An Introduction; and Found in the Translation

Please allow me to make an introduction. Next Saturday, September 22, as I make my way down to New Orleans for a legal seminar, movie role auditions, and a bit of urban spelunking, a gentleman named Mark Alpert will make his debut on this blog. He and I shall thereafter alternate in this space on Saturdays. Mark is one of those individuals who is the smartest person in any given room, even when he is several miles away from it. It’s a quantum physics thing, my friends. Mark is a contributing editor to a magazine that I am barely intelligent enough to read — Scientific American — and makes the incomprehensible understandable on a weekly basis. Mark has so far also published two thrillers, FINAL THEORY and its sequel, THE OMEGA THEORY. Both books deal with aspects of quantum physics, and what occurs when science and knowledge are used with evil intent. Pick them up, and prepare to lose several nights of sleep, reading and thinking and worrying.  Mark’s third novel, EXTINCTION, which deals with a hostile artificial intelligence, is on its way in February 2013. I hear good things about it already.  I am sure that in the interim Mark will keep us all educated, informed, and most of all entertained with his contributions here.
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Let me now change direction. Does the name “Stieg Larsson” mean anything to you? It probably does, particularly if you are a fan of mystery and thriller novels. After all, it was the late Mr. Larsson who penned that famous trilogy of novels, the ones about the girl with the dragon tattoo who played with fire and kicked the hornet’s nest, which renewed interest in what is variously called Nordic Noir or Scandinavian crime fiction. You might also have read a novel or two by Jo Nesbo, such as THE REDBREAST or THE SNOWMAN.  You are undoubtedly at least nominally familiar with SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW by Peter Hoeg, and THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. But…have you read any novels by Reg Keeland? Or Don Bartlett? What about Tiina Nunnally? How about Alan Blair?
Keeland, Bartlett, Nunnally, Blair  and many other worthies I could name are the individuals who provided you with the opportunity to read Larsson, Nesbo, Hoeg, Sjowall, Whaloo,  and…well, many other worthies I could name. It was Reg Keeland who translated The Millennium Trilogy. Don Bartlett did, and does, the honors for Jo Nesbo. Without Tiina Nunnally, Smilla would have still had a sense of snow, but you probably wouldn’t have known or cared. And Alan Blair made sure that the policeman didn’t laugh to an empty room. None of these people are household names. I think they should be. I think that they, and at least a dozen other individuals, should get some credit for what they do and for how well they do it. I submit that there is much more to translating a work of literature than simply doing a word for word interpretation; you have to…you have to taste it, and get the recipe right. Leave out the spice, add too much of this, and too little of that, and it might be bland, or watery, or inedible. Or, indeed, unreadable. Put something into Google Translate and see what I mean. I adore Google Translate, and it does a good job, but more often than not what you get has to be interpreted for context. What Kleeland and a number of others do is much more than translate Swedish or Nordic or language foreign to English; they take what would be indecipherable to most of us and make it understandable, and insure that the end result is still suspenseful, mysterious, and magical.
Every time I pick up a book by an author whose native language is other than English, I make a point of noting the translator of the work, and for a brief moment, thanking them.  And so, to those who show and share us the magic of faraway places —those I have named, and those I have not — I thank you.

9 thoughts on “An Introduction; and Found in the Translation

  1. I was just thinking about this, Joe. My father helped me translate my latest YA book summary into Spanish. It took him awhile to feel comfortable in sharing it with me. He’s fluent in the language, but when he explained the context & why he chose certain words, it made me realize how difficult this would be for anyone translating a whole book.

    And welcome to Mark. Looking forward to his posts.

  2. It’s crazy difficult and time confusing to translate a novel; I did it once for a contest. So I always think of the translator when I read a foreign novel, wondering what specific challenges the original language presented.

    On another note, when I was a kid, I read a famous YA novel in the original English and then in Japanese, for fun. The Japanese had an imagined sex scene that wasn’t in the original. Made me wonder how often translations cut or add little things.

    • Omg, that is frightening, Shizuka. It’s been my experience that US publishers are so careful to work with authors on revisions & not force changes that the writer doesn’t agree to do. When foreign rights are sold, another house takes control & the author never sees the book until it’s in print & MAYBE gets a few copies.

  3. When my daughter and I went to Mexico for vacation, we caught some US TV shows. We had subtitles turned on anyway to understand the Spanish programs we watched. What a laugh listening to the English spoken by the actors and reading the so-called English translation in the subtitles. Quite a lot was lost or just wrong.

    Lois McMasters Bujold had one of her books translated to Russian. When she did an electronic chat to a sci-fi convention in Russia, she found out that in the Russian, one of the main human characters had been translated as being a spaceship or some nonsense that derailed the entire plot.


  4. When my memoir, Sea Fare: A Chef’s Journey Across the Ocean was translated into French I became a male as the word chef is masculine.

    Must be confusing for readers looking at my author picture…I think I “look” feminine.

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A (Female) Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  5. Jordan, that’s a great story about your dad. Not that you ever have trouble coming up with an interesting blog topic, but if you ever do, I’d love to hear the whole story.

    Shizuka, that’s a EXTREMELY interesting story. Wonder what the manga version looked like?

    I’ve seen similar things, Kathy. Some of them are so absurd that you wonder if they watched the same thing. Woody Allen took that to a new level with “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” where he wrote absurd subtitles for a Japanese movie.

    Victoria…all I can say is that would have been EXTREMELY confusing.What is the feminine equivalent of “chef” in France, anyway?

  6. Good points Joe. I work in a large Asian immigrant community up here in Alaska, mostly Korean but also Hmong, Japanese, Vietnamese and Philipino. I learned long ago to be careful, especially with colloquialisms and sarcasm because they can be severely misunderstood. My wife, born and raised in Korea, has an interpretation business and often is asked to translate documents. She doesn’t mind legal documents, or even medical stuff, but hates doing poetry or flowery language because the intent is sometimes not transferable as it occurs with imagery that runs at a deeper level than just words.

    One level of translation that many may not realize as well is translating within English dialects. To take an American or British book and swap it to the other country without changing some of the words might confuse some people. Something as simple as biscuits for cookies, crisps for chips, chips for fries, lorry for semi, telly for TV, are just a few of the differences.

    I’m an American of Irish descent with a British sounding name, and a passable British accent on demand. Believe it or not I was once accused by a British reader of unsuccessfully trying to sound American because of the words I used in my book.

  7. Oh, Basil, so so true, particularly about swapping out British terms for American, and vice versa. And even within the U.S. there are problems. I spend a fair amount of time in New Orleans; it took me several visits to find out that when a New Orleans native asks, “Where y’at?” the proper response is “I’m good! Where y’at?” and not “I’m on the corner of Bourbon and Bienville. Where are you at?” Also, “makin’ groceries” isn’t preparing a meal; it’s grocery shopping. I could go on. But how do you translate those nuances? With difficulty, I guess, which is why I so much admire the folks who translate literature and do such a fine job of it.

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