Missed In Translation Part 2

The Arts

‘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.


20 comments on “Missed In Translation Part 2”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    Cultural differences provide all sorts of practical and ethical pitfalls for accurate or “responsible” translation. And, of course, to compound the difficulties with fiction, you very likely have to come to grips with both argot and slang or jargon, to say nothing of profanity. Film translation (via subtitles) adds a degree of difficulty because you’re now dealing with gestures and, in general, a visual language that can certainly vary from culture to culture.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    I have the dubious distinction of having written (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” ) two “quality” porno films in two different languages. I say “written,” but it was almost exclusively a matter of setting or describing the non-erotic action in appropriate cultural terms, rather than dealing with dialogue. Of course, as might be imagined, dialogue is not a critical matter to begin with, whatever the language.

  3. admin says:

    Without having watched the film or looked it up, can anyone hazard a guess as to what that film is about? (I’ve seen it).

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    There is little question (with too few exceptions) that what books get translated or films made, has more to do these days with taxonomy, than literary merit or true entertainment value. Do the works fit neatly into categories ? If not, let’s find others that do after all — publisher x or studio y has had success with Korean period comedy (a notoriously difficult category to fill). While in the words of the inimitable Oscar, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” I would substitute “box office” or commercial success for “greatness.” Although “greatness” does sometime follow.

  5. Roger says:

    It may not be possible to translate Bryant & May into Japanese, but it would be possible to transmogrify them into Japanese, I think.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin I’ll take a wild guess that ‘Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn’ is not an off-center Romanian homage to the likes of Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote — and is either concerned with metaphorical or actual porn — or maybe both.

  7. admin says:

    It starts with an excruciating amateur hardcore video that escapes its owners’ clutches and gets out. A schoolteacher finds herself facing dismissal if she fails to undergo a trial before angry parents. Between the two events a history of the country reveals an inherent hypocrisy that will decide the outcome.

  8. Keith says:

    As an aside Chris I’d just like to say thanks making me laugh like I’ve never laughed before. My wife was actually concerned as I sat creased up on the sofa with tears rolling down my cheeks. The cause for this? Arthur Bryant in Tavistock Hall dressing for dinner in clothes belonging to a circus clown, with rotating bow tie, striped braces and tap shoes. It was the funniest thing I’ve read in years. Bravo!
    (Hall of Mirrors)

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin With cinemas, including independent or art cinemas dying (murdered, some would say, by the streaming services), and certainly being helped along “…into that good night” by the pandemic — I would be surprised if  ‘Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn’ found its way to more than a handful of art houses.

    Although, the fact that it won the top prize at this year’s Berlinale film festival and — considering the ever-growing (and seemingly instantaneously generated) number of “categories” on Netflix — there now has to be one for “award-winning experimental Romanian films about sex, justice and communal madness.” And if not Netflix, another of the niche streaming services that seem to pop up daily (sarcasm supplied),

  10. Wayne+Mook says:

    I enjoyed Hell Train but then I am an old horror film fan, especially old British horror films and Hammer. That’s a new cover the old German cover was like the English version, looks like it did well over there.

    I’ve been trying to learn Portuguese (and doing very badly) and the basic phrases change the meaning compared to English, let alone more complex sentences and idioms.


  11. admin says:

    The funny thing is I was trying to get away from horror clichés, and then they produced that cover!

  12. SteveB says:

    I loved Hell Train and thought the cover was great!!!

  13. Helen+Martin says:

    So did I and I don’t even like horror films/books. I miniaturized the cover to create a billboard on a model railroad for Hallowe’en. Perhaps that indicates how lightly I took the book.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    Not surprised that CF spent months re-editing “Hell Train” for the German market. The Germans take their horror very seriously, In fact, it has been argued that horror films, ghost stories and scary fairy tales are an integral part of the construction of the German identity. The Brothers Grimm are aptly named. And, of course, films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “Nosferatu” and “Waxworks,” had a profound influence on both British and American horror films.

  15. Keith says:

    In the 70s up until the late 80’s you could easily judge a horror book by it’s cover. Searching bookstores was easy, and the horror fiction shelves were a delight to behold. The artwork was imaginative and dedicated. Artists used their ability to bring the subject matter to life. Nowadays covers for horror novels seem to have become so bland, or just like anything else that isn’t horror. You could be holding a horror novel, or maybe it could be a Rom-com. Perhaps authors don’t want to be shoe-horned into the ‘horror-writer’ category nowadays. It seems to me like a whiff of genre snobbery. Pulp genre fiction has become afraid to say what it actually is. I’d much rather have a book with a cover in the classic aesthetic gory style than just a cheap graphic print. I don’t particularly like ‘slasher’ horror, but picking up amazing novels by Thomas Tessier, K.W.Jeter, Thomas Tryon, Dan Simmons, Jack Ketchum and others, well you knew you had something good just looking at the cover.

  16. Jan says:

    I might have completely misunderstood this but maybe with this change of writing style you have not only made your novels more translatable and a less “dense” read but you might have cracked the Stephen King trick.

    It’s easy really the change of style creating a simpler straightforward prose tale. Like listening to the bloke sat next to you at a bar or cafe who tells you a story …… in some way stories told very simply in everyday language can be more chilling and hold the reader’s attention and in some way I am too lacking in the brains or more complex language to be able to fully explain they hold the attention more. You aren’t distracted by the fancy words so the storytelling works better

    Not explained this very well I don’t think.

  17. Paul C says:

    That’s all perfectly lucid, J – popular novels written in the plain style are books I can lose myself in completely and forget that I’m reading a book. Literary fiction on the other hand is written in a way that I’m conscious of the prose style and always aware that I’m a reading a book. I like both approaches but you’re right : pure storytelling is more absorbing in a plain style.

  18. Helen+Martin says:

    I just finished Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy which kept me enthralled through all 500 and some pages. There’s nothing simple about the book which changes narrator several times as well as who the reader is assumed to be. The vocabulary is certainly not simple, nor is the sentence structure, but I agree with Jan and wish I could decide just what constitutes the simplicity of the narration. It may be the ideas at the heart of the book (what is it that could draw a person to spy for both sides of a struggle?) or the characters involved (Mary is so clear and Jack Brotherhood and Axel represent the two sides) but you can’t easily pin it down.

  19. Stu-I-Am says:

    In fiction, there are writers of sentences and paragraphs — wonderful sentences and glorious paragraphs — and then there are writers of stories.

  20. Andrew+Holme says:

    We’ve been here before concerning ‘writers of stories’ rather than ‘writers of sentences.’ Lee Child, everyone.

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