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.


bermudaonion said...

I don't seek out translated books but have read some. Most of the time I enjoy them but there are times when I wonder if the book has suffered in the translation.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I don't think of translated works as literary broccoli any more than any other non-genre fiction book. The thing about a translation for me is only that I'm more willing to cut some slack to the quality (and conversely be even more appreciative of high quality in the translation) since we can't really know what it was like in the non-translated version.

Anonymous said...

I think the downfall of many English translations is that the translator, or the publisher, don't include footnotes to explain the cultural meanings of situations or phrases.

For example, when I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery my copy (granted, it wasn't a translation into English) had many footnotes explaining the connotations of the book. I enjoyed it very much (, but those who didn't have the access to the footnotes did not.

Marie Cloutier said...

Au contraire, I think many readers of Elegance DID enjoy it in English- it's one of the top selling titles for its publisher and has garnered many, many positive reviews. I agree that the footnotes would have enriched the book for many but it managed to have thousands of English-reading fans without them.

Marie Cloutier said...

Ouch. What about just enjoying the book for what it is and not worrying about the original?

Zibilee said...

"People are the same everywhere; translations just bring us new friends." This sums up your post beautifully and in just the right way. I know that I need to read more translations, but the ones I have read have been incredible! Very, very important and thoughtful post today, Marie.

Blodeuedd said...

I do not like translations. So yes I do avoid them because they frankly suck, not all though, perhaps English ones are just better. But to Swedish, they just loose a bit of their soul and they are bad.

Like fantasy, it's translated so a 10 year old boy would read it, and that's just badly done. Simple books without a soul

Heidenkind said...

It's hard to avoid translations--I can't understand every language on earth, and honestly even when a book is in a language I understand, if given the option I'd rather read it in my native language.

That being said, I agree with Bodeuedd that a lot of translations really do suck. That's been my experience, anyway.

Col (Col Reads) said...

I seek out translations for another point of view, culture-wise. I do read in Spanish, but that leaves the rest of the world out of my reach without translated fiction. But I have also worried about the quality of translations. Are there literary awards for translation, so a reader could tell a translation has been vetted? That would be a great place to start! Great post, Marie.

Aarti said...

I don't seek out translated books. In some ways, I think it's for one of the reasons you mentioned above- I worry that the nuance and some of the playfulness in the language will not come across. I read Dead Souls by Gogol and the translation I read was different than the one my friend read, and her version just seemed much more whimsical and tongue-in-cheek in some ways, and I feel like I missed that.

In other ways, I feel like there are so many books in English that I haven't read yet... and that so many people all over the world write in English that I miss out less than perhaps other people in other countries do. But I realize that is not a wide enough world view.

Chrisbookarama said...

It must be hard to be a translator, just the English language alone has so many words that mean variations of the same thing. How does a translator find the right word that matches the author's intent? Translators have to be artists themselves. The right translation can make or break a book. Sometimes they sound very stiff. I wonder if there is a list of some of the best ones out there somewhere.