Friday, February 1, 2013

The Translation Issue

I find myself in an odd humor this week. I hope you'll humor me as I go on this exploration of what about the book I was supposed to read disappointed me. Regular reviews will come back next week. Diatribe below.

              I had planned this week to give you a review of Max Frei's The Stranger, a book I'd found tucked away in a corner of The Strand the last time I'd gone in there. And I've been taking it at a slower pace than I usually do. But I can't finish it, and my rules state that if I don't finish a book, it doesn't go up. I've only broken this rule once, and that dissenting review stays on this site as a reminder that I don't review books I am unable to finish. But I wanted to talk about why I had such difficulty with the book, and why I had such an easy time putting it down, because I think it's a topic worth discussing. I hope this serves as interesting, and at least something worth discussing. If it doesn't, I'm sorry, I just can't finish the book, and my discipline states I don't put anything up here I didn't finish. Apart from In The Night Garden, which I'll get around to finishing someday and giving it the treatment it deserves

              So, what stopped me on this book? In a word, language. Max Frei, you see, is Russian. The book The Stranger was translated into English from Russian by someone else, and then sold to those willing to brave the translation. Now, much as with anything that receives translation into another language, there are good translations, and there are bad translations. There are even translations that can be so bad they're good. There were actually a few of those in the '90s anime and Asian film scenes, where "localization" meant making everything more or less "Americanized". And, of course, bad dubs are parodied to this very day. When a good translation happens, it can actually make the material more accessible to the audience and elevate it a bit...the dialogue fits into the proper rhythm and propels the work along, slight changes can be made so that things fit better in with the dialogue, and overall the work benefits from it. It's a good rule of thumb that the best translations aren't always the most accurate ones (something also true about adaptations), but the ones that translate the spirit of the language rather than the latter. The Stranger, as translated by Polly Gannon into English, isn't a good translation. 

              It is, however, an accurate translation. The words are all there, to the letter. But the rhythm of the dialogue is off. In the early pages, things transition very quickly, almost abruptly. With the rhythm of the dialogue off (in particular, there was a passage about "lucky tickets" that made very little sense), the abrupt transitions and imaginary words in the text, as well as the dreamlike quality, make very little sense overall. The effect in total, especially when describing the customs of the city of Echo where the book takes place, is disorienting and annoying. In a book like Naked Lunch, the disconnectedness of the vignettes and the odd language usage would be helpful. But The Stranger is attempting to be a linear-- if experimental-- story, and the scenes are not vignettes. So the disconnected quality only lengthens the barrier of entry.

             Now, compare this to something like Night Watch, a book where the translation offers an elevation of material and hits the right rhythms. The beginning has no confusing terminology, it just gets right into the point and starts with a fast, paranoid chase as the narrator tries to take down a large malediction. The translation works for the material. And because the translation works to the material, then the book is a success. The Stranger...does not do this. And more's the pity.

        I suppose the point I'm getting at is that a foreign book is only as good as its translation, and the translator is just as responsible as the author. And this makes it hard to assess the book, as well as hard to condemn the book, faults though it has. Was the book simply just a slave to its own bizarre dream logic and the barrier of entry too high? Or was it that the translator did a poor job? I've read poor translations of some Japanese novels, for instance, and while I was at sea, once I got a better translation, I was able to enjoy the work. And so, a book I thought was bad was simply poorly translated. And in the end, with a better translation, it was actually enjoyable.

       Now, I'm not completely down on the translators here. It's hard work, and each language has its own idioms that are purely untranslatable. I've come up against mono no oware multiple times, and unheimlich is barely renderable in English at best as "not-at-home", I believe. Translating and transliterating are hard work. And it's a thankless job-- if the work is translated well, then it's the author's words that get praised. If the work is translated poorly, then even if the book's bad, some idiot with a blog will eventually wonder if it was actually the bad translation, since the words actually seem to have a particular logic to them. But in the end, translation of a foreign work is an ongoing process as things work better. After all, look at Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, where he spent a large amount of time figuring out the first word was "So". Better translations may come along to clear up the text, and so a good translation clears up a lot of that work. 

          So what am I getting at? The Stranger is a good book with a terrible translation. The nonsense words made up by Max Frei make things harder, and the book has an unusual barrier of entry. Books should not have barriers of entry, and the dialogue choices...when I'm reordering and changing words in my head, then it's a bad translation. Because of this I cannot recommend the book. Nor can I call it a good book, until I get a better translation. Avoid this one. And next time you read a book that seems incoherent, another foreign book, ask if it's because the book itself is bad, or because the translation is simply insufficiently coherent to read the book. And sometimes, it may be both.

- Scar Night by Alan Campbell

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