Lost in translation

21:02, Dec 02 2013

Asking a reader to name their "all-time favourite titles" is like asking a parent to choose between their children. All are dear in their own special way, though also with frustrating flaws that will provoke deep-seated and complicated feelings at times.

I have avoided making a list of ultimate favourites so far on this blog for that very reason. Because the books you love will change with the passing of time and life stages. However, like past loves, that does not mean the books you once adored so much that you couldn't bear to be parted from them are meaningless once they have fallen off the "favourites" list.

In my own rambling way, I'm introducing the topic of this post: books that have been translated into English. It has to be English, because I sadly can't read any other languages with enough fluency to devour whole books.

One of the books on my all-time favourites list that I love is a translated version of A Dream of Red Mansions, a Chinese classic written centuries ago that is also called The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone, depending on which translated text you're working with. I have read the books (three thick volumes) several times, dipping in and out of parts of the story with glee. 

From A Dream of Red Mansions, I've learned how to eat steamed crabs and rice wine (described in such exquisite, pleasurable detail that you'll wish you were there), that ancient Chinese poets were just as obscure with their work as Middle English bards, and that romantic love and longing are qualities that transcend cultural and language barriers.


Another poignant translated tale that should be compulsory reading for any child before they fall into the clutches of Twilight is The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. This is a simple fantastical story about a pilot who crash lands into the Sahara Desert, only to encounter a child who claims to be an alien prince, and tells him stories that keep him alive while he's slowly dying of dehydration.

Most people in school will also remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank. What? Did you think it was written in English?? The original title of the book is The Diary of a Young Girl, or Het Achterhuis, which is Dutch. While I haven't touched it since my teens, it's a story that won't soon be forgotten, especially if you spend any time at all dwelling on the sad yet inevitable fate of Anne Frank.

Then there are the famous dead Russians, which anyone who has ever done an arts degree with any sort of literary component will most likely have at least heard about, if not skimmed through frantically while trying to draft a credible essay that didn't look as if it was written the night before after a few too many cheap beers: Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy, Pushkin.

The most famous translations of recent times have, of course, been Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, beginning with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I have read all three and surprised myself with how much I enjoyed them, even though they are in a genre I don't often read.

The problem with reading translated books is that I always find myself wondering if we are reading the actual words used by the author, or the translator? Anyone who can speak other languages know that translations are, at best, approximations or carefully considered interpretations of the original text.

I do wonder though, if translators, like filmmakers, take artistic license with the material they are working with. Asian and European languages have different syntax to English, so a direct translation of anything would be nearly impossible.

Then there are the sayings and colloquialisms that could easily get lost in translation. Often what happens is that the translator will find the closest English saying, and replace it with that. But of course, some of the original meaning will be lost.

Humor is also something that can be very culturally specific, and the same goes for irony and sarcasm. In fact, any form of wit can be extremely difficult to translate, requiring a translator who has their feet in two cultures, to the extent that they understand both.

What are your favourite translated books?