Missed In Translation Part 1
What do Korean gangsters have to do with Madame Bovary?
Their stories change according to who translates them into English. Translator Lydia Davis points out that she doesn’t have to enjoy what she’s translating; she does not care for Madame Bovary as a book or a character, but concentrates on accurately reflecting the author’s prose in English. Flaubert’s greatest translator was probably his contemporary Juliet Herbert, who has been wiped from history. Others may emphasise accuracy over artistry.
The recent Korean gangster film ‘Night in Paradise’ tries to render its truncated gang language with Americanisms that disastrously remove one from the moment, so that a Korean phrase loosely meaning ‘Get rid of the killer’ comes out as ‘toss the perp.’ All currency is translated into ‘bucks’ and fathers refer to their daughters as ‘Pumpkin’.
I remember seeing two versions of Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’ in which the voluptuous cigarette seller asks what she can do for the sex-fixated young hero. In the first, her deep-throated introduction is ‘Can I help you?’ In one dubbed version I’ve seen she squeaks ‘Wanna Lucky Strike?’. Complexities of character are removed to make way for clarity.
The brilliant Julian Barnes pulls out several examples by different translators to show what can happen in literature, and takes a sentence from the first pages of ‘Madame Bovary’. In his early years, Charles Bovary is allowed by his parents to run wild. Flaubert adds; ‘Aussi poussa-t-il comme un chêne. Il acquit de fortes mains, de belles couleurs.’ It seems pretty basic, but here are six attempts ranging over more than a century which attempt to translate such simple phrasing.
1) Meanwhile he grew like an oak; he was strong of hand, fresh of colour.
2) And so he grew like an oak-tree, and acquired a strong pair of hands and a fresh colour.
3) He grew like a young oak-tree. He acquired strong hands and a good colour.
4) He throve like an oak. His hands grew strong and his complexion ruddy.
5) And so he grew up like an oak. He had strong hands, a good colour.
6) And so he grew like an oak. He acquired strong hands, good colour.
All six contain the same information but each feels different. Barnes has further considerations (I apologise for quoting him at length but it’s fascinating stuff).
‘Whether to lay the paragraph out as two sentences or one; if the latter, then whether the break should be marked by a comma or a semicolon.
‘Whether, indeed, to lay it out as a separate paragraph anyway: thus 1) chooses to run it on at the end of the previous paragraph, which makes its summarising effect less pointed.
‘Whether poussa implies more vigour than the English ‘grew’: hence 4)’s ‘throve’ and 5)’s addition of the intensifying ‘up’.
‘Whether acquit is best rendered by a neutral word like ‘had’ or ‘was’; or whether it is a verb indicating a kind of action, intended to parallel poussa. Hence ‘acquired’ or ‘grew’ – though if you have ‘grew’ here, you need a different verb in the first sentence: hence ‘throve’.
‘Whether you need to – or can – keep the balance of ‘de fortes mains, de belles couleurs’. Only 1) does this by putting them both in the singular; the rest introduce an imbalance of number.
‘What to do about belles couleurs. All five translators agree that there is no way of preserving the plural form. But a) do you need to unpack this a little, and indicate that the young lad is acquiring a ‘fresh’ or ‘ruddy’ colour, or indeed ‘complexion’ (which decides that couleurs is limited to the face – though reference has already been made, on the novel’s first page, to his ‘red wrists’); or b) is it self-evident where the lad is, and what is happening to his skin, so a non-specific ‘good’ echoes a non-specific belles?’
Of course established classics require this level of attention but what a minefield it creates for the translator. Yet even a humble pulp paperback needs to be taken seriously enough to be translated accurately, and that costs money. Is this why so few popular European novels are translated into English?
(Part 2 to follow)