Missed In Translation Part 2
‘The Passenger’ by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (passim) from Pushkin Press in the UK, has been translated clearly and concisely to echo its original German by a US translator, and I had to keep stepping over what were for me jarring Americanisms – ‘gotten’, train station’, ‘she wrote me’, etc – minor inconveniences when set against the gratitude I feel for any kind of translation at all, but inevitably reflecting the nationality of the translator and the publisher paying for it.
The brilliant and much loved French suspense writers Boileau and Narcejac wrote a book called ‘La Villa d’en Face’ – The house opposite. But in the context of the book it can also suggest ‘exposed’. Which version do you go with? ‘Boileau and Narcejac – 40 years of suspense’ runs to five volumes of their best stories and novels and has never been translated into English. They wrote ‘Vertigo’, for God’s sake, it regularly tops critics’ polls for the best film ever made, yet their work continues to be held back by one language.
In one of my many poorly paid jobs I translated European film titles into English ones. Claude Chabrol made a late film called ‘Poulet Au Vinaigre’, a French dinner dish, but there’s a pun here; a ‘poulet’ can be someone young and inexperienced, so the title also means ‘innocent dropped into poisonous atmosphere’. I was asked to provide a UK title for the film that was still in French but would draw an easy French parallel so that the arthouse crowd could still pronounce it. I came up with ‘Cop Au Vin’, which did as much of the heavy lifting as it could do.
When I wrote ‘Hell Train’ as what I term a ‘sorbet book’ I just wanted to tackle something fun after coming off a long, hard-researched novel. On the surface it’s five interlinked supernatural stories set on a German train, but beneath it there’s a screenwriter’s battle to deliver a script in one week for the ailing Hammer film studios, so there are in-jokes about the production for those in the know that don’t intrude upon the attention of the uninitiated.
When my German publisher appointed an editor, he and I entered a months-long re-edit that delved deeply into German culture, the manufacture of train engines, entomology, film history and the Holocaust, but not the in-jokes. It wasn’t what I had expected from a meta-thriller about B movies, but I was thrilled by his attention to detail.
As always, good translation mainly comes down to cost. I have several friends who translate for a living, and the pay rate is so low that they usually churn through a vast amount each day to make ends meet. This year has at least been wonderful for translated books and films. This year we’ve had a chance to discover what else is out there.
Some works are so densely allusive that they will never be translated. The Bryant & May books only exist in English because they are too complex to translate, whereas my earlier, simpler books were translated into Russian, Japanese and most European languages.
My thriller ‘Hot Water’, coming soon from Titan Books, uses this simpler, less allusive language which I hope will allow it to reach a wider readership. I used the style on ‘Little Boy Found’ (I wish I’d had the courage to stick with the original title) and found it worked well for psychological suspense. It would certainly make a decent offering against some of the rubbish Netflix has adapted lately.
Thanks to the might of the US entertainment machine I’ve been bombarded since birth with US pop-culture, which can throw up gems from ‘Back to the Future’ to ‘Winter’s Bone’, but it’s why I now prefer to see more global work. I would love to watch the Netflix reaction to ‘Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn’, a satire on social, sexual and political hypocrisy in Romania that would be unimaginable as an English language remake. One person’s meat remains – despite translation – another person’s poison.