On Translation

Some of the best works ever written come from other languages. If not for the work of translators, priceless treasures such as Dante’s Divine Comedy to even Old English works like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales would be lost to all but those who can actually understand the original language or dialect. But very few of us, myself included, actually considers the work that goes into this process, nor do we really comprehend the challenges that these people face on a day to day basis in order to make the books, stories, and poems we so treasure readily available to the public.

For me, what brought these to my attention was reading “Decisions, Decisions,” an excerpt from Performing Without a Stage by Robert Wechsler. In it, he goes in depth into the variety of challenges faced by translators, from languages barriers to the near impossibility of translating humor and irony into other languages because of the subtleties involved. For me, this new awareness brings forth a whole new desire to understand the realm of translation, as well as a whole new appreciation for the craft.

Many of the challenges outlined in “Decisions, Decisions” can be found in the short story Kristin Omarsdottir “Here,” where a young girl named Billie witnesses the death and callous burial of her family at the hands of a soldier named Rafael. One of the more interesting sections of “Decisions, Decisions” explained how a seemingly minor change could in fact alter how the audience not only views one specific scene, but the work as a whole. For instance, about halfway through “Here,” there’s a scene where Rafel dumps Billie’s family into a mass grave, taking the time to wrap each member in a bed sheet. While each version specified that the third child was wrapped in a light blue sheet, there are some minor differences among them. One version says that the child “could have had a pale-blue sheet but it got a red one,” while in the other the child’s sheet “grew red.” Without that one word “grew,” the former version turns into a moment of indecision on Rafael’s part, rather than the horrifying moment of clarity that comes when you realize that the cause of the sheet turning red is in fact the stain of the dead child’s blood.

One of the more interesting challenges that translators face comes from maintaining the delicate balance between adhering to the original language and adapting to the one they’re translating into. In the one of the versions of “Here” that I read, I felt like the translator was struggling with this, because story’s language felt sluggish and almost clunky: “Missing out on all the fun, someone might have said, another time.” It was as if English wasn’t the translator’s primary language. In comparison, other versions of this same story contain cleaner and simpler language: “As if occupied with some other, far off, better fun.” As a reader, I prefer the translations where I don’t have to bend my brain to follow what’s going on, but I can respect the need to adhere to the original as much as possible.

However, this leads me to something that really irks me about the whole translation process. In general, authors don’t get much of a say in the process; the translation itself is done mostly through the translator’s intuition and their knowledge of the work, without outside assistance from the original author. While there are exceptions to this rule—Eduardo Halfon, while working on creating an English version of The Polish Boxer, remained in constant contact with his translators, and even assisted in the translation process. But Halfon’s case is unusual; for the most part it is a task done independently of the book’s creator. As a writer, this upsets me. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say I’m an American best seller, and people in France and Germany and even Japan are clamoring for a translation. I find someone to work with, but I’m told I don’t need to help him. Months later, the translation is complete, but when I look it through, the original intent of the novel has been changed or lost. If I had been present during the process, it would have been avoided. The bottom line is, anecdote aside, that as a writer, I don’t fully trust someone else to translate my work, because his or her understanding of it may be different from my own. While I understand that translation is a subjective craft, I should be allowed to work with the translator and be as diligent as Halfon was to ensure the spirit of my novel remains intact.

When you stop to consider it, the world of translation is a fascinating one. It’s as necessary to the world of writing as the publishing business; while incredibly subjective, these men and women overcome the many complexities of language to spread the works of others throughout the world. Without them, it’s possible that some of the most famous works of all time would be lost to the average English speaker forever.