, and be altered because our cultures often do not use the same phrases. How do we know what is lost from the original language, the words that did not fit or could not be translated? Could there have be an insufficiency of the translator’s knowledge that led them to the wrong choice of words? In all works nuances make all the difference. In poetry or song lyrics they must also fit into the meter/rhyme, so other choices are made. Are they always right?
Any writer who slaves lovingly over a piece of work looking for just the right word/words could have it all come down quickly with one misstep by a translator. After all, who knows every word in their own language, let alone another, or the soul of the piece that the writer wished to impart?
I remember the trouble that I had trying to name a polka-dotted dog which was a present to my then-infant son. “Spot” seemed perfect, but the presenter had brought it back from Brazil and I wanted to make the name reflect that. I am not sure I ever got it right, because I had no one who could speak Brazilian Portuguese near me and dictionaries at the time gave me lists which included the words meaning “Dot”, “Smudge”, “Splotch”, “Daub”, “Blotch”, “Speck”, as any dictionary in any langue would. There was no way for me to sort out which actually meant ‘Spot’; if indeed a word that corresponds to ‘spot’ actually exists, (which I realize now, as I write this 35 years later, may not.)
Conversely, how much might a translator improve upon the original? Did they see something that, in their opinion, could be better phrased or convey a deeper feeling than the writer’s original work?
So, there are liberties that need to be taken. Pasternak was thrilled that one of the translators of his poetry “Captured the spirit” of his work, but not the faithfulness of the wording. I took Russian for a semester decades ago. I didn’t get far; it’s a difficult language. It was night school, I was pregnant, I wasn’t all that interested by then and the lack of articles and pronouns, (“Vera teacher. Vera home. Vera sick.”), got on my nerves. How do you translate works written like that, and make it flow to Western ears, without doing a little ‘embroidering’?
How we know if the original writer is a better or a lesser-skilled writer than the translator?
One writer I know was contacted by the publishers of her books in Japan. One of her characters called someone a ‘name’, but it was unfamiliar to the translators. The writer told them to choose a typical Japanese insult, but something was going to be lost, since the word the writer had chosen was a semi-sanitized version of a nasty insult, which truly added to the amusing nature of the character.
I was never taught Italian, but heard it from my mother and her siblings when they spoke among themselves and the phrases which Mom used to say to us to make points, ( or to be subtle), yet I can still poke The Husband in the ribs when someone speaks Italian in a show or movie and the subtitles get it wrong; there are differences. So, I asked a friend in Italy some years ago about the dubbing in the movie “Shrek” when he mentioned seeing it with his family, because I could not imagine that particular movie without the great voice characterizations. The movie was huge a hit there, but he told me that there were no accents; Shrek only had a deep, gruff voice and Donkey had a high, squeaky one. How much was lost! Think of it: Shrek’s “You’re goin’ the right way for a smacked bot-om”, or Donkey’s “Can I stay wh’chu?”, gone. How can they be anywhere near as funny, if funny at all? But I digress, I suppose.
I don’t know about you, but if I like the style of writer I will read their works, even if it is not their best effort, just to enjoy the way they put words together. Hemingway certainly fits into this slot for me; in fact, I believe that I have mentioned, I can’t say that I have truly enjoyed any of his stories, but I am mesmerized by his style. Certain poets certainly get my attention, and even songs that may not be great works of art can truly ‘grab’ me if they are cleverly written. I love plays on words. You can’t have the original plays on words in translations. You can read footnotes in translated books, (if they are added), but it destroys the flow of the story, especially any dialogue.
How does Hemingway play out in another language? Or for that matter, Shakespeare? Think of all of Old Will’s plays on words, indeed, his COININGS of words and phrases, how does that work in other languages?
How much have we missed in translations from other languages?
Have you given any thought to translations?
Have you ever wanted to read a translated work in the original language?