Missed In Translation Part 1

The Arts

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)

15 comments on “Missed In Translation Part 1”

  1. Helen+Martin says:

    These are the questions I find myself asking when reading anything in translation. I am not fluent in foreign languages (Ha! I can barely manage the French above.) so I wonder how accurate the translations I read are. I just finished The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn and felt a definite Russianness to it, so I thought it’s probably pretty close. (That’s a weird story, by the way and I think those brothers should have stuck to science fiction) It’s one thing when you feel you’re travelling through two cultures (the original and your own) but it becomes bizarre when you have three (the original, yours, and the translator’s. That’s what happens for you, Chris, when you get Americanisms in a translation from Korean, but what is the translator to do? Slang is culturally specific so you can’t do a literal translation which is what was done with some Chinese texts so you get silly sounding phrases and names (to English ears) but turning it into comfortable English threatens to lose all colour. Our library had some of the Asterix graphics in the original French. Have you ever tried those pirates in the original? I really admire the job Anthea Bell did on those.
    What about Shakespeare? Do translators use 17th century language for him or modern? If they use modern it could make the plays more accessible to foreign readers than to native English speakers. (More to follow probably.)

  2. Roger says:

    I remember coming across a translation of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich where all of the Russian prison slang had been carefully turned into American prison slang, which took away much of the book’s point.
    Some years ago there was a series of books in Penguin Classics, which just consisted of extracts from a classic poet with various English translations. It showed just how astonishingly wide translation could be,

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    Analysis or close reading and/or translation of Flaubert is especially fraught and unsurprisingly, often generates the kind of analytical “head scratching” Julian Barnes obviously went through. Flaubert was a stickler for le mot juste and as I mentioned elsewhere in comments, is credited with coining the phrase. However, as can be appreciated, a good many of those “right” words have changed since the middle of the 19th c. when he started writing.

    He is also fond of dialect, idioms (of the times) and other idiosyncratic language so — short of being able to ask M. Flaubert himself what he means — or, as CF suggests, Juliet Herbert, his contemporary translator and quite possibly paramour — Flaubert’s language and usage easily lend themselves to multiple explications. And this does not take into account the danger of parsing his sentences because of a definite rhythm and cadence (often more like poetry than prose) or critically, his camera-like eye for descriptive detail, as befits the originator of the modern novel, if not the modern narrative.

    This is all (in ponderous detail) by way of saying, that Flaubert is, in fact, an excellent example of the practical (and ethical ?) conundrum of translation. How to do justice, especially perhaps to an unconventional original, while at the same time making it as accessible as possible to the reader in a different language ? An issue, no doubt, for B&M. It certainly allows for full employment for translators but it also raises a matter that has bothered me for some time. That is, am I reading what the author wrote or the self-granted artistic license of the translator ? I have read several translations where that was the case. In other words, how much is “too much” translation ? Of course, unless you can read (and usually, read well) in the original language that may, in fact, be unknowable. But then again, is that absolutely necessary ? It’s like that metaphysical question about a tree falling in a forest with no one around. Or, put another way, can ignorance of the original still provide bliss in translation ?

  4. SteveB says:

    It’s always a different experience reading something in the original language.
    I sometimes have to translate stuff for my work. When i read my first draft fresh on the next day, I can always make it a lot better
    It’s funny also how some simple things don’t have (afaik) an easy translation in English, the german word gönnen springs to mind

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    @ admin There appear to be a number of factors determining why so few popular European novels are translated into English. One is cost as you suggested — both of the translation and for promotion. For example, the minimum UK rate recommended by PEN and the Society of Authors for translation is £95 per 1,000 words and of course, while negotiable, can rise significantly with the complexity and length of the publication, as well as the notoriety of the author.

    More mundane but significant factors include the fact that few people in mainstream publishing speak other languages, which tends to foster continued insularity and risk aversion when it comes to all but surefire international bestselling European authors and books The exceptions are the smaller imprints like Pushkin. The decline of independent bookshops as traditional outlets for translated works is yet another contributing factor.

    And last, but certainly not least, is the near-term health of the UK publishing industry in light of Brexit. For example, for decades, the UK has had the Continental European market to itself, selling English-language editions of books in France, Italy and every other country in the European Union. This helped turn it into the largest book exporter in the world — Europe being its largest export market. With American publishers planning a European invasion post-Brexit and UK publishers thus facing major competition for the first time and higher costs, the fallout could be serious.

  6. Peter+T says:

    We have a problem of transfer of information, communication. Every stage in the transmission is an extra layer of interpretation and corruption. The presence of the translator doubles the potential corruption. From decades of exposure to neuro-typical language and explanations both from my late editor and from LOML, I’ve slowly learnt about the subtleties of language. The type of description that Flaubert uses doesn’t come naturally to me. Growing like a tree? That’s not a technically useful analogy for the development of a human body. Logically, it’s a joke, quite laughable; let’s go further and compare human hair to oak leaves. However, trees excite images in the mind, images that depend on our environment. To an Englishman an oak is a robust material for construction of buildings and sailing ships. The solitary oak is a heroic figure, a sea captain, a refuge for the defeated prince. To other nationalities, trees may be marching soldiers, courageous or villainous conquerors. There are other possibilities, notably phallic. As for the beautiful colour, what’s good for an oak tree? Probably ruddy is better than rosy, but what’s the difference?

    My editor’s view that the problem with individual words that appear difficult or impossible to translate can be one of original meaning. Often, the original user doesn’t know precisely what they intended. The word is vague and has many similar meanings, possibly so vague that it says little beyond the fact that a good or bad emotion is involved. Examples in English are ‘nice’ and ‘cosy.’

  7. Brooke says:

    “….few people in mainstream publishing speak other languages,..” and few US (big market) readers care to speak/read other languages. And long ago, adventurous imprints were gobbled up by conventionally- minded mainstream publishers (acquisition is facile way to grow the top line).
    Authors and translators also make marketing choices. E.g. Tokarczuk and translator Croft decided to translate to Bieguni as Flights. Both work but the religious grounding of the first is lost in the second.

  8. Brooke says:

    Conductors and musicians translate author/composer intentions and you can certainly hear the differences!

  9. Brooke says:

    We miss alot as English is not always easy to translate to English. Listen to Peter O’Toole, Orson Wells and Ernest Milton discuss Hamlet.

  10. Brooke says:

    SteveB, I’m sure you’ve tried the old trick of having another person translate back what you’ve written. Surprise!

  11. Peter+T says:

    Precise identification of frequencies emitted and absorbed by molecules is complicated by the fact that the molecules are moving: spikes or dips in a frequency spectrum are widened. The effect was studied by W.E. Lamb and led to the develoment of Lamb dip spectroscopy. Inevitably, re-translation gave the world Sheep-dip spectroscopy.

  12. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter+ T Unfortunately, there is nothing akin to precision spectroscopy of atoms and molecules in translation. There is, however, something similar to the phenomenon of “observational error,” or the difference between a measured value of a quantity and its true value, When dealing with human communication — be it written, spoken or other — there will always be inherent variability based, to a large extent, on the receiver of the communication. If I may attempt to extrapolate and thereby demonstrate some shabby erudition — an occasional ‘random error’ by the translator (or ‘receiver’) e.g. — the use of a commonly understood, but imprecise word or phrase, is generally acceptable, if it gets the author’s general meaning across.

    A ‘systematic error,’ on the other hand, where there is widespread evidence of a personal bias or the translator’s own artistic aspirations — benign though they may be, is not. Of course, this is not easy to determine on one reading of one book. It tends to reveal itself over several translated works by the same author. I think we have now departed shabby erudition and have entered the “Pedantry Zone,” so I’ll stop here.

  13. Helen+Martin says:

    I looked up gonnen (add umlaut) in our 1957 Cassell’s New German Dictionary and can see what Steven B means. The professors tried to explicate using a series of usage examples but it just provided a wide range of possible meanings. It might be subject to the suggestion that the author wasn’t being precise either so the translator would be justified in using an English phrase that carried the general sense of the passage.
    BTW, I knew our dictionary was old but I hadn’t thought about how old and what changes there have been in language usage in Germany since then. The politics of the later periods must have changed the colour of many words. What effect does the fact of academics being the dictionary makers have on our language resources? That dictionary appears to be based on a German speaker’s original work (judging by his name alone) with a complete re-editing being done by an English educated lecturer in Glasgow. How reassuring is the forward by a (apparently) German professor of Niederdeutsche Sprache und Literatur at Kiel? How old were all these gentlemen at the time? How dated, then, is their work? Should we care? Communication is difficult enough when the communicators share a language and lifetime, but throw in another language entirely and communication must be fraught at every step with snares and pits. Pedantry be d**.

  14. Peter+Dixon says:

    Without naming names, I read a pair of crime novels by a northern European author which I thoroughly enjoyed. I later read another two that had equally good plots but seemed somehow lacking in energy and more plodding – the difference seemed to be that there were two different translators. How much is lost? Who checks it?

  15. Helen+Martin says:

    The Dictionary of Lost Words (Pip Williams) is an interesting evocation of the creation of the OED. There is a detailed portrayal of the influences and standards used by the staff and editors when including words. The culmination of the exclusion of women was the celebratory dinner at which 3 vital women were “permitted” to sit in a balcony and watch the men eat. The parallel fight to extend the franchise to women is included. It’s a very good demonstration of the way women and non-academic people were excluded from consideration. Loved the way it was stressed that Australian women had had the vote for decades by the time England gave in. Just saying.

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