A tribute to translators

Today I saw the longlist for The 2011 BTBA Fiction Longlist.

I am lucky in that I know four languages – the perks of coming from an international background (or, how my other-half ‘endearingly’ puts it, “being a mutt”). And I do love languages, all with their own unique rhythms, inflections, tones and expressions.

So I am truly grateful for the luxury of being able to read, say, a Spanish novel, in its original form, experiencing the full flow and nuance of the language which may have been lost in a translation. And it is also why I have a huge amount of respect for talented book translators – whose job it is to battle with the differences between two languages, whilst retaining the essence of the original narrative and author’s writing style, which lies at the heart of the book’s success. It is indeed a true talent.

Just by comparing the translated titles on the list with the original titles can highlight how tricky a feat it can be.  Granted, translating Los Minutos Negros into The Black Minutes is pretty straightforward, but things are rarely that simple.

Take the French novel by Jacques Chessex, orginally entitled Un Juif pour l’exemple, which has been translated by Donald Wilson to a distinctly more brazen title, A Jew Must Die. It is a clear case of where the more beautiful subtleties of expression in a language is lost. The phrase ‘Un Juif pour l’exemple’ implies the punishment of a race through one man, without needing to spell out the words “punishment” or “die”. However, to have used a more literal translation ‘A Jew as example’ would not have evoked the same power in its meaning, nor have the same ring to it as a title for a book. Basically, Wilson knows what he’s doing. (Not to mention we Anglophiles are probably used to bolder titles and covers – compare this picture to the more subdued French cover here.)

I also was interested to see that the publishers felt the title Bad Nature, by Javier Marías (the literal translation to Mala Indole) might not have been enough to attract an English/American audience so they opted for an extended title Bad Nature or With Elvis in Mexico. (It works – Elvis? – I’m intrigued).

So, anyway, I thought I’d end this week with a little tribute to these translators who allow us to discover new writers from around the world, and thus broaden our reading horizons.

One last comment. A question, in fact. There are seven novels in French on the longlist, five in Spanish and four in German. The remaining eight titles are from authors writing in Afrikaans, Arabic, Croatian, Hebrew, Norwegian, Polish, Czech and Swedish. A nice range. But should we gather from this that the French-language novelists are leading the pack in talent, or merely that we have better French to English translators in our midsts?  Food for thought…

Chiara Priorelli, Publicity & Online Marketing Manager

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3 thoughts on “A tribute to translators”

  1. A very interesting post. I’ve read A Jew Must Die so your post is particularly apt for me. I was actually a bit put off it by the English language title, I think the original one is better but I agree that it certainly does not translate literally very well. I wonder, though, whether the translator gets “last say” on the title of a book? I’ve heard many authors say that they don’t, the publisher sometimes imposes it. I think there was some kerfuffle over the translated Stieg Larsson titles, for example – particularly the first (originally “Men Who Hate Women”, the author’s choice) and the last (which in the original is something like “The Girl who Exploded Castles in the Air” , which relates to a well-known Swedish expression but does not translate at all. I think “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is quite a good English Language translation for that one.)

  2. With regards your question as to whether the French have more talent, or simply better translators… Well, I’m not going to undermine the French talent for writing, because if we look at the list of classic writers, there have always been a vast amount of French authors in that list!

    However, I will say this… like you, I know a few languages, and whenever I have to translate things, I find that my translating aides work best in English to French and vice versa. Both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, in my experience, and thus opinion, fall short in other languages when it comes to including the full essence of the words and/or their various usages/subtleties in different situations, phrasal verbs, idiomatic phrases, etc. I praise Collins/Robert dictionary no end and I’m still to come across another bilingual dictionary that can match, or come close to, its accuracy and precision in bringing the two languages together. And don’t get me started on my love and wonder of the Oxford dictionary!!

    Living in a country where most films are sub-titled as opposed to dubbed, I’m fortunate enough to be able to sit through them and merely shake my head at the mistranslations. I remember watching a wedding scene and glasses being clinked and the father of the bride saying: “Let’s make a toast” and the translation being that of toasted bread! In a country where they don’t hold the tradition of speeches at weddings, where it’s all about the FOOD… I guess asking everyone to get their toasters out made more sense to the translator than to actually stop eating and listen to some speech!!!

    In my humble opinion, translators should either be bilingual since childhood, or have spent a fair amount of years living in the respective countries that speak the languages they translate… because only then can anyone really know and understand the true essence of a particular language.

  3. I am the translator of “Un Juif pour l’exemple”/”A Jew must die.”
    In my experience — at least when the translation of a title isn’t as straightforward as ‘Los Minutos Negros’ — is usually the publisher who decides on the title of a book in translation. That was the case for this book, and also for another one I’ve just finished. Indeed, in the latter case I had no say at all: I was asked for suggestions, but none of them was accepted.
    I think the reason is that translators are more concerned with getting as close as possible to the original, while publishers want to have a title that sells.
    Sorry I didn’t find this blog sooner, but better late than never!

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