Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Lost in translation

The Jumping Frog: 
In English, then in French, 
then Clawed Back 
into a Civilized Language Once More 
By Patient, Unremunerated Toil
By Mark Twain

     In my last post on Jorge Luis Borges, I referred to an earlier post on the difficulties of translation. Upon checking, I never published or completed that post. No time like the present ...

      What spurred the post was a review of a new book, or at least a newly translated book, by Argentinian author Cesar Aira.  It sounded interesting, so I went to Amazon to see what he had in print in translation. I was surprised to see every one of his listed titles had a second author appended: Cesar Aira and ... . The second author was the translator. I don't recall most books in translation having a similar translator co-author credit, and it seems that the books themselves list the credit more traditionally, but maybe it should be a shared credit. 
    As anyone who has compared different translations of the same book can attest, translation is as much an art as an exact science. Mark Twain so disapproved of one translation of his "Jumping Frog" story that he re-translated it back to English, and published it, along with the original and the translation, as humor and/or an object lesson. (A recent similar experiment, with no satiric intent, is The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith.)
     There was some controversy a few years ago about whether Jerzy Kosinski and Vladimir Nabokov had actually written some of their early books in English or whether they had written them in their native tongues and then had someone else translate them. Both denied it, knowing that to admit it would be to diminish their accomplishments. (If true, it's hard to believe the translators kept quiet all this time.)
     I believe I have already commented on how Jules Verne was ill-served by his English translators -- they not only picked the wrong translation of a word but they also cut passages -- but even a conscientious translator can have difficulties. Even the author would have a hard time. Then, too, there would be the temptation to revise or rethink passages (as Jorge Luis Borges may have done with Norman Thomas di Giovanni).  
     It might almost be true to say that it is pointless to read translations except to learn factual information. 
     I long ago decided that it was absurd to read poetry -- which depends on rhyme and meter -- in translation, unless the original text is reproduced on the facing page. (I came to this conclusion after reading a short French poem in a translated novel. The original French was included, and even my then spotty French was sufficient to see that the second and third lines were rearranged in order for the translator to wring a rhyme out of his adaptation of the poem. I discovered similar problems with the translations of Jaques Brel songs in the show Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The original, "Les Timides," or "The Timid Ones" -- as "Les Miserables" means "The Miserable Ones" -- was changed to "Timid Frieda" to maintain the syllable count, which changed the song from one about a group or type of person to the story of one timid girl.) I also prefer if it is a language I can at least pronounce approximately.
     Another difficulty is whether you can trust the translator. For The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, director Wes Anderson hired Brazilian singer Seu George to perform Portuguese versions of several David Bowie songs. It was later alleged that rather than provide accurate translations, George just kept the chorus and the music, writing completely different lyrics. The songs still sounded good, and I enjoy them on the soundtrack album, but if true that's not what Anderson paid for. I wonder what lyrics Portuguese listeners hear.
     I'm not sure how much a specific language matters in terms of thought and meaning, but it must have an influence. In the French film Ridicule, a deaf student makes a pun that can only be appreciated by someone who knows sign language. Some jokes likewise evade translation among languages and cultures. So that's why I'm leery when reading works in translation.


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