Monday, April 2, 2012

Are Translations Really "Literary Broccoli"?

Do you read translations? Do you avoid them? Publishing Perspectives published an article called Why Cliches About Translations Hurt Books, and it got me thinking.

If you're a reader of my blog you know I enjoy reading books from all over the world and I'm not put off by the phrase "translated by" on the title page. I wouldn't say that I seek them out, but it seems like especially when I'm browsing in a bookstore, the books I'm attracted to are often translations. My favorite publishers- Europa Editions, New Directions, Dalkey Archive Press, Other Press- frequently publish work from other languages. They just seem to show up on my radar a lot.

What do you think of when you think of a translation? There's more than just one kind of translated book of course. Literature from around the world comes in every shape and style, from gritty crime novels that sit comfortably next to American stars like Dennis Lehane and James Patterson to conventional literary fiction to experimental books that break narrative form, voice and plot. The recent trend of Scandinavian crime novels has certainly opened up space on American bookshelves for foreign writers, and publishers like those I mentioned above are bringing a diverse array of voices to our stores. Why then is there so little translated stuff out there, and why do readers tend to avoid it?

Translated books are looked at like foreign movies. Just by virtue of being from another country I think they're seen as "arty" or "difficult" despite that many of them are just as readable and approachable as anything by your favorite English-language author. Europa publishes some edgy stuff, but they also publish a lot of books that are just well-crafted good reads that would appeal to lots of readers. The fact that they come from Europe or the Middle East doesn't mean that they're stories you won't relate to, or characters you won't understand. People are the same everywhere; translations just bring us new friends. It's like having a penpal in a foreign country. You think you're different but soon you find out that you're both struggling with boys and clothes and life. The settings might be different, the cultural details might be different, but people write about all the same things no matter where they're from or what language they speak. With a foreign book you get the added benefit of learning something along with the great story.

But what if you don't want to learn? You don't want your "literary broccoli"- you just want a nice story that isn't going to tax you or stretch you or teach you anything new. Well, why are you reading at all then? I think there's no point to picking up a book if what you really want is a mirror.

And you know what else? Foreign fiction is just plain fun. It's armchair travel, a chance to see the world from your living room and better than a television travel show because your imagination gets to fill in the gaps, see that sunset, that architecture, smell that amazing food your protagonist is eating, feel the snow leaking through his shoes or the water lapping her ankles.

Maybe people worry that they're not getting the "real" book when they read a translation, and different translations do frame a work differently. The translation that came out a couple of years ago of Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak's opus, was highly anticipated and written by two recognized master translators, but a lot of readers (myself included) found it virtually unreadable. I remember trying to convince a friend who had tried it and given up to try the older, standard one. For me, the older version, translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari, has a poetry and beauty that the newer and supposedly more faithful version can't match. Penguin has been publishing new translations of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, each volume by a different translator. What impact will that have on such a long work? I'm looking forward to seeing how the volumes will vary in style and how they will work together. It's a risk to retranslate a classic! On the plus side,  Lydia Davis's recent translation of Madame Bovary was a triumph that made a wonderful French book come alive in English.

When you consider that most translated books aren't translated more than once, it's hard to know if the translator got it right, and there's always this worry that the translation I pick up won't be a good one or that I won't be able to tell if I don't like the book or don't like the translation. But you know what? Most of the time these worries are simply unfounded. Translators know what they're doing. Most of the time a translation is just a new favorite waiting to be discovered.