>On Translating

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“Nor ought a genius less than his that writ attempt translation.” ~ Sir John Denham (c. 1614-1669)

As a translator (and someone who’s actually translated a book), I wanted to share a few thoughts on reading and writing novel translations. (I’m always happy to barge around offering opinions.)

Here’s my understanding of how the publishing/translating market works (based on my own unsuccessful attempts to get my book translation published – applies to the German publishing industry only). The author has nothing to say or do with it. A publishing house publishes their book in German. If it’s good enough/does well enough, it will probably come to the attention of publishing houses in other countries/languages. This excepts English, by the way, where the number of books published in translation is distressingly small. After a foreign publishing house sees a German book they like, they buy the [blank] language rights from the original German publisher. They then commission their own translator, and publish the book in the new language. The author has almost no involvement. They just get to watch, cheer from the sidelines, and hope the translation doesn’t suck.

I found this out because I tried to break in by doing things completely backwardly. (Novel translation is the equivalent in my industry of being a rock star or an A-list actor – many, many want to, and few actually get to be one.) Not too long after my German got good enough to read complicated books, I read one I really liked, but more importantly, one I thought my mother would really like. I tried to buy her the English translation, only to learn there wasn’t one! Since I was new to the country and hadn’t yet got a man or friends, I had lots of free time, so I decided to translate it as a learning experience and vocabulary exercise, so my mom could read it.

After I finished it, many moons later, my German husband (acquired in the interim) said that it was so good, and I’d put so much work into it, it would be a shame if only my mother read it, and I ought to offer it to the author/German publisher and try and get it published (and, not incidentally, get some MONEY for it). So I tried that. I sent an e-mail to the author and her publisher, and discovered that they had no use for a pre-finished translation, although the author liked it and was impressed. The publisher had either no clue how to, or no interest in using my translation to shop the book to US and/or UK editors, who then would want to commission their own translation. So I still have the translation, and the book is still not published in English, eight years later.

As for reading translations – I avoid it whenever possible. As a translator, I know that the best we can ever hope to do is to approximate. So much of what makes up a book is the author’s voice and style, and that is the most elusive thing in the world to translate. Some of us do better than others, particularly if an author works together consistently with a single translator as a team. A great example of this is the relationship Diana Gabaldon has with her German translator, Barbara Schnell. But no matter how well Ms. Schnell does her job, or how much of a mind meld she has with Ms. Gabaldon, it’s not the same. The German product may be equally good in its own way, but it is a different book. It’s like looking at a brilliant painting through wavy glass. What you see through the glass may be equally attractive as an end product (and I can think of some artists whose works would only be improved by this process!), but it is not what the artist created. I prefer to interact directly with the source whenever possible. Of course, that isn’t always possible, and hence we translators continue to have employment. The best of us know that a book is more than words – it is a voice, and we work as hard as we can to capture both. But, there are a lot of translators who are just, well, second rate. And it frosts my cookies that they get to be rock stars, and I don’t. 🙂

Because of personal quirks and taste, it does occasionally happen that a reader will like a translation better than the original. This I chalk up to the simple fact that the reader doesn’t actually like the original author’s style/voice quite so much, and the slight and inevitable changes that happen in translation bring the book more in line with the reader’s taste. Of course, most people reading a translation have no basis for comparison and don’t know what they’re missing. Another bit of luck for us translators.

And for anyone who is curious – the book is a roughly 300-page historical novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine, which the author was inspired to write by that grand old Peter O’Toole/Katherine Hepburn film “The Lion in Winter.” It’s much better than the movie. Its original title is Die Löwin von Aquitanien, which translates to “The Lioness of Aquitaine,” by Tanja Kinkel.

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