Reading in Translation — Schoolwork or Entertainment?

Reading works in translation is either a pedagogical exercise or undertaken for pleasure, but rarely both.  Reading something translated word-for-word (or in close proximity thereof) might be great for learning a new language or for increasing one’s proficiency in said language.  However, one’s enjoyment of the story in such a case comes from one’s prior knowledge of it, not from the translation.  Growing up doing French immersion (from Kindergarten to Grade 12), I read a lot of books that had been translated from English to French.  Just about every one of them was a clunky read that I doubt a francophone child would have enjoyed.  I enjoyed them because they were easier to understand than French literature in French and because I liked the story already.

On the other hand, a lot of translated books are read for pleasure.  Just about every title in classic literature has been translated, with the exception of works in English.  (Some of these could do with a good translation themselves — a decent reworking of Shakespeare, for example.)  There are also books like the Bible and other religious texts that have been translated over centuries in order to keep comprehension at a premium.  Many books are published in translation simply because they are good stories — good enough, at least, that publishers think that they will sell a decent amount.

No matter what the age level of the book, translations have to do more than switch vocabulary around.  If all translation required was making “la pierre est sur la table” into “the stone is on the table,” we would have lots of translated works, especially now that we can get a computer to do it for us.  War and Peace could be translated in an hour or less by machine.  It would also be gobbledygook, and it would be so even if Russian were structured the same way as English.

Vocabulary is only the most visible portion of the language barrier.  Without it, we are like babies who point to something and babble until someone figures out that we want them to get the red sombrero down from the shelf.  However, telling a story requires more than stringing words together: the words make concepts, express ideas, and insert nuances and humour into the story.  The way a sentence is phrased, which idioms are used, what allusions are made, and what counts as funny, are all integral to the story that the author writes, particularly if the writer is writing for a domestic audience, as most are.  If a language uses different verbs for the same action in a slightly different context, there is a reason that the author picked the one in the story.  Using ‘sprinted’ instead of ‘ran’ conveys the following: the action was short, fast-paced, and urgent; using ‘ran’ would be more generic.  “John ran home” vs. “John sprinted home” vs. “John jogged home” vs. “John hurried home” — they all could be translated as “John went quickly to his house,” but some of the story might be lost.  If this is a mystery, perhaps the verb used holds a clue to how far away he was, or how long it took him to get home, or in what condition that he was in when he got there.  Also, what if “home” was actually his mother’s house, not his, but the translator missed this?

Translated works can be hard enough for adults to follow, so I can see why some people think young people need more help.  I believe that any translation should preserve the intent of the author.  If there is supposed to be a pun in a character’s name, for example, there better be an equivalent pun in the translation.  If John’s last name is Coward and he is very heroic, having his last name translated into the equivalent of “coward” or “loser” might be important.  At the very least, some sort of footnote, endnote, or roundabout explanation is necessary for many points in a translation if the original meaning cannot be conveyed.  Teenagers can read footnotes, but there is a good reason why Shakespeare is despised by thousands of high school students.  As a point of comparison, Shakespeare is well-received in countries where his work is poetically translated into the modern equivalent of the home language.  Non-English-speaking European audiences understand his plays better than most modern English-speaking audiences.

The question comes back to whether or not a translated work is meant as a lesson or as entertainment.  If it is meant as a lesson, what are we learning?  By reading Shakespeare, are we learning about Elizabethan English?  Elizabethan history?  Elizabethan culture?  Mythology?  Shakespeare’s philosophy on women?  Except for the first one, could we not learn these things from reading a translation of Shakespeare’s plays?  Keep the rhyme and meter, keep the vocabulary when necessary, give context for the jokes, and fix outdated words and concepts that distort the meaning.  Having Hamlet tell Ophelia to go live in a brothel would preserve Shakespeare’s intent in the line “Get thee to a nunnery!”

Simply put, translation should not seem like translation.  If I pick up the book, start reading it, and forget that it was not written originally in English because it is enjoyable and a good story, then that book is a successful translation.

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This entry was posted in Books, Katy Pontificates, Katy Rants, Recommended Reading, Responses to Readings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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