Translation: what does it all mean?

December 13, 2011

Some people say you should only read books in their original languages. This may be because they believe a particular text is inherently sacred – as in the case of the Quran – or because they are worried about bias and erroneous interpretations creeping in Chinese whispers-style when a third party gets between writer and reader. It can also be down to concerns about the difficulty of translating idioms, images and ideas that are specific to particular cultures (see writer Miguel Fernandes Ceia’s recent blog post for The Independent).

However there is often an element of snobbishness mixed up in this view too. Culture, we seem to think, shouldn’t come easy. It should be hard work and anything that threatens to make it more accessible is not quite cricket — a bit like someone refusing to have Brussel sprouts with their turkey on Christmas day.

There was definitely more than a hint of this in my mind when I started to think about my challenge to read a book from every country in 2012. Being able to read (slowly and with a very big dictionary) in French and German, I felt it was only right that I should take on stories from Francophone and German-speaking countries in their original languages. This would enable me to access the texts in their purest form (and allow me to show off how clever I am).

Then a kindly linguist pointed out that reading in other languages would miss the point. If this blog was about one person in London trying to access all of world literature, she said, it should stick to texts in the language that most Londoners can read: English.

After a bit of headscratching, I realised she was right. After all, if I truly believed that only reading done in the original language really counted then what was I doing trying to read my way around the world? Even with my impressive trilingualism (erhem), surely such a view would mean that I was only really able to access a very tiny percentage of what the world had to offer? And besides did I honestly believe that my schoolgirl French would provide a fuller, more meaningful reading experience than a translation researched and crafted by a professional linguist? 

In fact the more I thought about it, the more vital translation seemed to be to people around the world having a hope of understanding where others are coming from. And the more scandalous it seemed that even despite the excellent work of organisations such as the Society of Authors’ Translators AssociationEnglish PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation (all of which have already been hugely supportive of this project) translated texts only make up 3 per cent of published works in the UK each year. (In fact, as English PEN’s Emma Cleave told me, even the figure of 3 per cent, which is quoted in pretty much any article you read about literary translation, is probably exaggerated — no one’s sure where it originated, so if you’ve got any idea we’d all love to know!)

Then there’s the fact that, as more books are sold in English than in any other language (according to English PEN and Free Word’s Global Translation Initiative Report), we are putting writers in other languages at a huge disadvantage by failing to translate all but a handful of the great foreign language works out there — particularly when the works of English language writers are so widely translated. The excellent Cairo-based blogger M. Lynx Qualey (another valued supporter of this project) wrote eloquently on this subject recently for the Egypt Independent.

So the long and short of it is that I am embracing translation. I am reading only in English and I make no apologies for it. I want to hear about all the latest, best and most exciting translations and the quirky, little-known ones too. I don’t care if something has been through three or four languages to get to me; I don’t care if you’ve translated it and sent me the text yourself (in fact I’d love that). If a work’s good, then it’s better that it has a chance to reach as wide an audience as possible instead of staying forever closed off to millions of people.

Keep the suggestions of books coming in — this is getting exciting…

10 Responses to “Translation: what does it all mean?”

  1. fekesh said

    In pratice I think you’re probably right about settling on countries as a basic unit for reading your way around the world. It’s probably the best way to simplify your project without excluding too much material.(It’s an interesting project and I’m sure you’ll have fun with it).
    In any case I wouldn’t want to quibble and I certainly don’t mean to criticise or put you off.
    Personally I might have gone for selecting works by language if I’d had the imagination to think of a thing like this at all. The reason for this being that I’m aware as a Scot the the Gaels, although they’re also Scots (Some would say they’re more Scottish than I am) have their own language and literature and cultural conventions which means that their literature is going to be very different from that of English speaking Scots.
    This thought probably doesn’t help you at all, but maybe, if you’re feeling really ambitious after you’ve finished your current project, you might want to have a look at the literature of cultural and linguistic groups who don’t necessarily have their own seperate country.
    Having said all this, I’d probably just think about a project like yours and never actually do anything about it,you’re actually following through, so feel free to ignore me.

    • I completely agree – I’m already feeling really wistful about all the great literatures I’ll be missing out on because of the country rule and Scots writing is definitely one of them. However, for practicality’s sake I had to set some sort of criteria (and I think that 196 books is about the limit of what I can hope to manage in a year). I suspect 2013 may be a year of reading the rest of the world though. Thanks very much for stopping by.

    • Hi again, I’ve been thinking further about your comment and I realised that of course there’s no reason why Gaelic literature could not be considered an equally valid example of literature from the UK as, say mainstream English works. What would you recommend for a novice like me to read?

  2. fekesh said

    I think I’ve inadvertantly misled you into thinking I know far more about Gaelic literature than I do.
    I have a general awareness of the Gaels as a distinctive minority within Scotland because I’ve known a few Gaels who’ve put me right on one or two Glasgow-centric assumptions I was in the habit of making.
    So while I’m aware that there has been a resurgence in the use of Gaelic and also in Gaelic literature and culture, I’m not really in a position to help you much.
    I think by way of an apology for being a bit of a smart-ass, I’ll see if I can find some information that might help you in your quest.
    I’ll be in touch when I find something. In the meantime keep reading and don’t let youself be distracted by pseudo-intellectuals like me.

  3. fekesh said

    After a quick look around I’ve come up with a few ideas.
    Probably the classic example of Scots Gaelic literature would be ‘Ossian’ by James MacPherson (1765). As you may know MacPherson claimed to be the editor and translator of an ancient work of Gaelidom, but the general concensus seems to be that he was actually the author.
    If you prefer something more contemporary, and your more into prose, then there’s an anthology of short stories called ‘Stories from South Uist edited by Angus MacLellan and JL Campbell.
    Another work which I think was written in English, but would give you a strong flavour of Gaelic culture (Or at least one of them, there are various different cultures amongst the people of the Highlands and Islands, especially the islands) is a book called ‘To the Edge of the Sea’ by Christina Hall. It’s an anthology of her best known stories, which were inspired by her early life on South Uist. I haven’t read this myself, but I have heard about it and it seems to come well recomended. (As a matter of fact, I’m thinking of reading it myself now).
    All of the above are readily available in English on Amazon and not too pricey.
    There are also heaps of anthologies of Gaelic poetry in translation, I didn’t concentrate on them because it was my impression that you were mor interested in prose.
    Hope this is helpful,consider it as my minor penance for being pretentious.

    • Thanks very much for the research – although there was no penance required. You made a valid point. The whole point of this project is I want everyone to throw ideas at me. If they’re good, they’re good regardless of whether you’ve got a PhD in Gaelic literature or a granny who used to read you folk tales when you were small (or neither… or both). I shall follow this up. Congratulations for providing the first UK entries on the list – no-one else has had a crack at that so far…

  4. I think the whole issue of translation is very interesting and in some ways depend on what country you’re in and what language you speak. I live in Denmark and Danish is only a tiny language. Most of the books I read are in English – even the titles that are actually translated to Danish. Part of this is that I like to read in English and I like to keep my English up to date. But it’s also that some works translated into Danish are shortened by the translator. I know that also happens when things are translated into English (Haruki Murakami’s works are one example of that). If I can read a work in it’s original language, I prefer that to avoid having someone decide that not everything the author wrote is important.
    I do, however, agree with your decision to read everything in the English translation. I agree that if your knowledge of another language isn’t really good, then you don’t get as much out of your reading as you should. I’ve worked hard for several years to get a high enough proficiency to read novels in English and now I don’t feel any difference whether I read in Danish or English.
    Anyways – I see that you’ve chosen Jakob Ejersbo’s novel for your book from Denmark. It’s about Danish teens in Africa so if you want a novel that actually takes place in Denmark, maybe that’s not your best bet. Maybe Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow instead?

    • Thanks Christina. All very good points. It had struck me that most books in translation seem to be on the short side. I’d be interested to hear from translators about what the policy is on this and whether shortening texts is standard practice or something that varies from project to project. In a sense, you could look at the translator as a second editor, I suppose. Most texts we read in their original language will have been substantially cut, restructured and/or reworked by or in response to comments from an editor. Perhaps translators sometimes play a similar role with regard to the cultural sensibilities of their readership?

      Thanks too for your recommendation. I’ll add it to the list. Do let me know if you have any others – it’s great to have a choice. All the best to you. Ann

      • Ann, I must admit that I don’t read much Danish literature… I tend to get much of my inspiration online, from Goodreads and blogs and well, it’s mostly books in English. Some other options are of course Karen Blixen – or Hans Christian Andersen. Søren Kierkegaard if you’re in the philosophical mode…
        A lot of Danish literature never gets translated. Some of the never stuff that has been translated is Christian Jungersen ‘Undtagelsen’ (The Exception) which is quite good. Or Morten Ramsland ‘Hundehoved’ (Dog head). I haven’t read the latter but I’ve been told that he in some ways writes like John Irving (whom I love). /Christina

      • Thanks Christina – I’ll look into these. They sound very intriguing. Thanks for your support

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