Monday, March 13, 2017

On Translations

Dear Neil,

I am teaching Translation at the University of Nottingham, and every year I am running an extra-curricular programme on cultural translation.  In one week of that programme, I have students analyse and translate the ending of the Graveyard Book, with particular emphasis on capturing the emotional development that runs through the pages.

Most of my students are quite young (21-25) and working into languages that are quite far away from English (e.g. Chinese, Slovene, Russian, Arabic), and some of them are very insecure about what liberties they can take in terms of syntax, word choice, collocation etc. when they translate literature. Especially the song that Mistress Owens sings for Bod poses a challenge, as recreating rhythm and rhyme, while sticking closely to the English words usually results in clumsy verse. Some of them opt for a recreation that entails replacing some of the original images, resulting in quite beautiful renditions that actually sound like, say, a Chinese lullaby, rhymes and all, while others choose to translate almost word for word, so as to not interefere with the original text.

I know that different authors have different opinions on the matter of what their translators should do/are allowed to do - Tolkien, was keen on retaining names, Eco was keen on retaining scenes and rhythm, but not necessarily the same items and cultural references he used; and I was wondering if you could comment on what you would tell a translator (or perhaps did tell translators) who translates your work, for instance to, as you once said in an interview, make the reader 'sniffly' at the end of the Graveyard Book.

I hope you read this, and I hope you find the time to answer, and I'd like to share that every time we do this task, there are a lot of tissues emerging from pockets and bags, as the students read through Bod's departure.

Thank you for your work, Neil. It makes a difference.


That's such a good question, and I'm not sure that it has a single answer. I'm not sure there are hard and fast rules: more like a set of "if... then..." questions.

For Mistress Owens' song, I'd want it to feel, for the reader, like a cradle song, if the translator can manage that. If they can't, then they should probably go literal. What I want is for the reader, in whatever the reader's native language is, to get something close to the experience that a reader in of the original in English would have. The rhythms don't have to be my rhythms, nor the rhymes my rhymes, nor the words exactly my words, if it feels like a cradle song, and it means the same thing. 

(The hardest thing I've ever done as a writer  -- or at least, the thing I spent the most time on for the least amount of words -- was Princess Mononoke, writing the English language lyrics for the theme song and for the Tatara Women's song. And I'm not even sure that you can hear the words of the Tatara Women's song in the film. The challenge was taking the Japanese lyrics and then making it work as English lyrics that you could sing to the Japanese tunes.)

I figure a translator has a huge tool kit at his or her or their disposal. I've had translators decide to keep names of characters and translators change the names of books (The Graveyard Book's title in French is L'Etrange Vie de Nobody Owens -- the Strange Life of Nobody Owens); I've had translators change the names of characters while keeping the name of the book (Mr Wednesday in the French edition of American Gods -- which is called, in French, American Gods -- is called Voyageur, because Wednesday in French is Mercredi -- Mercury's Day, not Odin's).

I don't want the translators inserting themselves between the reader and the book. (There wasn early French edition of Stardust, where the translator decided that the book was an allegory based on John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and added notes to make sure the reader understood this.) I don't want things mistranslated in ways that, in these days of Google, there is no excuse for. (That same French Stardust translator thought, and footnoted, that the Unseelie Court was a complex pun based around Un-, See and Lie, and not a division of fairies.)

I never mind when translators send me questions. Sometimes they simply don't understand something, sometimes they want to know what part of something is important for me. Sometimes they have queries which turn out to be goofs on my part which they caught because they read the text so closely.

I assume that for some languages and some translators there are things that will be easier and things that will be harder. Puns and things that are specific to the English language will always be hard -- my only advice to translators on that is to do the best you can, and know there are some things you can't do. But, if you can, get the flavour of what I was trying to do.

Does that help?

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