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The unseen heroes

One of the many careers I never pursued was translating. This despite the best hour I probably spent at university being the one where we tried simultaneous translation. It’s fair to say that not everyone got the same buzz from the experience as I did, though. It’s something like turning your brain up to full power and then keeping going. You are hearing one thing and instantly converting it into a different language while still having to take in everything the person is saying.

Translation is as much art as science, particularly when it comes to translating fiction. We’ve all experienced what it’s like when not even the science part works – those instruction manuals where you really have no idea what you are meant be doing. But beyond that is the fun part. Where you get to think about how best to translate a word from one language into another while trying to preserve some of the associations which the word or phrase has in the original. And not give it additional, unintended (by the author) meaning in the translation.

The example we used at university was ‘cucumber sandwiches’. If you’re British, you’ve already got a picture of the exact type, feel and taste of the bread. And the butter, plus probably what kind of plate the sandwiches are being served on. Are you already at the image of the picnic or garden party or sporting event as well? Try translating that into another language. And sorry, but if you aren’t British, you probably haven’t got the faintest idea what I’m really talking about. Unless you’ve watched Four Weddings and a Funeral, perhaps.

And translating the simple Wohnzimmer from German – living room or sitting room? So many associations with both the (correct) English translations, none of which are there in the German. 

I’m branching out of my more familiar English or German language literature and research at the moment. Otherwise I limit both the novels I can read and the areas I can delve into. This means that I am entirely dependent on the translator to produce something that feels like it was written in English while preserving the cultural reference points that place the story somewhere specific in place and time.

And what a difference in the translations of these two books. One originally in Ukrainian, one from the Russian. One for pleasure, one for research. Both were translated into English by non-native speakers. When I was a lad (why not ‘boy’ or ‘young man’ or ‘youth’? – did I use that word deliberately, was I making some cultural reference, saying something about myself…or did I just want to use a different word for a change? – Welcome to the world of the translator), that was a no-no. You only translated into your own language (although we all learned by going in both directions). Times seem to have moved on.

Today, I’m less interested in the stories of these books than the translations. And a few examples will, I hope, show the difference between a good translation and a bad one.

‘The smell of rotting corpses hung in the air as the legal residents of Kharkiv, the capital of Ukraine, carried on their plucky and brutal struggle for existence. […] They hated every person ahead of them in line with a passion that, in more normal times, would have been reserved exclusively for one’s worst enemies. Besides these “legal residents,” there was in the city that year another group of people, possibly even more numerous than the first. This was the group of people with no propyska (the registration necessary for the right to live in the city) and thus no rights.’

There were immediately three issues with this for me.

It looked to me as if the translator came up against a problem right away with these ‘legal residents.’ Maybe there’s a specific term in Ukrainian that just doesn’t work in English. But just putting in something in English, then putting it in inverted commas a paragraph later tells me I haven’t understood what the original meant. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but it’s clunky and it stopped the story for me twice in the first two paragraphs.

‘They hated every person… for one’s worst enemies.’ Is just grammatically wrong. ‘One’ can’t refer to ‘they’. And I think you’d have to have a pretty good reason to use ‘one’ in the first place. 

And finally we have the classic ‘I need to explain this’ issue with the propyska. There’s clearly a desire to keep the Ukrainian term, and I find it helpful to keep some of the original terms. But there are simpler and better ways of dealing with them. For example: ‘This was the group of people with no propyska. Without that one piece of paper, they had no right to live there. No rights at all.’ I would have to know Ukrainian to be sure that was the proper meaning of the original text, but the sentence(s) just flow better.

You don’t notice good translations. Just as the author has got out of the way of the story, so has the translator. Every translation is a compromise because you simply don’t have equivalents for every word in both languages. But what you can do it try to keep the sense of the original. The pace, the tone, the overall feel of the language.

‘Noble scrunched up his face as if all his teeth had started aching at the same time. Tabaqui seemed to enjoy that. He even pinked up a little. He lit a cigarette and looked at me with the all-knowing smile of a veteran.’

Thank you. Much better. You just don’t notice anything. 

Translating is a tough business. I tried translating a book from German a few years ago on the basis that it hadn’t yet been translated into English. I probably still have the draft of as far as I had got lying around somewhere. There were simply so many phrases where I had to stop and think, how do you get that across in English? They went into the ‘come back to that’ category. Maybe one day. If I think a story is worth it, but it won’t be that one. It was more of an intellectual workout than a sense that the book should be better known.

So for now, I’m grateful for the translators, even the ones who aren’t as good but make it possible for me to do research in areas that would otherwise be unaccessible to me. Because learning Russian or Ukrainian really isn’t on any list I have tucked away somewhere. Thanks to these heroes behind the scenes, I don’t have to



Similar but different

A long time ago, when I was doing my PhD, my greatest fear was not that I would not finish it, but that I would suddenly find after a couple of years that someone else was ahead of me in looking into my area of research and what had seemed an original idea would suddenly be blown out of the water. Back then, checking such things on the internet was still in its relative infancy so there was an element of crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. It turned out that nobody else seemed to have been interested in East German journalists so I was fine.

Fast forward a couple of decades and now I’m just hoping that someone hasn’t had a too similar idea to me for a novel.

Then I came across Fiona Rintoul’s The Leipzig Affair.

East Germany in the 80s, a Westerner going there to university, an East German linguist desperate to escape to the West, and some pretty unpleasant Stasi people along the way.

Phew. Not even superficial similarities unless you think that every story set in the same country will be the same.

So, what of the novel?

The most striking element from the start was that half of it is written from the second person perspective. ‘You see this,’ ‘you walk there,’ and so on. It’s not for me and there’s a good reason it’s used so sparingly. Stephen King started Needful Things with the second person perspective and it stood out immediately. I’m struggling to think of anything else I’ve read which uses this perspective. But despite my personal preferences, after a while I got used to the language and it almost faded into the background.

I found it gratifying that Rintoul gives a more nuanced view of East Germany than the all too easy ‘East bad, West good’ cliche. One of her two main characters, Magda, wants to escape because her earlier enthusiasm for the East German system has turned into disillusionment, and she has enough minor characters who are able to argue for what was good in the country to give different perspectives. Her other main character, Robert (Bob), comes from Scotland to Leipzig to study and this allows Rintoul to give an outsider’s view on what the country was like, and what it felt like, including his constant faux pas. She based his experience on her own when she studied in Leipzig in the 80s, which came across as a good dose of authenticity and provided a very different narrative. Another big tick there.

The overall story contained a good number of uncertainties, doubts and machinations to keep me wanting to keep going. The fact that I knew pretty early on what the big reveal at the end was going to be is more because it was probably the one way it could have worked and I read novels with one eye dissecting and the other just reading. Sometimes the reading eye manages to cloud the vision of the analytical one (Gone Girl and Fingersmith spring to mind – both surprised me).

I enjoyed reading something on my home turf and seeing how someone else combined a few facets of the myriad possible stories and created characters and a narrative which worked for me. And which were entirely different from the strands I picked out to tell a different story.


For the non-pedants, you can stop here. For those who have any interest in dealing with writing in one language and setting the book in a country with a different language, I have a couple of additional observations. 

Dealing with non-English language is always a question for the author. My impression is that there is an assumption that everyone speaks enough French so that dialogue can have entire sentences with no explanation or translation, even if they are important. I have to say that I find that annoying. When it comes to German, I think it’s right that we ensure the reader understands the German dialogue if we are going to use it, even if we use a phrase particular to an area or time that it hard to render exactly in English. I am less keen on translating street names (which Rintoul does). And if I were translating Edinburgh’s  ‘Princes Street’ into German, I would not call it ‘Princes Strasse’ or ‘Prinzenstrasse’ because I think it is clear that it is the name of a place. But that’s my preference. So that’s just my preference. What does get to me is when the language is just wrong. If I’m using another language, I think it behooves me to make sure it is correct. Either I am absolutely sure it’s right from my own knowledge, or I check it with someone. And if I’m translating something into English, it also has to be right. And there was one thing which did annoy me in this novel.

You might know the German word ‘bitte.’ It normally means ‘please.’ But it also means ‘you’re welcome.’ As in, if I pour you a drink, you say ‘danke’ and I say ‘bitte.’ It does not mean ‘please.’ Rintoul has waiters putting a plate of food in front of someone and saying ‘please.’ No. ‘Bitte’ cannot be translated as ‘please’ in that context. What beats me is that Rintoul is a translator from German to English, so I have no idea why she would get this wrong, which means that I don’t think she did get it ‘wrong’ in the sense of not knowing what was correct, but that she consciously chose to use that translation. I just don’t know why because it makes no sense in English.

Festival Time!

The Festival(s) programmes are simply getting too big. At the rate they are going, we will need people to spend a day just going through them and filtering them to a manageable number of offerings that might interest us. Every year when the Book Festival (yes, I know it’s the ‘Edinburgh International Book Festival’ just as the Simpson’s was the ‘Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion’ but really, not every time I want to mention it and see, now I’ve lost my train of thought) … oh yes, whenever the Book Festival programme arrives, I have this sinking feeling when I have a cursory look and immediately think there is nothing of real interest to me. I then pick it up again on the following weekend and discover that there is in fact a huge variety, and this year was no exception. This year, though, I also went to a number of events in the Fringe, the programme for which really does require several hours of searching.

Unsurprisingly, we saw a few dance shows, starting with a combination of ballet and juggling where timing seemed to be everything, and was executed brilliantly. There is always something about seeing two art forms combined and what is then created. Balletronic was a Cuban dance troupe with a small orchestra (I’m sure there is a technical term for it, but the inclusion of electric guitars and drums might complicate that), a singer, and music which wouldn’t normally be associated with ballet. The dancing itself reflected the energy and pace of the music but still managed to look effortless.

Going back to combining different disciplines – how about maths and comedy. Not maths as I remember it though. We didn’t ignite gas to show wave forms, or hold hands to complete a circuit to listen to music, and we certainly didn’t predict the exact time of a baby’s birth by extrapolating from the frequency and duration of contractions. It was probably rare that a bunch of finance guys were the target audience for a Fringe production. My experience is more likely to be that I’m the person walking through Edinburgh (admittedly in a suit sometimes) who nobody offers a flyer to. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

And then there was the Book Festival. You have to be there pretty late to see it like this:



First up was Kate Mosse (note the ‘e’, this was not the other Kate Moss without the ‘e’). I found her thoughts on writing, rather than her books themselves, particularly helpful this year. For example her analogy that when she starts writing a novel, the characters are waiting in the wings, waiting to show themselves. And she has to be patient and not rush them out onto the stage until they are fully ready.

I mentioned Rory MacLean’s brilliant book on Berlin last year. This year he was back with a new, and decidedly more bizarre subject. Transnistria is… well it thinks it’s a country, even though the rest of world doesn’t, and doesn’t recognise the fall of the Soviet Union, even though the rest of the world does. This was going to be strange then. We stood for the Transnistria national anthem. The tune was not memorable. And then he took us into this surreal world of a non-country with a president, a range of ministers, many of whom are young, female, and appear to be in a relationship of sorts with the president. Lenin is a frequent appearance in statutes and pictures. And the country is a refuge for former Red Army generals, KGB officials and ammunition dumps which were left over after the Cold War and have since found themselves in conflict zones around the world. It really is a place you wouldn’t believe could exist today, and yet there it is. And you can get there (and back out again) by bus from Moldova, to which Transnistria legally belongs. Tempted?

If maths geeks were happy with the Fringe show I went to, translations geeks were in their element at a ‘Translation duel’. We all read translations of books where we don’t know the original language, and the work of translation is itself a skill where there is rarely a right or a wrong answer. Understanding the words of the source language is only part of the task. You also want to reflect the rhythm, the register and the overall sense of the original. And then there is the cultural associations. For example, how would you translate cucumber sandwich – if you’re from the UK, you will have an immediate picture of the type of bread, the cucumber slices, the butter, and probably even the types of event where you might expect to see them. We were given the source text (the author of which was also there), and two translations (both translators were also there). And then they discussed how they had translated the text. Well, the first sentence anyway. That took half an hour. It started with ‘why did you put a comma after “During the day”’? There was none in the original. Progress was really only made by stopping before any conclusions were reached. What amazed me most was that the tent was almost full, I was sure I was in the wrong queue for a while because it stretched back so far and I couldn’t believe anyone else would want to sit through an hour of detailed consideration of how to translate a text. But it’s as much more an art form than a technical exercise.

I translated part of a German novel a few years ago for fun when I was wanting some stimulation. It was by Armin Mueller-Stahl and I was surprised that it hadn’t already appeared in English as he is a well known actor. I wasn’t doing it with a view to it ever being used and certainly didn’t get close to finishing it, but it was good to engage with the detail of the two languages for a while. And it still hasn’t been translated into English. No, I’m not going there…

And there’s still another week of events to go… it’s exhausting!