A little introduction to literary translation

I was once told that no English translation of War and Peace could compare to the Russian original.  As a literary classic and one of those books you read just to say you’ve read it, I was intrigued by the concept that – by reading a translation – I would never understand the full affect of the words which Tolstoy wrote.

Indeed, we can note subtle differences between American translations of British books. The Harry Potter books we have grown to love in the UK are actually slightly different to the ones published in the US.   Indeed, when comparing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone we can see the subtle removal from the American counterpart to the British original.   It also struck me that “Fifty Shades of Grey” would perhaps only have one meaning for an American:  that the main character was Christian Grey.  To an American this would be a wordplay on their term for “gray”, whereas for us Brits, we experience a double entendre.  As it was written (I say written, when I really mean ‘gargled and incoherently spewed up on a page and construed as a book’) by an English author, this wordplay would perhaps not be so eminent in the US.

Literary translation from a foreign language into one’s native language is a far more difficult concept than simply looking at a text and translating word for word.  When a translator reads a book they need to understand to which degree of formality they must approach.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, again as an example, was translated into French as “Harry Potter a l’ecole des sorciers” (Harry Potter at the school of wizards/wizards school).   The translator here retained Harry’s British setting.   Nonetheless a translator could have taken this a step further to be more relatable to a French audience:  a boy called Pierre Duchamp, who finds out he’s a wizard.   This translation is not wrong, it is simply interpreted differently.  This is a more free interpretation.

It is important, therefore, to note, the power which a translator has over literature.  En attendant Godot, or Waiting for Godot as we know in the English, was written by Samuel Beckett, an Irish author, in French first, and then translated by himself into English.  As there was a year gap between the translations, Beckett had already seen its reception in France and made subtle adjustments to his English translation.   As he was both the translator and the author, he had the power to do this – but ended up producing two slightly different texts.

In order to translate a text which was written by a different author, a translator must therefore understand an author’s point of view.  The problem is, is that literature simply isn’t that easy.  Although authors like Beckett claim that there are no hidden levels in their work, this simply isn’t true for many authors.   And what should we do with words which are very specific to a region, or to an area?

If there was a book with heavy Scottish dialect, with the phrase “ma wee bairn”,  how would this be translated into a foreign language?   A translator  could write

  1. Mon petit enfant
  2. Ma petite gousse

The first literally translates to “my little child”, so the Scottish-ness is lost.  A French reader would never really get the sense of Scotland.   The second (I hope my dictionary is correct!) is a more familiar term to call a child:  while this fits in with the familiarity of ‘ma wee  bairn’, it’s not exactly the same.  Of course, a translator could move the characters to a French setting – say, to Canada, where the Quebecois accent would provide that sense of foreignness, which a French reader would spot right away, as an English person would when reading this stereotypically Scottish sentence.

A translator, therefore, must decide to which degree of faithfulness they approach their text.     Les Miserables, for example, retains its French 19th century setting in the English translation.  We can attribute this to familiarity:  Lay Miz centres on revolution, which any person can relate to.  In essence, for a book to be translated it needs to have an affinity with its target language.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog (French: L’elegance du herisson), in my opinion, does not work in English.  It centres on a young, bourgeois girl who lives in a Parisian apartment and decides to kill herself, and a middle-aged concierge of the building who hides her intelligence from others because she believes her intellect can not fit into her position as a lowly concierge.   Although in England we do have bourgeois and intellectuals, social classes and standings are not as direct as in The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  As I have studied the French language and take an interest in French culture, I was able to see more into the words.  When others read it, however, with little knowledge of Parisian culture, the characters seem irritating.  We can not relate to them because in our culture we don’t understand them.   The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Manner som hatar kvinnor, in the Swedish original), also made a lot more sense to me because of my Swedish heritage.   I didn’t need help with understanding Kronor, and I automatically understood Swedish cultural references (i.e. to Kalle Blumkvist, Pippi Longstocking etc.) and knew the Swedish towns that they were talking about.  But I was a rare one.  Many people reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would not have this prior knowledge.  Indeed, I noted that by the second – or third, book, there were a few asterisks, explaining the kronor exchange rate.

But does this mean I’m going to have to learn Russian to truly understand Tolstoy?

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