It wasn’t just that this was a carefully selected and collected, lovingly protected assortment of pre-owned but still in good condition books, whose seller was standing patiently in the corner while visitors, passers-by or half-in-and-half-out people read, handled and viewed with varying intentions to buy. Or the fact that this particular book was probably, as with everything else in the fiction corner of this large yurt, a classic, a prize-winner, or a celebrated piece of literature. My indignation came from knowing how laborious and tricky book translation can be. I have translated very few books and my work is almost entirely associated with factual documents. But I admire book translators enormously, especially fiction translators, and would like to say a few words in their defence.
The difficulties facing book translators are numerous, but the one that interests me the most is to do with the communication of author’s intended meaning in another language, especially when the writer is writing about events that took place in a time and a place that perhaps can never quite be captured and appreciated by those who never lived through those experiences. OK. That also applies to reading a book written in our mother tongue but set in another English – speaking country in another historical setting. Maybe. But there are additional difficulties when dragging a text, sentence by sentence, even phrase by phrase, into a new language, which makes me think of winding damp laundry through an old-fashioned mangle. You can pull it through, but something can be lost. It’s the voice, the subtle inflection, the way that an attentive reader can almost hear which syllables the speaker is emphasising when reading a text in their own language, but which a translator might struggle to re-create when armed with a very different toolbox in another.
Of course, there are skilful translators who obviously succeed. I refer to one or two such people, along with the respective authors and books, in my blog for February 2017, but I do not feel that the difficulty in doing so is widely appreciated. As mentioned in that blog, a word-for-word exchange simply won’t work. Languages vary in their sentence organisation for one thing. I have just finished reading the 2018 Man Booker Prize winner “Milkman”, written by Anna Burns and published by Faber and Faber, through which the author paints a vivid, brutal and shockingly enlightening picture of life in Northern Ireland at the time of the struggles. I have no doubt that this book will be translated into other languages, although I can find no current evidence of this, but I can imagine the obstacles such linguists will have to overcome. When studying and training to become a translator, we are told that it is essential to write good, grammatically correct English, to be succinct, to attempt to avoid repetition, and to be specific. On the face of it, this unique, brilliantly-written book does none of these things. Told from the point of view of a teenage girl experiencing unthinkable difficulties, the language is repetitive, the sentences necessarily long-winded and the word order, which challenges preconceptions about “correct” structure, is jumbled and unexpected. Punctuation is unusually placed or absent where it might be anticipated. This is a girl trying to express and reflect upon her thoughts in a way that is in one sense garbled but at the same time gives these thoughts remarkable clarity. My empathy as a reader awoken, I found I could follow her line of reasoning clearly. So much for grammatical rules.
Temporal and spatial reference points in this book are limited. Neither the town in which the story is set or any of the characters are ever named. People are described as “third brother-in-law”, “eighth woman” or “Somebody McSomebody”. Places are described as “over the water”, “over the border” or “over the road” This makes it difficult to achieve concision and added to this is the breaking off of the narrative to provide backstory and context. This, while helpful, can go on for pages. Succinctness is not part of the plan. Moreover, the author has created some of her own terms.
“They said it was the media’s fault, and indeed the media had espied the issue women via their placards in amongst the traditional women carrying their own placards. And even though there were only seven of these issue women compared to the few hundred of traditional women, all the world’s cameras instantly focused upon them.“
Often points are hammered home through the use of multiple adjectives to describe the same action or emotion, or countless anecdotes and examples are provided to illustrate the point.
My argument is that, yes, this can be translated into another language, but in the target language, with its own set of (different) grammatical rules, the translator will have their work cut out to generate a text that represents the author’s intended message, but also "breaks" the generally accepted grammar rules in the new language in order to create the desired register and intonation: that of a victimised girl with astute observation of the world around her, who is trying to make her reader grasp what she is saying by labouring each point. Furthermore, with no understanding of past troubles in the character’s location, the impact of the phrase “that country over the water” will inevitably be dulled.
Another quagmire that book translators can wade into is the feeling of treading on eggshells when working with an author who, understandably, is proud of their achievement and sensitive about how the material in their book is treated and re-created in a language they may or may not have mastered themselves. Good communication throughout the process is essential, and rather than present the translation as a fait accompli on completion of the target language version, piecemeal translation of each chapter can help to avoid embarrassing disagreements. Authors can be easily put out if they feel that their work is not being processed as they had imagined. Nor do they always realise that the source and target languages simply have a different rule book. This is especially true of punctuation. One author I worked with read the draft version of my translation of his book and could not understand why I made extensive use of commas in some places. Whereas Italian sentences can often ripple on extensively with no punctuation, ending on the key words of the sentence and its final full stop, commas are used more frequently in English. I was obliged to send him a photocopy of a page from Lewis Carroll, to show him that the English language simply does not do so much of this punctuation-free writing, unless used as a stylistic device.
Take the sentence:
“ Durante la guerra mangiavamo di solito nella cucina sopratutto quando veniva la nonna da pranzo, spesso faceva male la testa percio non voleva prendere il sole.”
Whilst it is conceivable that the writer might put a comma after the “cucina”, the Italian sentence will work quite well without. Consider the same sentence in English:
“During the war we usually ate in the kitchen, especially when grandmother came to lunch. She often had headaches, so she didn’t want to be out in the sun.”
Not only do we need at least one comma in the English, the sentence would also be clumsy without the full stop and new sentence after “lunch”. In Italian, a comma is often used to separate two ideas, where we would use a full stop.
Perhaps the biggest handicap for those involved in book translation is that, generally, translations don’t sell. Unless you’re working for a well-known, widely-acclaimed writer, and few translators are, it is highly likely that your translations will sit in obscurity for years, or forever. When I first set out in this industry, I translated several books in the space of two or three years, before my work on pharmaceutical and agricultural projects became so all-consuming. Sadly, only one of these has sold copies. The royalties I receive from this every two or three months have gradually accumulated into what amounts to a reasonable income for the work involved in that translation, although I regard this as a welcome surprise rather than an expectation. As for the others, which I felt were well-written by authors who had carried out extensive research, and whose work was based on sound experience and knowledge, or imagination in the case of novels, there has been little or no response, even though my translations received good feedback from the writers concerned. The problem is that very often neither the author or translator is doing any marketing. The book may have sold successfully in its original language, but unless someone is actively promoting it, it will not be bought because no one knows it is there. As I wrote in my blog two years ago, only a very small percentage of books sold in the English language have been translated from another. Until we have some international focus on this issue and a united, well-thought-out effort to overcome the problems, this is unlikely to change.
In spite of all this, some of my own favourite books are translations. I have already described my reactions to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series of Carlos Luiz Zafon, whose wonderfully flowing prose is translated from the Spanish my Lucia Graves and in which both writer and translator give an outstanding performance. Unable to wait for the paperback version of the latest, “The Labyrinth of the Spirits”, to reach the shops, I have the hardback waiting on my bedside table, and I look forward with genuine relish to immersing myself in that world from tonight.