Image courtesy Phil Dowsing via Flickr
In the world of Classics, you will find many books that were written originally in a language foreign to you. For the sake of this post, I would define a foreign language as one other than English. Thanks to the magnificent work of translators, the magical stories and wondrous worlds from those foreign authors are accessible to us. I think that is the most important thing to keep in mind regarding a translated tale. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to experience it. But another important thing to keep in mind is that you are at the mercy of the translator to pass along the true intent of the original words.
I know many folks don’t give a second thought to the edition of a book they read, much less concern themselves with the translated version of a foreign tale. But lets put it this way – if you agree that there is a difference between two movie versions of the same story, or that the narrator can make or break an audio book experience, then you should care about your translation.
The translator can really go one of two ways. They can be what I would call a Traditionalist – aka a Sitckler – or they can be an Activist – aka a Builder. The Stickler wants to interpret the vocabulary, flow and sentiment as purely as possible, even if that leads to a less than enjoyable reading experience on the receiving end. The Builder wants to take the common interpretation and turn it into something they feel the reader will find easier on the brain. They will keep the plot the same but change the way the words flow or even put a twist on the emotions behind them to spice things up a bit.
Finding a perfect balance between the Stickler and the Builder is my ideal for a translator who does their job well. I don’t want to be presented with a jumpy hodgepodge of text that sounds terrific in the original language but equates to stilted words in English. But I don’t want a translator getting cocky and taking liberties with the original work just to dumb things down for me either. I want as close to the original meaning as possible, presented in a realistic, but readable, way.
If you have tried to read a foreign novel in the past and just couldn’t get into it, even though a friend or family member raved about it, compare your translations. Maybe you are reading a translation that does a disservice to your reading tastes. Maybe you got a hold of the Stickler when you are more the Builder type. Or maybe you find the writing to be too modern sounding or flowery. You are in need of a Stickler translation rather than the Builder version.
If you are presented with options at your library or at the bookstore or via a sneak peak from an online vendor, go ahead and compare the first paragraphs and see which one is more readable to you. If you aren’t presented with options to view directly, ask the librarian, the store owner or read the review comments for their thoughts on the translator’s style. Or just Google the translator and see what the world wide web has to say about their techniques or what people fluent in both languages felt about the translator’s results.
It might seem like some work, but really it is a brief exercise that could make or break that book for you. The only way to avoid the translation issue is to become fluent in the book’s original language. And that would certainly take a lot longer than a little translator re-con. If you are going to put the time into reading something, why not make sure that you at least have a translation that best matches your preference in style?
Have you ever felt that the translation was the reason for your let-down of a foreign book? Would you rather read the work of a Stickler or a Builder?