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

 

 

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